With the defeat of Measure A, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s $198 “emergency” parcel tax last month, emotions are running high. School supporters have been playing the “blame game.”

They think I’m a key reason for A’s defeat because of a series of columns critical of the district, its governance and Measure A. Malibu voters, who approved the measure by just a simple plurality, are also being castigated. In fact, anyone who spoke against the measure or the district is being villainized.  

In all the demonizing, school supporters ignore the regressive nature of the measure itself and the public’s animosity directed against district administrators, the inept SMMUSD Board of Education and school cheerleaders for fostering a long history of fiscal and administrative mismanagement, endless tax schemes and flat-out refusing to implement even the most basic of desperately needed reforms and policy changes.

Nowhere has the situation become more contentiousness than with the district’s 15 percent “Equity Tax” on donations — currently under review for possible changes. Promoted by former Superintendent John Deasy and approved by the school board about six years ago, it requires that 15 percent of gifts to the schools (with certain exemptions) be placed in an equity fund and redistributed on a “need-based” formula. The board approves the fund’s disbursal.

The “Equity Tax” has fostered a heated controversy involving the Santa Monica Band Parents Association. The school board and superintendent reacted in what has become their typical way: behavior that alienates more and more residents, who increasingly distrust the SMMUSD and its cheerleaders. 

Jean Sedillos, a long-time school volunteer who led the million-dollar fundraising effort to renovate Samohi’s Barnum Hall, wrote a lengthy editorial about the tax. She begins, “The Band Parents Association had not paid into the Equity Fund because their articles of incorporation prohibited them from spending money on anything but music programs.

“A group of hyper-aggressive parents calling themselves ‘Music Supporters’ (and I believe district administrators and at least one board member) wanted that money to fund an intervention program at Samohi. They knew the Band Parents had the funds in a ‘rainy day’ account established by past directors to protect the program if the district cut funding,” she posted.

“Superintendent (Tim) Cuneo threatened that unless Equity Fund payments were made, he would ‘recommend that the [school board] no longer accept gifts from the Association.’ This would have shut down the marching band program, which cannot operate without funds parents raise and donate.”

Last summer, the association was billed and paid $48,468 — four years of Equity Fund payments — including 15 percent ($9,800) of the $65,390 paid for new instrument lockers for the band room. Sedillos pointed out to district administrators that the locker donation should not have been taxed, because their gift policy exempted donations to district capital programs.

Sedillos enlisted support from City Councilman Bob Holbrook, a former school board member who (as councilman) voted for millions in city money for the district. They continued corresponding with administrators, “who refused to return the $9,800” and school board members, “who never got back to us.”

Frustrated, Holbrook and Sedillos presented their case directly to the school board at their Dec. 10, 2009 meeting. “They refused to discuss it,” she wrote. “When (board member) Oscar de la Torre asked why the capital programs exemption wasn’t applied to the lockers, then-school board President Ralph Mechur responded, ‘There’s a procedure question.’ Superintendent Cuneo quickly intervened and cited a ‘board policy’ that prohibited discussion on agenda items from members of the public … even clarifying questions of staff were not permitted… .” 

Sedillos continues. “Holbrook and I knew that California’s public meeting law, the Brown Act, permits questions of staff on any agenda item. The rest of the board — presumably familiar with the Brown Act — jumped right into the charade. 

“Kelly Pye kept repeating the phrase, ‘move forward.’ Jose Escarce said nothing. Barry Snell said almost nothing. Ben Allen found both sides of the argument ‘compelling.’ Maria Leon Vazquez said that Holbrook and I had ‘no standing’ to bring the matter before them.”

Then it was over.  

Sedillos reports that over the next two months, “We asked to see the board policy prohibiting discussion on agendized items from the public. We were referred to the board policy on meeting conduct, which of course contained no such no-discussion provision. That policy was created on the spot to suit the occasion,” she writes. And apparently, the agendas of certain administrators and school board members.

Sedillos’ piece concludes, “The $9,800 owed to the Band Parents Association pales in comparison to all the unethical behaviors associated with it… . But judging by reports from other parents and teachers, I believe secrecy, arrogance, and manipulation are the norm at the top of the district organization chart. We should not tolerate it.”

Amen!

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