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Malibu Parents Face off over Gift Policy

By Jorge Casuso

Dec. 9 -- Malibu parents faced off over a controversial gift policy at last week's school board meeting, with opponents warning it will discourage giving, violates PTA bylaws and is likely illegal and supporters calling it a "bold and courageous" step towards fairness.

The proposed policy -- which would put 15 percent of all donations to individual schools into an Equity Fund to be distributed to all district schools -- will not be taken up by the board until next month.

But PTA representatives, all of them from Malibu, used public comment at last Thursday's board meeting to express their deeply divided views on a policy that has stirred controversy ever since maverick School Supt. John Deasy posted it on the district's Web site last month.

"This policy is unprecedented and not legal," said Deborah Griffin, co-president of the PTA at Webster Elementary. "It puts our school budgets at risk. It reduces funds by adding overhead. It fosters divisiveness and underestimates the value of unfettered giving."

Opponents argued that the policy violates the bylaws of the PTA, which requires association approval for disbursement of all PTA funds, which are private and outside the districts control.

"The gift policy is very troubling," said Lucia Nordstrom, a trial lawyer and parent at Pt. Dume Marine Science Elementary. "Under the guidelines this is illegal."

"This policy will put each PTA budget at risk," said Sandy Thacker, PTA president at Webster. "We can draw a line and stand on opposite sides and create a lose-lose situation, or we can create a win-win situation to stand together and work to increase resources at every school."

Opponents said they strongly object to a "tax" that is mandated.

"I have been unable to find the most important word that is at the heart of this matter -- 'voluntary,'" said Geri Churchill, a parent at Pt. Dume. "I am shocked an appalled at your sense of entitlement to these contributions.

"Since when is doing something for the benefit of my own child, as you put it, 'violating the civil rights of another child in the district?'" she said, quoting from Deasy's memo. "That, sir, is ridiculous."

Proponents of the proposed policy called it a "bold and courageous" move that will help underprivileged schools, which are all in Santa Monica, close the learning gap.

"There are many supporters in Malibu of your gift policy," said Laura Rosenthal, past president of the Pt. Dume and a member of the Malibu High PTA Council.

The ability to raise funds, Rosenthal said, has "nothing to do with hard work and everything to do with demographics. I truly believe that whatever form this new gift policy takes, it will increase the donation level at every school in the district."

Kathy Wisnicki, who is a member of the PTA at Malibu High, agreed. "The fundraising iniquities at our school sites," she said, "are not due to the lack of effort on the part of parents, but rather to real differences that exist within the schools.

"I think that we are finally talking about some real issues concerning the equity in education of all of our children," she said.

Supporters noted that Santa Monica parents have been instrumental in lobbying their City Council to pump millions of dollars into the cash-strapped school district, funds that greatly benefit Malibu schools.

"Most parents in Malibu don't know that the City of Santa Monica subsidizes Malibu schools," Rosenthal said.

But Jim Parkland, a parent at Webster, warned that if the board approves the proposed "scheme," it better brace for the grave political and economic fallout, with wealthy donors putting their kinds in private schools.

"I think you care about your own political agendas and getting your hands on someone else's money," Parkland said. "If you think this scheme is some master stroke that will further your careers, you should rethink it. You serve at the pleasure of the people, and you ignore it at your own peril.

"This scheme is never going to fly," Parkland said. "We will never accept it. It's a bad idea. You should drop it."

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