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Council Votes to Explore Funding Plan to Help Schools

By Oliver Lukacs
Staff Writer

Dec. 17 -- Tired of acting like the “rich uncle,” the City Council voted 6 to 0 Tuesday night to explore a novel long-term plan to help the cash-strapped School District with a tax measure to purchase, operate and maintain nearly two dozen district properties.

Introduced by Councilmen Herb Katz and Michael Feinstein, the bond measure -- which could be placed on the upcoming 2004 ballot -- would create a much-needed new revenue stream for the City, averting future cuts in either City services or school funding over the next five years.

The proposal would extend the annual $3 million the City pays the district for public use of its spaces to stop the yearly budget-time “groveling” by education advocates and undercut the “threat” of a potential ballot measure forcing the City to give the district a fixed percentage of its budget.

“There is a threat out there, and I consider it just that, of getting an item on the ballot to force us to give money every year on the long-term basis," Katz said. "I think that is totally destructive. I would like to see it stopped, because it will do nothing but divide this town, and whoever wins will not win.”

Feinstein agreed. “If we’re going to try and protect ourselves from swings of state and the much longer fixes that will come from the state, we have to get away from buying into the getting something for nothing dynamic, which I believe the ballot measure directing City funds to the school budget would do.

“We can choose to be in a zero sum game where we will pit a variety of important community programs one against another, or we can choose to take the responsibility and put a ballot measure on and give the voters of this community a chance to put more money into schools."

The Feinstein-Katz plan proposes using a Mello-Roos Bond, which pays for the maintenance and operation expenses of a property, as well as its purchase, to convert as many as 22 properties around the City into public parklands, public facilities and parking structures.

The proposal envisions doubling the size of Memorial park, turning the Madison Avenue surface lot into a park with underground parking and putting parking structure underneath the SAMOHI football field. It also would move the school district headquarters from 16th street and combine it with a childcare center planned at the Civic Center on 4th Street and Pico.

“It needs to be said that this is a long term plan, as opposed to a shortfall plan," Katz said. "We have to start looking at the City as a total, out of the box, and start looking at how we can collate what we do so we don’t have separate things going on with double expenditures.”

“It’s time for the three entities of this town, the College, the City, and Unified (school district), to really work together, all of us,” said Katz, who recommended that staff explore creating a commission composed of those parties.

Councilman Ken Genser agreed, saying the council would not act "like we’re the rich uncle saying, 'Here’s what we’re going to do for you,' but really sitting down” and working in partnership with the district. “I would hate to do it unilaterally.”

Members of the school board; the Committee for Excellence in Public Schools (CEPS), which is considering floating the alternate proposal setting aside a percentage of the council budget, and the PTA, supported the plan, but City employees were against it.

Speaking “on behalf of the children,” PTA Council President Maria Rodriguez said that while children in the district are “rich and poor, black, white and Hispanic… they all have one thing in common, they rely on us to prepare them for the future.” She said she supported any plan that promised a better future for them.

But Lauralee Asch, of the Coalition of Santa Monica City Employees said the plan was a “very big financial risk.

“There is no statuary mandate obligating the City to fund local schools," she said, adding that "ultimately California’s failed system for funding public education can only be fixed in Sacramento, not in Santa Monica.

“Any approach that gives funds to the schools at the expense of City services will only end up harming the community in the long run,” Asch warned.

Shane Talbot, of the Santa Monica Police Officers Association, agreed. “Local government cannot provide a meaningful long term solution to a statewide problem,” he said. “As long as the locals continue to pick up the shortfall, Sacramento will continue to not respond to the needs at the local level.”

Councilman Genser and Mayor Richard Bloom also had their doubts about a plan that calls on the City to pitch in during economically tough times.

“Our expenditures are growing faster than our projected revenue, which means if we gave no more money to the district we still have to make deeper cuts for the next few years," Genser said.

“Which is not to say that we shouldn’t strive for more and increasing amounts of revenues to go towards education, but we have to look at it in a realistic context… And we’re going to be in this reality for the next four to five years… before we see some sunshine.”

Genser also objected to the projected revenues the properties would bring when “we haven’t done any financial analysis” on the value and cost of buying and converting the prospective lands.

“It might not be the gravy train that’s being suggested here," he said. "But you’re right, we do need more revenue. One thing we as a community should look at is should we put something on the ballot to raise revenue.”

Mayor Bloom concurred, noting that the City expects to cut 19 positions in the next fiscal year and reduce programs and services.

“We cannot rely on unrealistic promises," he said. Unlike previous years, the proposed cuts, Bloom said, would be felt "in very noticeable ways, due to the four million dollar loss” from the rollback of the Vehicle License Fee increase.

“Our first obligation is to maintain basic City services and a strong financial position so that we can be here for the district in long run,” Bloom said.

Feinstein said that was his point exactly. The City has been able to help the district all these years “because we manage our money well.

"It’s not just being a rich uncle, but it’s an uncle, or aunt, who manages their money like a mench," Feinstein said. "We don’t spend money we don’t have. We need a new revenue stream.

“If we don’t provide a new revenue stream, we will pit City employees versus district employees, City fiscal health versus the righteous needs of the district, and we will pit City social services against education,” Feinstein warned.

“I believe we need a ballot measure in 2004, and the reason we need it now is because community members are already talking about going out and getting signatures for a ballot measure that would redirect the City’s budget to the school district," Feinstein said.

"It is important to show those folks there is a clear, viable alternative to funding the district,” he said.
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