On Thursday night the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education reviewed the district’s gift giving policy. The issue is how gifts and donations to the district should be placed into one pot and distributed among schools based on some sort of “need” formula that has yet to be determined.

Individuals and school PTA groups now primarily raise funds for individual schools. It seems that supporters of wealthier neighborhood schools are more adept at fundraising and secure far more money than their counterparts in poor and middle class neighborhoods.

This disparity in fundraising leads to less resources for some schools and, according to some experts, lower test scores — often referred to as an “achievement gap.”

To level the playing field, the school board is considering “Robin Hood” policies that will essentially end gifts to individual schools and possibly clubs, activities and/or other school organizations as well as prohibit school PTAs from funding auxiliary programs at their schools.

Almost all giving would go in an equity fund — such as the one now used for the current 15 percent “Deasy tax” on donations.

A Superintendent’s Advisory Group comprised of parents, community members, and SMMUSD staff will “create opportunities for community members to hear from other districts that have successfully moved into this model" and, along with the superintendent, create a process and timeline for a transition from school site to a districtwide policy. All this will deliver “a premium learning environment at each of the SMMUSD’s schools,” promised a Nov. 17 school board meeting report.

The nonprofit Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation will become the central fundraising entity while the fund itself will be administrated by the district’s Education Services Department. Details of how the new policies will be implemented need to be worked out

The staff report ominously notes, “While appreciating acceptable donations, the Board discourages any gifts which may directly or indirectly impair its commitment to providing equal educational opportunities for all district students."

Discourage donations? Indeed! I find this to be a stunning statement coming from a district that is always begging for funding. It also confirms to me that its social and economic agenda once again threatens school fundraising, the utilization of gifts and, quite possibly, overall educational excellence.

Opponents claim gifts to schools will dry up. Fearing a drop in academic quality in the better schools, they also predict parents will remove their high achieving students from the district, thus triggering a reduction in state support.

With the loss of top students, overall district rankings and test scores will decline. They claim poorer schools will not be helped by preventing successful PTAs from supporting their own schools.

The centralized gift policy has been endorsed by the powerful Santa Monicans for Renters’ Right political group. Six out of seven members of the school board are SMRR endorsees which may explain the political agenda that has taken precedent and threatened academic quality for decades.

Centralized fundraising is a big gamble despite the Pollyanna optimism of SMMUSD administrators. It remains to be seen if taking from the rich and giving to the poor will actually help narrow the achievement gap. If so, there could be positive benefits, after all.

It will take a few years before the district can determine whether their new policy has paid off. But, if “narrowing the gap” is achieved by lowering achievement levels at the district’s top schools, the damage could take years to repair.

In the meantime, the district will have shot itself in the foot and a generation of our best students will have paid a heavy price.

Pier changes for the better

City Hall is considering changes to the way the Santa Monica Pier is managed. Currently the oversight for the pier is accomplished by 11 citizens appointed to four year terms on the Pier Restoration Commission by the City Council

Among the recommendations under consideration is shrinking the PRC to seven members and allowing the Convention & Visitors Bureau, Chamber of Commerce and Pier Lessees Association to each appoint one person to the “new” PRC. The City Council would appoint the remaining four persons.

It sounds like a very positive move. First of all, it would de-politicize the PRC — long a favorite reward for politically connected insiders and SMRR cronies. This would allow the pier to be run more like a business — one not dependant on annual multi-million dollar City Hall subsidies.

It’s imperative that the pier be made more attractive to more people — visitors and locals alike. Eliminating much of the cheap, carnival atmosphere would help as would fine-tuning and adding to the mix of businesses (attractions) on the pier.

The current PRC is not up to the job. Persons familiar with and experienced in entertainment, tour and travel related attractions and food/drink establishments are vital to the pier’s future success.

It’s time for a change.

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

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