Nobody’s been more critical of
the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and it’s governing Board of Education (BOE) than me. And, for good reason.
Problems go back to 1999 when a flap arose over a teachers’ raise that was approved without the resources to pay for them. Then financial oversight committee chair, Michael Rich, told the school board on March 12, 2001, “Over the last 20 months, the financial crisis has become a crisis of competency and credibility, requiring fundamental reforms of serious systemic problems.”
Nearly a decade later, the same problems continue. Overspending and waste are never addressed. School board members, overpaid administrators and school cheerleaders constantly float tax increases and beg from City Hall. Parcel taxes contribute over $10 million and City Hall provides $15.3 million to the district for youth and community-based programs and $6.5 million through a facility use agreement. As long as money flows, who needs accountability?
The crap really hit the fan in the fall of 2006 when the BOE reached a tentative agreement for another teacher pay raise. Like in 1999 and in the years since, it appears that neither board members, district bureaucrats or the unions were concerned about whether there was enough money ($7 million over three years) to pay for it.
The new superintendent at the time, Dianne Talarico, certified the district’s ability to meet agreement costs but chief business officer Winston Braham, didn’t and promptly “resigned.” A confidentiality agreement prohibiting Braham from discussing district finances fueled questions about solvency and transparency.
Enter the state-endorsed Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) to review operations. FCMAT’s February, 2007 report stated, “strategic changes in regard to spending, staffing, handling money and enrollment were needed. Continued changes in financial management policies, increased revenues and/or cuts in costs would be necessary to avoid future fiscal crises." Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, Braham’s confidentiality agreement triggered a firestorm over similar gag orders (supposedly under a moratorium) imposed on parents of special education students. Receiving no satisfaction from SMMUSD administrators or the school board, distraught parents headed to City Council. Despite Talarico’s insistence that parents knew about the moratorium, some councilmembers said they’d received communications from parents saying they were still coerced into signing them.
Ken Haker, chair of the special education district advisory committee told the dais he was aware that “staff blatantly violated the terms of the agreement between the district and the city in regard to settlement agreements” and disclosed “abuses so systematic that truth was hidden by secrecy and fear.”
A $529,779 increase to the existing $6.5 million city facility agreement with the district was quickly put on hold pending policy reviews and subsequent reforms.
Eight-year BOE members Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vazquez are running for reelection. All of this occurred during their terms.
I contacted a number of school supporters. “Oversight” came up, frequently. Long-time supporter John Petz e-mailed back, "I believe that our board members have their hearts in the right place, but that only goes so far. They need to improve the quality of the oversight they provide."
Comparing the performance of the BOE with that of City Council, he wrote, “The council seems better prepared and is more willing to ask challenging questions. I would like to see the same level of engagement and oversight from our school board members.”
Typical is Leon-Vazquez’s excuse in the Daily Press (Sept. 24, Page 1, “School Board candidates pledge …”), “Communications has been a weak point in the district because there hasn’t been a person formally charged with that responsibility.”
Leon-Vazquez can’t communicate on her own? Oversight isn’t being spoon fed “drivel” by a public relations mouthpiece.
This spring, alleged child molestations at Lincoln Middle School raised questions about how such complaints are handled by SMMUSD’s expensive and top-heavy administration. Malibu parents, angry about board-approved cuts in Measure BB bond monies earmarked for Malibu schools, are petitioning to split from the district. Then there’s the hiring of two mediocre (at best) former superintendents — Talarico and before her, John Deasy.
With all this in mind, I’d sooner vote for “The Troll under the Bridge” than the incumbents.
Old and equally serious new issues face the next BOE. Another upcoming teachers’ raise, hiring a proper superintendent of schools and resolving special education problems which, according to my sources, apparently have deteriorated even more over recent months. There’s declining enrollments, overhead reduction, new sources of income (development fees, anyone?) and restoring confidence and accountability to name a few.
It’s unfortunate that PTA leader Judith Meister, didn’t run. She would’ve made a fine addition to the board.
I like Ben Allen, a former University of California student regent and Brentwood School teacher Chris Bley. They’ll bring new blood and purpose to what has become a completely dysfunctional and powerless organization.
Shake up the system by bullet voting for Chris Bley and Ben Allen and then write in “Judith Meister."
Bill Bauer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.