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Santa Monica-Malibu Schools Budget Talks Get Heated
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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica


By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

July 11, 2016 -- With the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s (SMMUSD) fundraising arm failing to meet its collection goal this year, the School voted late last month to cover the nearly $200,000 gap so that an elementary school arts program wouldn’t be cut.

Some board members agreed to this plan reluctantly because they did not believe this actually solved the problem.

The board could have to face the same issue next year. Also, the SMMUSD is projected to need to address $4.5 million in possible additional cuts for the 2017-18 budget.

There was a 3-3 split on what to do among the six board members in attendance at the June 29 meeting.

With a move needing to be made, President Laurie Lieberman said she would “unhappily” support the back-fill option. Other hesitant board members fell in line to make the final decision unanimous.

Discussion continued on the matter and the related subject of how the board should approach its relationship with the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation (SMMEF) until Lieberman interrupted and asked that the conversation continue after the meeting.

“I really think we’re done with this item; you won,” said Lieberman to Board member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, who refused to support the arts program cut.

Not pleased with her word choice, he responded, “I don’t appreciate that. I won?”

Lieberman replied, “ I apologize for saying it that way. The motion passed. I think this is a very difficult problem and I don’t think certain people have acknowledged the full breadth of the problem. And I think that’s [Board member Maria Leon-Vazquez’] frustration, and I share that. That’s all.”

Tahvildaran-Jesswein said earlier in the discussion that the art program cut would be “wrong,” and that it was something he could not support. He said the district should instead focus on the future.

“I want to be optimistic that we are going to continue to raise money at SMMEF, there is going to be continual improvement in the the amount of money that is coming in,” he said.

Board member Oscar de la Torre said the district could give a cash matching challenge to the two city governments.

Lieberman was less optimistic.

“I don’t think we should [make ourselves believe] that we’re going to find this money somewhere else,” she said. “I don’t think we are going to find it somewhere else or we need to be more creative about where we’re going to find it.”

Board member Craig Foster said the board should approach the SMMEF differently by not telling it how much money it realistically can raise and asking its leaders “what can we do to make [the fundraising effort] more effective.”

Leon-Vazquez said that would only put the district back in the same place it is now.

“At the end of day we’re back-filling [money] into this,” she said. “For us to tell the SMMEF ‘give us a realistic goal,’ that would mean if they’re going to tell us $2 million and we still want $2.5 million, that means somewhere along the line, we’re going to have to cut something else for $500,000.”

This led to a further back and forth between the two board members, with Leon-Vazquez eventually ending the conversation by saying there was “no sense in beating a dead horse.”

She also said the SMMEF can only do so much, and that community members had to determine that they want to invest in the district and contribute to it.

Lieberman also talked about how a lower percentage of Malibu families gave compared to the percentage of Santa Monica families.

She had alleged recently that there was an apparent organized effort in Malibu not to support district fundraising (“Santa Monica School Board Member Says Malibu Parents Boycotting Education Foundation,” May 16, 2016).

“I don’t think Malibu is the only barrier to fundraising,” she said. “But if Malibu had given its pro-rata share, not even at its capacity to give, we would have this money.

"I just think there’s no getting around that," she added. "It’s a fact.”

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