Changes to school funding have prompted the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education to undertake a discussion about its interdistrict permit policies and residents fear some students may soon lose the opportunity to attend local schools.
Interdistrict permits allow students living outside district residential boundaries to attend an SMMUSD campus but as SMMUSD transitions into a basic aid model, schools will no longer receive state funding for transfers.
There are a number of permit types to apply for, and some of the higher-prioritized listings include: children of district, city of Malibu or Santa Monica employees, students who have moved out of district boundaries as well as those who are related to an alum.
Permits seek to give families flexibility in an otherwise rigid system, according to district staff, and they have long been hailed as a way to increase diversity.
In years past — before the district switched to basic-aid funding — SMMUSD would receive additional money for taking on interdistrict transfers but that is no longer the case, staff said during a December meeting, which poses a problem for a district facing a fiscal deficit in the foreseeable future.
With its change to basic-aid funding, the district’s revenue is now a function of property taxes as opposed to enrollment, meaning more students would not equate to additional resources or funding, staff said when it was first recommended that SMMUSD engage in a discussion about possibly cutting two low-priority permit categories.
Current students who have applied and been approved for a permit will be unaffected by any of the policy changes made in the future, but it is possible the board of trustees will vote to cease accepting future students who apply for the “opportunity” and “working in SMMUSD boundaries” permit categories.
“We as a board have to get our expenses in line with the insufficient resources we are given and it is our job to look at everything,” board president Jon Kean said, detailing how SMMUSD’s basic aid status means funds come solely from the communities’ property taxes. “At the same time, we know that we have to protect our housing-insecure families in Santa Monica and Malibu who were forced from their homes due to outside forces.”
In the weeks since the December meeting, a number of community members and teachers have spoken to the board to say they feel their children are in danger of losing the ability to attend schools that have helped them flourish in their academic pursuits.
In fact, residents have felt so strongly about the potential changes that more than 30 people took the dais during last Thursday’s meeting to speak on the need to maintain interdistrict permits. Because of the meeting’s format, the nearly three dozen speakers had to wait until nearly the end of the meeting to share their opinions but the group of students, parents and SMMUSD alum was undeterred as one by one they took the stand to share their personal stories.
The board and district administrators were unable to respond, but Superintendent Ben Drati set aside time during his Superintendent’s Report to put rumors to rest.
Nowhere was it proposed, discussed or suggested that any current students were going to be moved out of the district, Drati said during Thursday’s meeting.
“There’s nothing like that (and) I’m saying that because on social media… people seem to believe that we’re going to move students out of the district if they’re permit or current students,” Drati added, but there’s nothing that exists like that.
“We are engaged in a holistic budget review and that means we have to look at everything comprehensively. The discussion we are having is about how to provide the best education possible in a climate where funding lags the costs of serving students,” Kean said, stating there is a misconception that current students will have to leave, the board is trying to artificially reduce school sizes and siblings will not be able to attend local schools.
“If people listen to the board conversations, they should be reassured that these fears are not based on facts,” Kean said. “Speaking personally, I have no interest in not renewing existing permits.”
Others agreed saying it might make sense for Santa Monica to throttle back permits but Malibu is a community that benefits from the added diversity and enrollment.
Board member Craig Foster said during Thursday’s meeting that there will be many discussions that may be alarming to the public but he urged the community to be mindful of the process so the board can look back and say it did it smartly, “and we did it right.”
Foster added the speeches on Thursday were thoughtful and moving and, all-in-all, it was a great night.
“We’re still working on this particular policy,” Foster said, “and because of the Brown Act, which says we have to work these things out in the public eye, we’ll have to wait to talk about it this coming Thursday.”
“Hopefully,” Kean said, “our families will see that our budget process is sincere and that our goal is to strengthen our schools for the long term.”
The board of education is set to again discuss the potential policy changes at its upcoming meeting on Thursday, March 5.