BARNUM HALL — On Easter Sunday, a man in a bunny costume dropped from the sky onto a field of 25,000 brightly colored Easter eggs, much to the delight of hundreds of children on the McKinley Elementary School campus.
It was not a school activity, however.
The skydiving Easter bunny was the highlight of the 2011 Eggstravaganza, an event put on by the eight-month-old Clarity Church, a 75-member congregation which rents out the McKinley Elementary School Auditorium and two classrooms to conduct services and age-specific youth group activities each Sunday.
Originally, Pastor Nathan Kollar intended to drop the 25,000 eggs from a helicopter, but Carey Upton, the director of theater operations and facility permits at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, had to veto.
“They’ve gone bad in the past,” Upton said, and went on to describe videos that his staff found of children running to collect eggs deposited by a helicopter only to be pelted by more oblong plastic projectiles when the helicopter came back for round two of the drop.
Upton and his five staff members handle requests like these on a fairly regular basis in the course of renting out school district facilities to private groups, which include everything from churches to AA groups and professional basketball teams (the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA practiced at the Santa Monica High School gym last season when playing the Lakers in the playoffs).
In the 2010-11 school year alone, the department is on track to issue 1,000 permits for 10,000 events, which equates to nearly $950,000 in revenue that pays for school operations and maintenance, as well as salaries and benefits for department staff.
That’s up from $130,000 four and a half years ago when Upton first took on the job.
“Permits weren’t being done effectively,” Upton said. “Thirty years ago, schools would allow almost any group to use facilities for free or for a low cost. They never got into charging a fair amount.”
It’s money that the school district needs now more than ever in a time of significant budget cuts, Upton said.
Bolstering the maintenance budget through outside resources gives the school district the flexibility to use other money to save staff, including classroom teachers.
Growing the department
Upton, like the rest of his staff, started out working on the private side of the management industry.
He headed a number of theaters in Santa Monica, including the Los Angeles Theater on Broadway, which, under his direction, secured filming contracts for big name feature productions like “Dream Girls” and “Rush Hour 3.”
SMMUSD hired Upton to manage Barnum Hall, but his success in using industry connections to attract big projects — including the filming of teen heartthrob Zac Efron’s “17 Again” — and organizational talents caused both his responsibilities and his department to expand.
It was an incremental process, Upton said.
First, it was Barnum Hall. Then, Microsoft decided to hold its E3 conference to roll out its then-new game “Rock Band” at the Samohi amphitheater. Soon, Upton also found himself in charge of sports facilities and then every rental in the district.
As his responsibilities became too much to manage, and the permits brought in more cash, Upton brought in the other members of his dream team: Technical theater coordinator David McCrum, sports facility coordinator Brian Part, facility permit assistant Jan Strnad and media services coordinator William Wishart.
The team rarely arrives at work early in the morning since most rentals occur after school hours, and they hardly see each other as they buzz about juggling a busy schedule of kids’ sports, adult sports, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, a range of 12-step program meetings and, in Upton’s case, filming.
Should you watch the NBC sitcom “Parenthood,” perhaps you’ll recognize the Franklin Elementary School campus.
A number of commercials, including a shot featuring a “monster school bus” so big it had to be constructed on the street outside of Grant Elementary, also took place on SMMUSD property.
As Upton put it, the money spent by a production company to film a commercial on campus for two days equals “a whole lot of cookies” at any other kind of school fundraiser.
Not that the expansion hasn’t had its downsides.
“It’s quite possible that there’s not a Saturday, Sunday or holiday that I’ve not gotten a call in the last three years,” Upton said.
“Well, maybe two,” he conceded.
Facilities Management earns a lot of cash for a starving school district, but sometimes the source of that money can spark uproar amongst community groups.
Technically speaking, any group, no matter how incendiary, can request to use school facilities and expect to be granted a permit.
Only under three circumstances can the school legitimately deny such a request.
The group or the requested use would have to violate the primary mission of the school, i.e. educating children. That gives schools the ability to deny applications that would use classrooms during school days, for instance.
If there’s an expectation that the activity could hurt the school facilities — like a no-holds-barred paintball fight in the midst of Olympic High School — the department can veto the application.
Lastly, if the use disrupted the community in some way, such as excessive noise or overparking, the schools could ask the group to take their business elsewhere.
As a result, there are several groups that people don’t associate with school activities that operate on campuses across the district, including Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or even services by churches like Clarity that performed the bunny drop on Easter.
Eight churches rent space on school campuses throughout the SMMUSD district, three in Malibu and five in Santa Monica.
For the most part, the congregations are in a transitional phase from one location to a more permanent one, and don’t stay long. And, for the most part, not many people notice them while they are there.
The Eggstravaganza changed that.
Posters for the event prominently displayed the McKinley Elementary School name, which concerned district parent Lisette Gold.
“I’m not pro or con (about the church),” Gold said. “The question that’s raised to me is, I know you can rent out the facilities and pay the price, but after passing Measure Y [half-cent sales tax increase] and property taxes, why do we have to resort to establishing a weekly religious presence at our schools to balance the budget?”
Particularly with the incoming joint use agreement that will give unprecedented access to school fields and facilities to City Hall — a deal which also falls under the Facilities Management office’s purview — the question of when “just enough” becomes “too much” troubled Gold.
“They can make a lot of money off of leasing school spaces, but it excludes the rest of the public,” Gold said. “I hope it doesn’t get to the point that our schools are so sold out, the public can’t use them anymore.”
To the contrary, the presence of community members on school campuses is exactly what Upton’s office is trying to achieve.
The primary mission is to create an exemplary learning environment for kids, but there is a second.
“We want to create a space for the community to be on campus, and to go back to being the community space schools always were,” Upton said.
Once upon a time, Barnum Hall, the main performance space at Samohi, was actually the Civic Center of Santa Monica, and Upton would like to see schools become those community focal points again.
“I feel for schools to thrive, they still need to be the community center,” Upton said. “You enter discussions, see neighbors. Participation in schools is vital for high quality schools.”