The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District misses out on many opportunities for funding.

Superintendent Tim Cuneo told me they don’t apply for grants and funding from the National Educational Foundation or many private foundations because the SMMUSD isn’t perceived as “poor.” He noted that applying for many grants was not time or cost effective because “we” lose more times than win.

For example, last March, the district applied for some of President Obama’s $4.35 billion “Race To The Top” education grants. But, the Santa Monica-Malibu Classified Teachers Association didn’t sign on to the district’s application because it disagreed with reforms required to qualify which included teacher evaluations tied to student improvement. Without SMMCTA support, the SMMUSD didn’t qualify. In the current second round of funding, with only three school districts advancing statewide, we lose out again.

The Los Angeles Unified School District filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County and various municipal agencies alleging they were shortchanged in redevelopment funds. Having just won that case, the LAUSD now expects to receive tens of millions of dollars.

Based on that Court of Appeals decision, attorney Mat Millen (who opposes Measure A) is in the process of filing a lawsuit against the Santa Monica Redevelopment Agency claiming it has withheld millions of dollars from the SMMUSD. ”If the district had been collecting this all along, there would be no need for this parcel tax,” Millen told me.

Independent business interests have approached district administrators with marketing plans to generate new revenue sources only to be informed that it’s too much work and easier to get voters to OK new taxes.

The SMMUSD’s annual budget is about $132 million or around $10,000 per student. Of that, $6,029 is funded by the state of California. Restricted federal grants, parcel tax income and contributions from the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu make up the difference.

Each non-resident student costs district taxpayers about $3,000 more than it receives from the state or other entities. I suggested to Cuneo and Chief Financial Officer Jan Maez, that by eliminating just 500 permit students or one-third of the district’s non-resident students, they could save $1.5 million. Although they said I was “pretty close,” no reduction in permits is contemplated.

Few permit families contribute financially to help subsidize their children’s education probably because they’re not even asked to. And, in Santa Monica alone, nearly 2,000 families with school-aged children live in tax exempt, city-subsidized “affordable” housing and are also subsidized by district taxpayers.

Last year, the SMMUSD paid out $800,000 in fees to private attorneys to fight special education parents, spent $90,000 to update the district’s strategic plan and paid SMMCTA President Harry Keiley $51,050 to work on union business. One school board member e-mailed, “This is small potatoes compared to the massive cuts in support from the state.”

It’s despicable that nobody cares enough about our children to stop this waste, but only as long as administrators, the school board and school cheerleaders can hold them hostage in return for "yes” votes on unfair tax measures like A. All the bad decision making is what’s really endangering public education.

With a single flat parcel tax, a small condo pays the same rate as big commercial properties like the Water Garden and luxury hotels. But, many California school districts legally tax residential and commercial properties based on parcel size, use or improvements.

Variable parcel taxes would be more fair by shifting the tax burden from small property owners, senior renters and poorer residents. Higher rates for larger commercial properties would generate even more income. Sadly, school tax feasibility committees have bowed to big business interests who vowed to fight even modest multi-level parcel taxes by threatening legal challenges that would tie-up collecting such a tax for years. 

I questioned administrators and school board members about exemptions for senior renters.

“Can’t be done, they aren’t property owners,” responded one board member. However, the district could exempt senior and low-income renters and property owners by expanding the system currently used to exclusively exempt over 3,000 wealthy senior property owners. If the phone company and City Hall’s Rent Control Administration can set up “lifeline” rates and low income exemptions, so can the SMMUSD. But, like a lot of their excuses, “It’s too much work.”

Sleazy “Yes on A” campaign literature doesn’t even mention “parcel tax” or its $198 annual cost.

Ballots are due May 25. Because this special mail-in election is one week before the June primary. It’s costing the district an extra $200,000 or more. Between election expense and the cost of the “Yes” campaign, there’s another $400,000 that didn’t make it to the classroom. One more reason to vote “No.”

 

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