SMMUSD HDQTRS — The Board of Education can expect a sizable group of parents at its meeting tonight when it makes a final decision on whether to reduce one house at Santa Monica High School, a measure that has been met with opposition in the community.
The meeting comes amid speculation that Wendy Wax Gellis, the principal of the A House, has been notified that her position will be cut from Samohi, giving her the option of transferring to Malibu Middle School to serve as an assistant principal. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Tim Cuneo said that a house principal has been recommended to fill the vacant position in Malibu, but could not confirm that Gellis is the administrator in question.
The Daily Press on Monday was forwarded a copy of an e-mail originally sent by Gellis to families of the A House, stating that she has accepted the offer at Malibu Middle School. Gellis did not respond to requests for comment.
“Please know I have truly enjoyed our wonderful years together,” Gellis said in the e-mail to parents. “I will miss you and (your) children.”
Gellis was one of the original house principals when the system premiered in the 2003-04 school year, creating small learning communities on the sprawling campus. The district, which is facing a gaping budget shortfall due to the state fiscal crisis, is proposing to reorganize the structure by reducing one house, saving approximately $700,000 through shifting personnel around.
Parents have expressed outrage that the house principal was reportedly notified of the transfer before the school board takes a vote on the recommendation to reorganize the house system.
Upon hearing the rumors late last week, a group of parents mobilized and held a meeting on Sunday afternoon to brainstorm alternate ways the district could save $700,000. A number of parents are expected to address the board at the meeting.
“I think anyone with objectivity can say this was mishandled,” Abby Adams, a parent of a child in the A House, said. “It’s not professional, it’s not transparent and it’s not honest.
“It’s about the way the entire approach has unfolded that many of us are so disgruntled.”
Cuneo said that while a recommendation has been made for an administrator to transfer, one has not been made for which specific house to reduce.
He added that a team led by Samohi Principal Dr. Hugo Pedroza has began discussing the implications of reducing a house and how the transition process should take place, especially for incoming seniors who might lose their advisers. A new naming scheme for the houses, which are named after each letter in the school’s nickname, Samohi, has yet to be decided.
“Our goal is to have a lot of these things taken care of prior to the kids leaving school,” Cuneo said.
A two-day retreat is also planned for the team to evaluate student performance on campus and what areas have been successful since the adoption of the system.
He pointed out that the population at Samohi was much larger when the house system began, going from 3,400 students then to approximately 2,990 today. Future projections show student enrollment flattening over the next two years before declining again.
Some parents also questioned why the district did not move forward with the “Pedroza Plan,” which would have made alternate cuts to the school while keeping the house system intact, all while saving more money than proposed by district officials.
Cuneo said that several plans were considered, including making reductions in other areas at Samohi, finding that reorganizing the structure to five houses would have the least impact while still providing the quality of service expected.
Elizabeth Stearns, the president of the PTA at Samohi, said that parents are sensitive to the challenges facing the district with the budget crisis, which has only worsened since five of the six budget propositions failed in last month’s special election.
“Parents are not going into this saying don’t touch us, we don’t want to be touched,” she said. “We understand and want to partner with the school district to realize what money must be cut from the high school, but do it in the way that least impacts all 3,000 students on our campus.”
Some parents have also said that reorganizing the house system could affect the most vulnerable student populations, including those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and pupils in special education.
Adams said that while Samohi is not classified as Title 1, it’s a feeder for primary schools that have that designation. Schools that have a high population of students on the federal free lunch program are typically identified as Title 1.
“These are the kids who will more likely fall through the cracks,” she said.
Roxie Fariadi, a junior with the A House, expressed concern over whether she can stay with her counselor.
“I don’t want to be placed with a different counselor for my senior year,” she said.
Theo Benjamin, a junior with the A House who is also a member of its leadership team, said that reorganizing the structure would “take away from the entire essence of Samohi.”
“One of the things that makes Samo so great is the house system,” he added.
Catherine Cain contributed to this report