Santa Monica Police Officer Jacob Halloway poses for a picture with kids putting on a bake sale for the Save Our Schools campaign, a district-wide fundraising effort in 2010 that secured $1.58 million for local public schools. (photo by Santa Monica-malibu Education Foundation)

MALIBU CITY HALL — Emotions ran high in Malibu City Hall Thursday as parents argued both sides of a policy change for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District that could significantly impact which classes are offered in schools.

District-wide fundraising, as it’s called, would prohibit Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) from raising money to pay for staff salaries and transfer that responsibility to the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that distributes money equally across the district.

The goal is to even out per-pupil instructional spending at each of the school sites, which varies by a factor of 17 from the highest-spending elementary school to the lowest.

The result will be “mandated mediocrity” to the detriment of high-achieving, high-fundraising schools, parents against the change said.

Fundraising by PTAs in SMMUSD varies widely between school sites, in line with the socio-economic levels of the parents whose children attend each school.

That tends to mean that schools with more socio-economically disadvantaged students get less resources than wealthier schools and correspondingly fewer programs.

Less instructional opportunity exacerbates an already large gap in academic achievement between minority students and their white and Asian counterparts.

Right now, PTA dollars buy those opportunities, said Superintendent Sandra Lyon.

The highest spending school uses its money, raised by PTAs, to buy instructional aides, a reading teacher, a choral music program, a marine science program, multiple reading assistance programs and an art program.

The other has a music program from kindergarten through second grade, an art program from kindergarten through fifth grade, an hourly science teacher and one instructional assistant.

“From where I sit, from the balcony view, looking at the district as a unified school district, using PTA to pay for staff is fraught with difficulties,” Lyon said. “Ultimately, it creates a climate in which instruction and instructional experiences can be different from one school to the next.”

From the hours of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., each student should get the same chance for a quality education as any other in the district, Lyon said.

The district staff proposes to accomplish that by empowering the Education Foundation to pay for all programs, salaries and professional development, while continuing to allow PTAs to pay for “stuff,” like field trips or supplies.

The foundation would raise money from parents and corporate donors, and then distribute the money throughout the district.

School sites could choose how to spend that money in order to preserve autonomy of the schools, Lyon said.

“This is not a lock-step approach of getting everybody a counselor,” Lyon said. “It allows for flexibility and individuality.”

The Education Foundation, led by Executive Director Linda Gross, recently reorganized to prepare itself for the new role, should the Board of Education approve the move at the end of November.

The foundation is ready to take on the responsibility, Gross said.

“I know that our foundation has always been about raising money for all schools in the district, regardless of the politics over the last 30 years,” Gross said. “We don’t pick and choose. We fund programs throughout all schools in the district.”

If approved, the superintendent would convene an advisory group of stakeholders like parents, PTA leadership and members of the Education Foundation to help shape the details of the policy.

The policy would then be phased in over the course of two years, with full implementation expected in 2013.

Similar policies have been pursued with success in other districts, most notably Palo Alto and Manhattan Beach.

Both districts adopted the new scheme to fix inequalities between schools and, several years later, the foundations in those districts raise more money than entered the district previously, Lyon said.

Just because it worked there, doesn’t mean it will work here, parents warned.

Malibu City Hall was full of audience members, the majority against any change in fundraising. They promised that if the board chose to pursue such a policy, major decreases in fundraising would result.

It’s already happened, said Kim Bonewitz, co-president of the Juan Cabrillo Elementary PTA.

Juan Cabrillo already raised 50 percent of its goal for the year, but contributions have stopped.

“We have had a halt in fundraising as news of this plan has spread,” Bonewitz said.

Many also spoke of feeling disenfranchised by the process, which included no community input or PTA involvement.

“You have insufficient information before you to make intelligent policy,” said Michael Sidley, the father of two Malibu High School students. “Before you make any decision, you should fully and completely evaluate what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen. The group to flesh this out should happen before it’s adopted, rather than after.”

Parents who spoke for the change called it an act of social justice.

“Private fundraising should not create inequities for our children,” said Rochelle Fanali. “It’s unfair, morally wrong and quite old-fashioned.”

A truncated board took over the discussion in front of a much-diminished crowd, which dispersed after the end of public comment.

Board member Ralph Mechur recused himself because of a personal relationship with a member of the Education Foundation, and Vice President Ben Allen was acting as a delegate in the Philippines.

Board members agreed that equity for all students was the appropriate goal, but that the strategy to achieve it had to be done right the first time.

“If you’re going to do this, you’re going to do it right,” said Board member Nimish Patel. “Failure is not an option.”

If the gap was two-to-one, such a drastic overhaul might not be needed, said Board President Jose Escarce, but the huge disparity between the schools needs to be addressed.

“We have little choice but to worry about equity if we’re going to do our job well and we’re going to do it responsibly,” Escarce said.

A similar discussion will take place at the board’s Nov. 17 meeting, when the Santa Monica community gets a chance to support or oppose the change.

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