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Councilmen Float Plan to Help School District

By Juliet McShannon
Staff Writer

Dec. 25 -- In an effort to boost funding to the cash-strapped school district and increase City parkland and public facilities, two council members are expected to float a novel plan to buy or lease as many 22 properties, most of them owned by the district, including the SAMOHI football field.

Sponsored by Councilmen Michael Feinstein and Herb Katz, the proposal would call for a 2004 ballot measure to buy or lease the district properties by means of a Mello-Roos Bond, which could raise property taxes.

Unlike a General Obligation Bond, a Mello-Roos Bond pays for the maintenance and operation expenses of a property, as well as its purchase. The purchase of non-school district property at 2943 Exposition Boulevard will also be considered.

"We have to do something to support our schools, maybe negotiate something from the City's coffers," Katz said. "We need a long-term solution."

"This bond can create a revenue stream for District operating expenses, and a capital fund that could be used for other purposes," Feinstein told The Lookout. "There is great flexibility in what ratio of purchase and lease is involved, and the period over which it would be paid.

“Utilizing this strategy, voters could create a new revenue stream for the school district and gain land for parks, open spaces and other public purposes at the same time," he said. "We could help realize the goals of our city’s Open Space Element, while supporting education at the same time, and thus gain two community benefits for every dollar we invest."

The district properties the City would consider buying may include 1707 and 1717 4th Street; the high school football field at 4th Street and Pico Boulevard; 1310 11th Street; 1631, 1633, 1635, 1637, 1639, 1641, 1645, 1649 and 1651 16th Street, and 1630, 1634, 1638, 1642, 1644, 1646, 1648 17th Street.

Many of the sites and buildings up for discussion would need to be transformed to suit the community's needs, Feinstein said. As part of the proposal, Memorial Park would be expanded to add new parkland in the middle of the city. In addition, the bond would raise funds to increase the value of the Madison School site.

"The City would pay lease payments to put a parking lot underground, adding parking for Santa Monica Boulevard's small businesses, with a park on top," said Feinstein, who sees the overall plan as mutually beneficial to the school district and the community.

Feinstein and Katz's proposal will be incorporated into a discussion on "longer-term mechanisms by which the City might pay the Santa Monica Unified School District for use of school facilities by the community, thereby providing the District with greater certainty about revenue," according to the staff report.

The City currently has pumped $3 million a year for several years into the district through a contract that annually provides for use of school facilities by the public. The council has also given additional one-time funds to the district. In addition, the City reimburses the district for direct costs associated with specific public programs on school facilities through sub-agreements to the master contract.

But in the midst of a record State budget deficit, school advocates have pushed for more funding and have recently renewed their call as the City Council prepares for its annual public hearing on January 27, prompting the council to take up the issue for public discussion Tuesday night.

Feinstein and Katz's proposal comes at a time when some members of the business community, spearheaded by the Committee for Excellence in Public Schools (CEPS), are pushing for a ballot initiative that would force the City Council to give a percentage of its annual budget to the school district.

"In order to bind future City Councils, there would have to be an amendment to the City Charter, which is possible," said Ralph Mechur, spokesperson for a parcel tax initiative approved by voters this summer that will pump $6.5 million a year into the district.

Some Santa Monicans have recently been contacted by pollsters gauging support for the CEPS initiative, The Lookout has learned.

Among those polled was Matthew Millen, the leading opponent of the parcel tax initiative, which won the necessary two-thirds vote by a razor thin margin. Millen said he supports a charter amendment, but is concerned that "something" would have to be cut from the City budget.

The Chamber of Commerce is not involved in the proposed ballot measure and has not taken a position, chamber officials said.

"We're not driving the train here," said Kathy Dodson, the chamber's president and CEO. "We recognize the need for a long-term measure, but it is not the chamber's job to run this from either end. We would however, absolutely like to see a long term mechanism in place."

Feinstein sees the ballot initiative as "unnecessarily divisive and destructive."

"It could pit different portions of our community against one another, all in a zero sum game," Feinstein said. "We could also suffer from a crudely blunt approach to budgeting that we have not previously experienced. Good government compares community needs side by side in order to make informed choices.“

Feinstein expressed optimism that he and Katz's proposal would be well received Tuesday night.

“I hope we pursue a strategy that builds, synergizes and advances community goals in a unifying and fiscally sound way," he said. "That is why I’ve put this approach before the City Council for consideration.”

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