It seems that the obfuscation of budget figures, costs and policy on special education issues is still “par for the course” at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.  

The real problems started a few years ago during a fiscal crisis that involved a gag order placed on the district’s outgoing chief financial officer. It was revealed at that time that the same confidentiality clauses were being required of parents of children in district special education programs.

Because the school board seemed incapable of responding to the special ed crisis, it took pressure from the City Council (which provides millions of dollars annually in special city funding to the district) to eliminate the gag orders and other abuses and begin a process to “clean up” complaints  about district interaction with special education parents and the handling of special ed issues.  

The Special Education District Advisory Committee (SEDAC), consisting of education supporters and parents, advises the Board of Education on the needs of the special education community. Hoping to assist the district through the current budget challenges, SEDAC formed its own ad hoc finance committee and began to work with a similar ad hoc group within the district’s own Financial Oversight Committee to analyze district financial documents and determine the actual costs of the district’s special education programs.

In the meantime, ongoing meetings to discuss the district’s budget were being held by the school board itself. At these meetings, SMMUSD’s administrative staff presented much fiscal detail and analysis of different scenarios in various areas targeted for cuts, but dropped the ball when it came to special education.

Staff claimed that a “total of $700,000 in savings” would result from “aligning budget with historical expenditures,” but failed to furnish the same level of detail for special ed as they did in the information for other categories. As a result, many special education parents questioned the basis for the SMMUSD’s claims of savings.

Written requests were made by the new ad hoc SEDAC finance committee and ad hoc district Financial Oversight Committee for current data on special education finances. Requests were submitted to the school board with the full support of SEDAC following its May 12 meeting.

The first request was that the school board direct staff to provide data to support their conclusion that a “total of $700,000 budget savings” will result — figures which run counter to the longstanding SEDAC position — and the recommendation of the superintendent’s newly formed Working Group — that investment would be needed to achieve long term savings.

SEDAC’s second request was that the school board direct staff to provide data supporting the district claim, “aligning budget with historical expenditures” may yield “expected budget savings” in “legal costs,” “NPS/NPA (outside services) costs”, and “instructional assistants.” It appears that data regarding actual expenditures provided in the March 2008 Barber audit of district special education finances together with the update provided by the joint ad hoc committees contradict district claims of savings in these specified categories.

I reported in my Jan. 19 column “School problems continue” that the school board had already approved a record of over $700,000 in payments to law firms “to fight parents” involved in litigation over special education issues — representing $500,000 more than the amount originally budgeted.

On April 23 the school board approved an additional $75,000 to bring the total budgeted for legal fees up to $842,000, — an overage now of $642,000! By comparison, in 2006-2007, only $110,000 was spent on special education-related legal services according to board minutes. Of course, settlements and other expenses are always additional. 

The May 7 school board agenda shows the district is $227,000 over the $1.5 million budgeted for non-public schools (NPS) services — another category where the district claims “they may see expected savings.” In yet another category of ”expected savings” — instructional assistants — longitudinal data from district documents show a steep increase in spending as tracked through a steady rise in expenditures for special education classified personnel.

“We just want to know what the real numbers are,” says SEDAC member Claudia Landis. “We need to compare actual spending for this fiscal year to previous years real expenditures rather than comparing expenditures to projected budgets which is like comparing apples to oranges. It doesn’t yield reliable numbers with which to take us through this difficult budgeting process. It’s in the interest of the district to apply sound accounting principles, which our staff is capable of doing, if the will for it exists within our elected officials.”

The school board must do the right thing and quickly approve SEDAC’s requests. All this has gone on way too long and is a black eye for school board members as well as administrative staff. It’s time to stop playing numbers games. The SMMUSD needs to resolve these issues once and for all and move on.

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