SMMUSD HDQTRS — All four candidates vying for the 50th Assembly seat gave their thoughts on education at the Santa Monica League of Women Voters forum Saturday, revealing deep divides on how to pay for the service but rough consensus on who should provide it.

Democratic candidates Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, Westside activist Torie Osborn and Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom and Republican Bradley Torgan took questions from the audience and education advocates over the course of the two-hour forum which touched on topics like early childhood education and the importance of science and math, but remained squarely focused on the dire finances of California’s public schools.

While each hung more or less to their party lines regarding funding schools through increased taxation — the Democrats were largely for the idea, while Torgan stood fast against it — the candidates also spoke out for increased local control and involvement in districts as a potential way forward.

Butler acknowledged the funding crisis facing schools, and pointed at Proposition 13, an initiative passed by California voters in 1978 that put a cap on property taxes for both individuals and businesses.

Prior to 1978, California schools were largely funded through property taxes, a funding stream that was reduced to a trickle by the cap.

Butler advocated removing a provision of voter-passed Proposition 13 that prevents property taxes from rising on commercial properties, freeing up some more money for schools, and expressed a hope that one of two new tax measures specifically to fund education pass in November.

Those two taxes, one by Gov. Jerry Brown and the other by activist Molly Munger, are currently competing for the hearts of California voters.

The Brown measure would raise income taxes on California’s wealthiest and increase the sales tax by a quarter of a percent to 7.5 percent. Munger’s would raise income taxes for most Californians, bringing in an estimated $10 billion.

If neither tax passes, the legislature will have to find another way to bring money into the schools, Butler said.

Osborn took a direct approach, promising to reform the tax system by adding a tax on oil taken out of California territory and excluding commercial properties from Proposition 13’s protections.

If those taxes were put in place and coupled with revenue from either Brown or Munger’s taxes, Californians would put roughly $20 billion back into the education system, erasing the $18 billion in cuts the schools have suffered over the past four years.

Bloom pushed for a “dedicated” funding source for schools, but stopped short of defining exactly what that would be or where the money would come from.

He took a more centrist approach than Osborn or Butler in suggesting that local government should work more closely with businesses to bring in more taxes and more money to fund education, and pointed to Santa Monica’s own half-cent sales tax as a model of how municipalities could funnel money into their educations systems.

That measure and an advisory one, called Measures Y and YY respectively, brought the schools roughly $5.7 million after it passed in 2010, growing the total amount of money City Hall contributes to the school district to over $14 million last year.

If the Legislature could win back the trust of Californians that tax money would go toward education, they might be willing to tax themselves to refund the system like Santa Monicans did, Bloom said.

Torgan, the lone Republican in the race, took a strong position against taxation, even referring to the otherwise maligned Proposition 13 as a “wonderful limitation on taxation.”

Rather than increase revenues through new taxation, Torgan advocated improving the business climate to stimulate the economy and fill the state’s coffers once again.

“Until we restructure and make California business-friendly again, we will keep suffering the way we have. For all this talk of what we need to do to education, the resources won’t be there,” Torgan said.

Torgan’s stand against taxation included a potential future measure that would preserve an existing parcel tax in Malibu should the schools in Malibu and unincorporated parts of Los Angeles succeed in a current effort to split from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

According to a presentation by SMMUSD Chief Financial Officer Jan Maez, the proposed Malibu district would start with an estimated $2.35 million structural deficit, something the parcel tax would eliminate.

However, the tax would expire when the new district formed unless a legislator passed a very limited law allowing it to stand.

Both Bloom and Osborn expressed doubts that a second district would be beneficial to students because of the increased overhead costs, and said they would have to be convinced otherwise to take on the bill.

Only Butler gave an unreserved “yes,” provided that the two proposed districts felt that it would be the best for both of them.

“I would be honored to carry their legislation,” Butler said.

Candidates were otherwise in favor of increased local control, particularly freeing educators from the restrictive testing requirements of the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind act.

However, each stood against Brown’s “realignment” plan which would shift responsibility for early childhood education and child care from the state Department of Education to county welfare offices, a move that advocates say would close thousands of pre-schools and instead provide vouchers that don’t come with requirements for educational standards.

“In general, I’m for shifting control from Sacramento to local government, but this is one instance I don’t,” Torgan said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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