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Council Candidates Pledge to Support School Funding

By Cindy Frazier
Senior Writer

September 22 -- Seeking to nail down future City funding, members of a grassroots education group garnered signatures on a public pledge to support “significant city funding” to the School District from most of the 14 City Council candidates during a forum Monday night.

Twelve candidates in all turned out to seek support from the Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS), which proved its clout earlier this year by forcing the council to agree to guarantee at least $6 million in direct funding to schools by threatening to qualify an initiative on the November ballot.

CEPS leaders also sought to identify those who truly view education as the City’s number one funding priority -- despite the fact that fewer than 20 percent of Santa Monica residents have children in school -- through written questionnaires and a public forum.

The CEPS Political Action Committee -- which had some $13,000 in its coffers as of June 30 after spending $100,000 on the signature drive -- is seeking more donations to bankroll its campaign, which will include School Board endorsements.

Steering committee member Dennis Zane said the group had not yet decided whether to make endorsements for City Council.

The funding pledge, which some candidates described as a “contract,” calls for signatories to “affirm the (school funding) agreement when it appears on the city council agenda and to provide necessary funds at budget adoption.”

It also calls for them “to increase city support to the school district whenever the city’s revenues allow such an increase.”

Incumbent Councilman Herb Katz beat his opponents to the punch by placing his name on the pledge placard first, although he was absent from the forum because he was out of town.

Most candidates had no problem supporting the pledge, stating they considered City funding of the district to be a top priority and eagerly lined up after the forum to place their signatures above their printed names on the huge placard.

“School funding should be a top priority for the city, because it is an investment in our future workforce and leaders,” said candidate Kathryn Morea.

“There is nothing more important than to foster excellent public schools,” said candidate Matteo Dinolfo. “I’m committed to school funding and would look for ways to increase it.”

Candidate Bobby Shriver -- a member of the Kennedy family -- told the group he was a product of “the best education money can buy” and that “an excellent education is a fundamental American right.”

Shriver, who is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s brother-in-law, added that, if elected, he would be able to take the school funding issue “statewide.”

“There are big issues facing Santa Monica, and revenues are in danger of going down,” Shriver said, alluding to the ability of the state legislature to take away funds earmarked for cities. “Who do you want in the driver’s seat?”

Candidate Maria Loya said she would support “making the (City) funding agreement permanent” because “parents shouldn’t have to go to the City Council every year for funds.”

Councilman Ken Genser, running for his fifth term on the council, said he supported the funding measure, but added, “We must be cautious that the City not tell the schools how to do their job. We must be funders but leave educating to the educators.”

Mayor Richard Bloom, running for his second full term on the council, reminded the group that the council had increased ongoing school funding by $250,000 a year since he was first elected in 1999.

“One of my first achievements on the council was a $250,000 grant to the schools,” Bloom said.

Bloom added that the City now provides $15 million a year for youth-related services, such as childcare and park programs and playground partnerships with the district. That amount does not include the $6 million approved by the council earlier this year.

Several candidates said other sources of revenues were also needed to shore up school district finances, which have suffered from state budget cuts and other financial strains for years.

Candidate and incumbent Michael Feinstein -- who abstained from the vote on the $6 million funding measure -- promised to “sign the pledge and work to implement it to the fullest.”

Feinstein said there may be future opportunities to coordinate City and School District projects using bond measures and public properties.

“We need to coordinate land use and ballot measures” to create public projects benefiting both entities, Feinstein said.

Only one candidate, Jonathan Mann, stated he would not sign the pledge “just to get your votes.” But Mann said he endorses the goals of the funding measure.

The pledge -- posted on a placard at the front of the room -- recalled a similar tactic used several years ago during the Los Angeles mayoral race concerning the issue of LAX expansion. During the race, all the leading mayoral candidates agreed to abide by a pledge not to increase air passenger traffic at LAX beyond current levels.

Both the LA mayoral pledge and the CEPS pledge were organized by Zane, a CEPS steering committee member and professional political organizer who leads Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, the politically dominant tenant advocacy group.

In the LA mayoral race, Zane and airport expansion opponents used the pledge placard at public meetings -- before and after the election of James Hahn -- to induce city officials to abide by the promise to keep a lid on airport growth.

Zane, who served two years as Santa Monica mayor, indicated the CEPS pledge and placard would be used similarly -- as “insurance” that those elected to the council fulfilled its tenets.

School Board Forum

Following the council forum, the four School Board candidates -- incumbents Maria Leon-Vazquez and Jose Escarce and challengers Ana Jara and Kathy Wisnicki -- faced a diminished audience which nevertheless posed numerous questions.

A chief issue for those in attendance was whether the candidates would move forward with a proposed strategic plan for special education, which some believe is being stalled by district administrators.

All the candidates said they were committed to implementing the plan, as long as staff members have the training required to address the individual needs of special education students.

“The superintendent is responsible for working with the staff and putting money in the budget” to pay for the services, said Leon-Vazquez, who is running for a second four-year term.

In response to a question about allegations of racial discrimination in the application of disciplinary policies, Jara said that she has “seen violations” and, if elected, “will start holding people accountable.”

As for a controversial “gift policy” requiring a percentage of all donations to schools to be distributed districtwide, Wisnicki, the only Malibu resident in the race, said she believes the resulting “equity fund can help close the [student] achievement gap.”

In answer to a question about how the district can attract and keep the best teachers, Escarce, who is running for a second term, said generous salaries and the attractiveness of teaching in Santa Monica have resulted in “no difficulty in attracting good teachers.”

Escarce added that the real problem in filling teaching posts is a national teacher shortage, especially in the areas of math and science.

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