The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has been sailing stormy fiscal waters for over a decade. Chronic misspending by the Board of Education has been partially responsible for ballooning budgets and now, with the economic downturn, escalating deficits.

With the good times came all kinds of extra programs. But with the bad times currently due to state educational budget shortfalls, painful cuts will have to be made — something many of us have already done to survive.

Our schools have been lucky. Voters have supported them by approving parcel taxes that bring in more than $10.4 million annually and Measure BB, 2006’s $268-million construction bond measure. The cities of Santa Monica and Malibu annually give millions of dollars more to our schools.

Despite all of this, the SMMUSD and its school board are considering submitting yet another “temporary,” emergency parcel tax measure and a second multi-hundred-million-dollar bond for voter approval, perhaps early next year. Pollsters have been phoning Santa Monica and Malibu residents to gauge public appetite for another parcel tax and to determine messaging.

While our schools have a noble purpose and achieve much, I’m hearing from many parents and former parcel tax supporters that as they’ve had to bite the bullet, so should the schools. There’s no word yet on the amount of the proposed tax. Last year’s Measure R ($346 per parcel) replaced two previous “temporary” parcel taxes that were nearing expiration.

Questions about spending keep cropping up. Superintendent Tim Cuneo’s annual salary and benefits package —$270,400 (not counting bonuses) includes a $38,000 annual housing allowance. His package is 34 percent higher than the previous superintendent who left the district just 17 months ago. I researched other California school districts and found that Cuneo’s package was on the high side — as is the pay for most other SMMUSD administrators and teachers.

For example, the San Diego Unified School District with 135,000 students — more than 11 times larger than the SMMUSD — paid its previous superintendent, Terry Grier (who resigned a few months ago), a salary of $269,000 plus annual bonuses, according to news reports.

I’m not questioning Cuneo’s value, but his contract was approved by the Board of Education, which also approved a contract with Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association President Harry Keiley, whose salary is paid by taxpayers, not the teacher’s union.

Superintendent Cuneo e-mailed me: “As required by the Freedom of Information Act, Harry Keiley has the job classification of ‘Classroom Teacher’ and is a full time employee in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. His current salary is $77,206.70 (Group 6, Step 17 on the Teacher Salary Schedule). Harry has no teaching responsibilities. He is the full time president of the teachers’ association (SMMCTA) … . His salary and benefits are paid by the district.”

While this may be a drop in the bucket when it comes to a district budget of $123 million, it all adds up. The school board approved and paid $800,000 last fiscal year for outside attorneys working on special education issues, not counting payouts on judgments and other expenses. When I interviewed Cuneo a couple of weeks ago, he was pained by spending that kind of money “outside the classroom.”

But there is some good news. The independent, nonprofit Santa Monica Malibu Educational Foundation, created in 1982, has accumulated an endowment that is currently close to $3 million. SMMEF funds comes from voluntary contributions from parents, businesses, local associations and foundations.

In 2008-2009, SMMEF raised $462,000 through individual and corporate donations, events and programs, grants and other activities. It spent $413,000 on programs for students, fundraising costs, office expense and overhead which includes a total of $85,000 for two full time employees. SMMEF support goes for a variety of academic enrichment programs and subsidizes arts, drama and music activities for students in elementary grades through high school. The foundation is also hoping to initiate an athletic endowment.

SMMEF Executive Director Linda Gross and President Jody Brooks told me that in a tight economy, fundraising was tough. I asked about outside grants and fellowships. Gross informed me that the larger foundations don’t perceive Santa Monica and Malibu as poor communities, therefore most of their grant money is directed to lower income school districts. “We’ve had some success obtaining support from smaller, local foundations,” Gross said.

In looking over a list of SMMEF donors, many of Santa Monica’s biggest employers and businesses were missing although some of them may donate to PTAs or other programs, instead. I was surprised to learn that many of our most well-heeled business entities are poor contributors or don’t support the schools at all.

I admire what Linda Gross, her staff and volunteers are trying to accomplish. The SMMEF can always use your support, so contribute or volunteer. E-mail smmef@smmusd.org for information on how you can help our schools.

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