SMMUSD HDQTRS — For years City Hall has remained one of the steadiest financial backers of the school district, providing stability and a reliable revenue stream to an educational institution whose security can be influenced by the state’s fiscal volatility.

Whether the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District will receive more than the $7.2 million stipulated under the Master Facility Use Agreement with City Hall will be the subject of a round of discussions set to take place between the two entities this week.

The contract, which was signed in June of 2005, gives the SMMUSD a share of city revenues every year in exchange for public access to its facilities, including classrooms, athletic fields and playgrounds.

What the agreement essentially did for City Hall was codify and affirm its ability to use school facilities for its pre-existing programs, including CREST, which provides after-school activities in the classroom, and the Playground Partnership, which allows unsupervised recreational use during non-school hours.

“I think people in Santa Monica view school facilities as critical to the whole network of open spaces and community spaces,” Barbara Stinchfield, the director of Community and Cultural Services for City Hall, said. “Even before these agreements were in place, the school district was very generous in allowing community use.”

Though the Playground Partnership and CREST predated the joint-use agreement, it has allowed City Hall to expand the programs into other classrooms and facilities, Stinchfield said.

The joint-use agreement has been a hot topic since 2007 when the district renegotiated a roughly half-million-dollar increase, which was subsequently withheld by the City Council after school parents began reporting concerns about the special education program. The council finally released the money earlier this month after it was assured by district administrators and educational advocates that changes have been made, though a group of parents have testified to the contrary.

The funds were released at a time when the school district is gearing up for a tough budget season, expecting a loss of revenues that could reach $10 million over the next 18 months because of discussions going on in Sacramento over state appropriations to local schools.

It was state budget cuts to education in 2003, resulting in more than 200 layoffs in the SMMUSD alone, that eventually led to the creation of the joint-use agreement.

The district had always received one-time funds from City Hall, but educational advocates wanted something more consistent, eventually launching a campaign to push a controversial charter amendment that would have specifically identified ongoing revenue for the schools. The plan was largely backed by the Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS), which gathered more than 15,000 signatures to put the amendment on the ballot. Among those who opposed the charter amendment were City Hall workers.

Just as organizers were about to submit petitions, the City Council narrowly agreed in May 2004 to back a compromise — the joint-use agreement — between City Hall and the school district. Educational advocates, including the Santa Monica-Malibu Council of PTAs, remained divided on whether to continue the charter amendment or back the contract.

“Our mission with the charter amendment was to have the city share the prosperity that it enjoyed with our schools, which of course are subject to the budget crisis that exists at the state level, and the contract accomplished that,” Shari Davis, the chair of CEPS, said. “It was dollars the district could depend on that would go to students and programs and it was vital funding.”

Both the charter amendment and the joint-use contract would have started with a base funding of roughly $6 million, increasing over time. But the district today would be receiving more from the charter amendment than it does with the contract, Davis said, though she isn’t sure by how much.

Louise Jaffe, an educational advocate who served as the co-chair of CEPS at the time of the campaign, said the community now sees the necessity of having the financial support from City Hall.

“What’s changed is everyone now understands the city has a really important role to play in our ability to continue to have excellent public schools,” Jaffe said. “It simply can’t be done without the city’s financial support.”

<i>What’s allowed in the agreement</i>

The contract is basically an umbrella agreement for joint-use between City Hall and the district, covering programs that allow public access to campuses outside of school hours.

The CREST — Childcare, Recreation, Enrichment, Sports, Together — program, which is open to students in grades K-8, is operated at each elementary school in Santa Monica, utilizing the classrooms, multipurpose spaces, playgrounds, fields, gyms and restrooms. The program serves several thousand students at an estimated net cost to City Hall of $1.6 million this fiscal year. City Halls also provides financial assistance for students from low-income families.

The Playground Partnership allows community access to outdoor spaces at six elementary schools, covering the courts, fields and play structures. City Hall is paying about $209,000 this year for custodial and landscape services.

The joint-use agreement also allows access for youth athletic programs — operated by both City Hall and local nonprofit sports organizations — to the three middle schools, including John Adams, Lincoln and Santa Monica Alternative School House. The fields at the schools are used for city programs like youth sports camp, altogether costing City Hall about $393,000, serving approximately 345 students.

Stinchfield said the contract has allowed the programs to expand.

“The playgrounds were not readily available to this degree,” she said.

<i>More accountability in agreement?</i>

When school and city officials commence negotiations, one of the topics for discussion will be whether the contract should allow City Hall to have more oversight on the district in light of the special education controversy.

“I think if you’re going to give $8 million in taxpayer money to a different group, you should have a way to account to our voters for our money,” Councilmember Bobby Shriver said. “I think it’s good for the district, it’s good for the council and the taxpayers.”

It’s a condition that educational advocates said they are open to exploring, depending on what “oversight” means.

“From the beginning accountability has been an important priority for CEPS and depending on how it’s written, absolutely it’s something we support,” Davis said.

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