SMMUSD HDQTRS — Santa Monica residents have been known for their generous support of public schools through parcel tax and bond measures, but whether that generosity will extend during a time of economic uncertainty could be tested next year.

Superintendent Tim Cuneo on Thursday is planning to recommend the Board of Education form an ad hoc committee that will explore the feasibility of placing a parcel tax on either the state primary ballot in June or local special election, studying among other issues whether such a measure would stand a viable chance of passing in the current climate.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is facing a potential reduction in revenue of $12 million from state funding cuts and has already tried to offset losses by eliminating one house at Santa Monica High School and increasing class sizes.

Cuneo said he expects the committee to ultimately recommend an emergency parcel tax that would expire in three to five years. The group will also be responsible for determining just how much money the parcel tax should bring into the school district.

It was just last year that 72 percent of voters in Santa Monica and Malibu approved Measure R, which combined two existing parcel taxes and eliminated a sunset date. The measure brings in about $10 million annually, translating to $346 per parcel.

School advocates said they are expecting a tougher battle next year.

“Do I think a parcel tax is a good idea? I wish with all my heart it wasn’t necessary,” said Rebecca Kennerly, the chair of the Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS), an influential organization comprised of parents that forced City Hall to contribute roughly $7 million annually to the schools. “I don’t think it would be responsible for me as someone who cares about our public schools and cares passionately about public school students to not look at this as an option.”

Denny Zane, a political consultant who served on the exploratory committee for Measure R, said he expects a parcel tax to be successful, pointing to a track record in the district of such calls for assistance doing well.

“The history has been that when we are facing a significant emergency, that is the circumstances under which voters respond,” he said.

But he added that any measure requiring a two-thirds vote will be difficult.

Rochelle Fanali, who co-chaired the Measure R group, said the committee will have to determine how much money the district will need to avoid laying off teachers and eliminating programs and how much voters would be willing to give.

She said the difference between Measure R and the proposed parcel tax is that the former was brought on as a way to continue an ongoing source of revenue that was set to expire in a few years.

“Now we’re looking at how do we keep our schools from being completely devastated,” she said.

The Measure R committee conducted focus groups and a survey, spending altogether about two months researching before presenting its recommendation to the school board. Committee members could be appointed at the board’s Aug. 20 meeting, reporting back on Dec. 10.

Cuneo said he has also sent letters to the various bargaining units and the Santa Monica Malibu Association of School Administrators about negotiating a salary reduction and beginning to share the premium payment for the benefits package. The school administrators have already been approached about a possible 2 percent salary reduction while the Santa Monica Malibu Classroom Teachers Association (SMMCTA) and SEIU have yet to receive a formal proposal.

He added that the salary reduction would be across the board, including the superintendent.

“I don’t want to lay people off,” he said. “I want to keep people employed and if we all share in this, we can keep people employed and we won’t decimate programs.”

A salary cut across the board could also show voters that employees are committed to retaining high quality education, Cuneo said.

Harry Keiley, the president of the SMMCTA, said that teachers have already given up two voluntary professional buyback days for the 2009-10 school year and feels it would be irresponsible to ask for a pay cut when the district reserves are healthy.

The teachers association recently presented a list of recommended cuts to the school board, including reductions in the work year for central office administrators and eliminating testing and suspending paid cell phones.

“If and when the district takes those (recommended) actions, the union would be open to having a conversation,” Keiley said.

Cuneo said the reserves will be used in order to avoid making major cuts all in one year.

“We are presently deficit spending and if we continue at the same rate, the district will be upside down in two years,” he said. “It would be irresponsible not to deal with the deficit.”

Residents had mixed reactions about the parcel tax.

“I don’t support any more taxes on people, but I support taxes on the banks,” Joe Bodolai, a renter in Sunset Park, said.

Radha Bhaman, a mother of a high school and elementary school student, said that she would support a tax, though it’s not something that she’s looking forward to paying.

“We’re an impressive school district because of the resources we provide,” she said. “It wouldn’t be easy, but saving our schools is definitely something I support.”

<i>Catherine Cain contributed to this support.</i>

melodyh@smdp.com

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