Last Thursday, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education approved an Emergency Parcel Tax Feasibility Committee recommendation and voted to place a parcel tax measure on a special election ballot.

The Feasibility Committee’s suggestion of a $225 per-parcel tax and other details including ballot language, exemptions and final tax amount will be determined by the BOE at a special meeting, Feb. 1.

The BOE approved a special "mail-in only” election for May 25 rather than place the matter before voters in the June 8 statewide primary ballot one week later. The mail-in election will cost the district $360,000, according to a Los Angeles County estimate as compared with $160,000 for including it in the June primary ballot.

However, it’s believed a special mail-in ballot will maximize the chances of approval. So, the BOE is gambling $200,000 in scarce school funds. If the measure doesn’t pass, 200 grand will have been flushed down the drain.

Santa Monica and Malibu property owners already pay a $346 parcel tax which generates roughly $10 million per year for the schools. If the proposed temporary tax is finalized at $225 per parcel, $6 million more will be raised annually.

The total tax bite could be $571 per parcel if the new measure passes. With landlords passing tax costs to tenants, the combined parcel taxes alone would cost a renter about $7 per month in a six-unit building. The Feasibility Committee recommended a five year life span and an exemption for senior citizen property owners.

Two previous temporary parcel taxes were combined into Measure R and approved by voters in 2008. Measure R is a permanent tax and never expires.

Unfortunately, school supporters here favor a regressive “one price fits all” formula. Some other districts have varying rates depending on property size, commercial or residential, multi-family and on property improvements.

A variable parcel tax that would tax commercial and larger properties more than residential property has been traditionally opposed by local businesses and big property owners. Thus, an individual condo or homeowner pays the same $346 as the owners of Santa Monica Place, luxury hotels, Downtown office buildings and the Water Garden, to name a few.

The SMMUSD’s parcel taxes hurt fixed-income elderly renters and the poor the most. They shift the tax burden away from the big money interests who don’t — and won’t — pay their fair share.

Gag orders never die at SMMUSD <p>

Once again, it seems like the SMMUSD wants to punish volunteers on the four District Advisory Committees (who report to and advise the Board of Education directly) for “divulging confidential information.” It looks like “gag orders” are still de rigueur at the SMMUSD.

Last October, I wrote about an attempt to change the DACs whose memberships include parents, community members and school staff. School Superintendent Tim Cuneo suggested limiting their memberships and requiring they report directly to him — a move viewed by some DAC members as interfering with their ability to discourse with the school board directly about particular issues.

The BOE supported a review of policy language. A joint committee of representative school board and DAC members was formed to draft new language. One of the draft policies raised a big red flag with DAC members. A member can be removed by an affirmative vote of a majority of the Board of Education for gross misconduct, felony convictions or for divulging confidential information.

This comes after two plus years of crisis beginning in 2006 when gag orders were placed on former district Chief Financial Officer Winston Braham and also forced on parents with children in special education programs. The controversy led to the Santa Monica City Council suspending a school facilities use fee increase and a lot of finger pointing. The debacle seriously damaged the district’s credibility. Apparently, some folks still haven’t learned their lesson.

The big question here is what is meant by “confidential information?" Personnel, student or medical records which shouldn’t be available to DAC members? So, what else? Who decides what is “confidential?” How about talking to a columnist, like me? Is that “divulging confidential information?”

Only SMMUSD employees should have access to sensitive or confidential information on a “need to know” basis. If that information is improperly shared by a district employee or teacher with a member of the public, then the district must deal with that staff member for disseminating confidential records. Requiring those serving on DACs to decide what’s confidential is just bad policy.

“Divulging confidential information” should be dropped for obvious reasons and “gross misconduct” also needs to be carefully defined. There’s too much about this proposal that appears to attempt to muzzle criticism. The imposition of even a threatened gag order is a step in the wrong direction and opens up the SMMUSD to more charges of secrecy, lack of transparency and stifling unfavorable opinions.

Bill Bauer can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com

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