Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on school district finances.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District lurches from one fiscal crisis to another. Good times, bad times, there never seems to be enough green. So, we have parcel tax on parcel tax, bond drives, millions of dollars more in grants form the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu — and our schools are always in the hole.

Beverly Hills Unified School District was in the news recently because they eliminated hundreds of permit students to save money. Beverly Hills schools are different than ours because they receive no money from the state. Their local school taxes supersede the total state allocation of around $6,200 per student. Eliminating some 400 permit students means no loss in state support for Beverly Hills schools, relieving their taxpayers of the obligation of paying for non-resident students.

Two weeks ago, I sent an e-mail to the seven people on the SMMUSD Board of Education. I asked three questions relating to school revenues and expenses:

n What plans of any do you have for getting non-resident, “permit” parents (who pay no parcel taxes or bond expense) to step up their voluntary contributions to the schools?

n There are thousands of subsidized low-income housing units in numerous buildings owned by nonprofit Community Corporation of Santa Monica and other tax-exempt public housing entities. Do you have any thoughts about how parents of school children in public housing can help support the district financially?

n Other school districts have variable parcel taxes such as commercial properties that pay a higher rate than smaller residential properties. What, if any, plans do you have to force our large property owners and corporations to contribute more to the district and help carry more of the load?

I didn’t expect Maria Leon-Vazquez to reply. She’s on record as not making public statements to the press. Nevertheless, she talked to the Malibu Times (Nov. 11, 2009) regarding the awarding of a $90,999 contract to the Gensler firm for updating the district’s strategic plan.

“In our community, we have so much involvement and everybody wants to have their hands on everything,” she said. “And sometimes we can’t have everybody’s hands in the making of the soup. We just can’t have it.”

It’s good that Leon-Vazquez doesn’t make public statements. She should stick to being silent so she won’t embarrass herself. And, why is the school board approving $90,000 for yet another study — at this time?

Only Ben Allen and Ralph Mechur responded to my e-mail. Surely, my questions weren’t that difficult, yet Kelly Pye, Barry Snell, Oscar de la Torre and Jose Escarce didn’t reply, either.

Allen e-mailed, “We’re receiving 18 percent less than we were supposed to according to Prop. 98, plus additional cuts in our categorical funds. … Now, we’ve got another $20 billion deficit in Sacramento, and the governor has proposed an additional several billion in cuts … .

“The vast majority of our money still does continue to come from the state. And, most of our costs are relatively fixed. The quality of education in California has declined, and will continue to decline, with all sorts of negative repercussions for the future. I wouldn’t want to see that happen here in Santa Monica, and that’s why I’m looking for all sorts of creative ways to help fill in our budget gap.”

He mentioned “branding” (such as marketing school names and logos such as “Samohi” and “Malibu High”) to raise money. He added, “I know that the schools do get a certain percentage of developer fees, and I would like to see the city look into the possibility of increasing that contribution.” Both excellent ideas. So Ben, when is the board going to act on them?

Allen explained, “The problem is that as a result of Prop.13, [a parcel tax] is the only type of tax that the school district can levy for its general fund. I’d love to be able to go to the voters with a more progressive tax proposal, but the current laws don’t allow for that unfortunately.”

Allen’s right about the parcel tax being the only tax a school district can levy but wrong on what the law allows. A number of districts have implemented “more progressive” variable parcel taxes that tax improvements and set different rates for commercial or residential and single-family and multifamily properties, according to EdSource Inc’s. “Local Revenues for the Schools.”

More about school finances in part two, next week.

Mega-development before Planning Commission<p>

The Planning Commission will be reviewing the proposed 969,000-square-foot Bergamot Transit Village Center mixed-use development on the former Paper Mate site at Olympic Boulevard and 26th Street Wednesday night, Jan. 27. The mega-development will have far-reaching, irreversible impacts on both the Mid-City and the Pico neighborhoods. This a great opportunity to voice your thoughts on this proposal. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in City Council Chambers.

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

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