Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series on school finances.
The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is drowning in a sea of red ink. With yet another parcel tax looming, I e-mailed all seven Board of Education members three basic questions:
1) What plans did they have for getting non-resident, “permit” parents (who pay no parcel taxes or bond expenses) to step up voluntary contributions?
2) How would they get parents of hundreds of school children living in Santa Monica’s tax-exempt housing to contribute to the district?
3) What would they change to insure that large property owners and corporations carry a fairer share of the burden such as paying a higher parcel tax?
Ben Allen and Ralph Mechur replied. Kelly Pye, Barry Snell and Oscar de la Torre, who are up for re-election, didn’t bother to respond. Neither did Jose Escarce.
Allen e-mailed, “Most of our money still comes in from the state … you can add in a few more permit students at no discernible net cost to the district, while bringing in the additional approximately $7K (sic) a year that we get per student from the state. That’s extra money that can be used to fund all of the different great programs — music, etc. — that we’re so proud of and that make the Santa Monica-Malibu schools experience better.”
Actually Ben, the total state revenue amount is closer to $6,200 per student, $5,029 of it in shrinking Prop. 98 funds.
The SMMUSD has about 11,500 students and a budget of $132 million. The real cost of education is about $10,000 per student. State support aside, there’s still over a $3,000-per-student deficit that must be made up.
My questionnaire sparked a flurry of e-mails and a phone call from Superintendent Tim Cuneo. He mentioned other sources of revenue including restricted federal funding for special education and lunch programs, for example. He admitted that the difference between state support and “actual student cost” is partially made up through local parcel taxes and contributions from the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu.
Ralph Mechur e-mailed, “SMMUSD receives over $6,500 (sic) per each permit student. They are usually filling seats that otherwise would be empty. The revenue added to the district provides funding for programs such as music and AP classes that we otherwise could not fund. The district has purposefully reduced the number of permit students from over 2,700 in ‘02-’03 to the current 1,600+.”
He continued, “Permit students are accepted where there is room … . In our situation, eliminating 1,600 permit students would reduce revenues by $10,000,000. One could then advocate for closing schools but it would also mean cutting at least 150 teaching and classified positions and the loss of many of the programs that make our district unique among public schools.”
But isn’t that the idea? Reduce overhead?
In my phone conversation with Cuneo, I suggested that eliminating just 500 of the current 1,545 actual permit students could save $1.5 million — understanding that some costs are constant such as overhead, interest expense, etc. Cuneo and Jan Maez, SMMUSD’s chief financial officer, indicated that my numbers were “close.”
Cost savings in variable expense directly related to numbers of students such as number of teachers, teaching assistants, classrooms, administrators, books and supplies, etc. could be realized.
Mechur also mentioned “permit” parents, “who are leaders in site PTAs and volunteers for music and sports programs. Yes, they do not contribute per our parcel taxes since they do not live here, but they are asked the same as every family to contribute to their PTA and to volunteer.” But, apparently, nobody at the SMMUSD or the Education Foundation knows how much they contribute financially let alone volunteering levels.
Regarding residents in public housing, Mechur wrote, “Parents volunteer as they have time available and they feel comfortable becoming involved. Many are working parents who cannot attend daytime meetings, which does limit their ability to take leadership roles.”
Mechur didn’t address their financial support — or lack of it, or the fact that taxpayers in Santa Monica and Malibu subsidize the hundreds of students living in Santa Monica’s tax-exempt public housing (whose residents are mostly recent arrivals from outside the community) in addition to the 1,545 permit students.
The school board has no plans or thoughts on how these families could pitch in financially to assist the district. In the meantime, the number one priority for City Hall is to build more and more tax-exempt, low-income housing for families putting even more financial demands on our schools — and taxpayers.
The big question is how long are we willing to foot the bill?
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