Auto shop at Santa Monica High School. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)
Auto shop at Santa Monica High School. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

SMMUSD HDQTRS — A program that provides hands-on skills training to local high school students could see as much as a third of its budget disappear under a recent proposal to help balance the district’s books.

The proposal presented to the Board of Education last Thursday puts $300,000 of funds for the Regional Occupation Program (ROP) on reserve until a July board meeting, at which point the elected officials will once again take up the budget.

It also put just under $75,000 for a new college counselor at Santa Monica High School on ice.

That doesn’t allow the program to account for that $300,000 in its planning for the coming school year, a problem for teachers who may not find out until late July whether or not they have a job in August, said Rebel Harrison, director of the ROP Department.

“My primary concern is the shortness of our timeline,” Harrison said.

ROP teaches students real-world skills about running businesses, like Vike’s Inn — a food store on the Santa Monica High School campus — or a partnership between the marketing class and floral arrangement class to sell flowers during the holidays.

Auto shop, where students learn to repair cars, also falls under the ROP umbrella.

If the cuts go through, it will hit the classroom instruction directly, Harrison said, because there’s little room to cut from supplies.

“Virtually every dollar of the budget goes to teachers in the classrooms,” she said. “We run on a really slim equipment and supply budget.”

Last year, the equipment and supply budget was only $55,000 of the nearly $1 million program, something they managed on “a wing and a prayer,” Harrison said.

Still, the district needs to find reductions from all levels to make up for the significant operating deficit that begins at just over $700,000 in the 2013-14 fiscal year and expands to $4.3 million by the 2016-17 fiscal year.

“Budget reductions are going to be necessary,” said Jan Maez, chief financial officer for the district. “It’s nowhere near what we were projecting earlier, but we’re not out of the woods.”

Departments and schools across the district were asked to come up with $2 million in savings to help cut down on those figures, but only $1.5 million was achieved by the most recent board meeting.

Funds to pay for ROP classes come from Tier III funds, a special category of education money that in years past could only be used for specific purposes.

Districts got more flexibility with those funds in the 2008-09 school year as cuts to education continued to rain down from Sacramento, but district officials left ROP money where it was until this year, Harrison said.

The news came quick.

“I became aware a week and a half before the board meeting,” Harrison said.

Board members were hesitant to give a thumbs up to the cuts that evening based on the radical changes that it would mean for the program.

Slower, more measured trimming may be appropriate, said Boardmember Jose Escarce.

“There is no way that we’re going to get $300,000 in justifiable, rational cuts,” Escarce said.

Students and teachers came to speak out against the proposed cuts, describing the change that ROP program had made in their lives by introducing them to business concepts, marketing experience or even a subject that would later become their passion.

They stayed until midnight appealing to the board, despite the fact that many would have to be up and at school preparing for their own graduation the next day.

Ruhi Bhalla, who will be a senior at Samohi in fall, said that she had entered the high school “completely lost, as most freshmen are,” but all that changed when she found film and video production her sophomore year.

“That’s really where I think my success in high school started, and film and video production sort of built the foundation of the person I am today,” Bhalla said.

One Samohi graduate and now staff member, Lucas Capra, was accepted to Columbia University based on his work in the professional world, not, he told the board, on his less-than-stellar academic performance in high school.

That career started with the ROP technical theater program and video program, classes he took “before they existed,” he said.

ROP exists to give an alternative to the four-year college route and instead want to jump into a high-skill, highly technical field. That kind of technical education is one piece of a wider puzzle being examined jointly by the district, Santa Monica city officials and Santa Monica College called the Cradle to Career Initiative, which seeks to ensure that Santa Monica’s youth get the support they need to succeed in life, whatever educational path they choose to follow.

Technical education like ROP is just another option that students should have available to them, Harrison said.

“There is still a belief that the four-year traditional academic diploma route is an automatic ticket to success,” Harrison said. “That is really no longer true. It’s a door opener, and I’m a believer that you should never shut doors, so we make sure that students can make any choice.”

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