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The 55 Percent Solution

By Frank Gruber

My son Henry is about to finish the 8th Grade, his last year at John Adams Middle School, and in September he'll begin high school at SaMo.

It's one of those moments that engender reflection.

Let's get one thing straight. All you've been hearing about the decline of western civilization, etc., based on reports of our debased youth, has been overstated. Vastly. Based on the kids I've met through Henry, not only at school, but coaching sports, the next generation is better educated than back in my day and a whole lot more aware of the world.

This year for Language Arts Henry had one of the legendary teachers of the Santa Monica schools, Mrs. Jan LaDuke. Mrs. LaDuke posts "best work" on the walls for all to see, and last week when my wife and I were in her classroom for "open house," we got to read some of it.

One of Mrs. LaDuke's assignments was to write a paragraph about a place using as a template the well-known opening paragraphs from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, that begin, "Maycomb was a tired old town..." and end with, "Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself."

The students had the task of writing about a place, but imagining it in an evocative and metaphorical past while using Ms. Lee's style and structure, and ending with the "fear itself" quote. They also had to illustrate their work.

I was struck by the work of one student, Cynthia Alonso, not only for the writing, but also because Ms. Alonso chose to write about Santa Monica. I expect my readers will be charmed as well. Here it is:

Santa Monica Back Then

By Cynthia Alonso

Santa Monica was an old town, but it was a fun old town when I first moved to it. In cold weather the streets turned to foggy black; trees grew on large sidewalks; the roller coaster sagged at the pier. Somehow, it was hotter then: a frayed cat whined on a fall's day; chubby dogs ran to ice cold benches and seagulls hid in the beautiful shade of the palm trees on the pier. Men's tight collars loosened by twelve in the afternoon. Ladies washed before ten, after their twelve-o'clock soap opera, and by sundown were like soft marshmallows with frostings of perfume and sweet lip gloss.

Grandparents moved rapidly then. They jogged around the pier, pranced in and out of the arcade and stores around it, rushed through everything. An hour was sixty minutes long but seemed shorter. There was a great rush, for there were many places to go, lots to buy and enough to buy it with, many things to see outside the city of Santa Monica. But it was a time of great prosperity for most people: Santa Monica had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

I don't know Ms. Alonso, but I hope she keeps writing.

* * *

There is big news brewing in Santa Monica; big and exciting. I am referring to the proposal that staff at Santa Monica College have made for a $175 million bond issue to address unmet needs of the both college and the community. ("College to Consider $175 Million Local Facilities Bond," June 3, 2004 and "$175 Million Bond May Not Be Walk in Park," June 9, 2004)

Readers who want to understand this complex measure should begin by reading the SMC staff report. Aside from the details of the proposal, what is especially interesting is the historical account of how the College grew in cooperation with the City.

The College, which was originally a part of the School District, and the City shared many recreational facilities. They also to a great extent shared the same financial base, i.e., the local economy, because prior to Prop. 13, local governments and school districts used the property tax to fund capital projects and ongoing expenses.

But after Prop. 13, the state took over school funding. School districts and community colleges could not raise their own money. Cities, however, like Santa Monica, retained some control over their financial destiny because they still received "cash" benefits from the local economy by means of sales and other consumer taxes.

That's ultimately why we recently went through the controversy over municipal funding of the School District that resulted in the City of Santa Monica making a long-term commitment to the School District for operating funds.

Now, with the SMC proposal, the educational community, in the form of the College, can return the favor, and the City, the College and the School District can collaboratively operate facilities for everyone, at a cost of only a few dollars a month per resident.

The reason SMC can do this is that under Prop. 39, passed in 2000, schools need only 55 percent of the vote to pass bond issues, while cities need 66-2/3. The former is much easier number to achieve on Election Day than the latter. Not only that, but the state's Education Code contains provisions that encourage colleges to share facilities.

Most of the $175 million to be raised by the bond issue would go to acquire land or build facilities that will have at least dual uses. For instance, the College needs field space for its women's soccer program; the City, which is seriously under parked, needs field space for youth (and adult) soccer. The City might be able to buy Fisher Lumber and expand Memorial Park -- but where might the money come from?

The paradigm for this is the jointly used municipal pool located on College property.

$75 million of the bond would be used more or less directly by the College, and the other $100 million would be spent on joint projects in Santa Monica and Malibu, or with the School District, divided in substantially the same ratio as that between the assessed valuations of the two cities.

$175 million is a big number, and there is a lot of analysis to do. But one requirement of Prop. 39 is that bonds be voted on in general or primary elections in even numbered years. So if we are to make this work, this November's election will be our last chance until spring 2006.

* * *

I dedicated this column to Ray Charles, from whom I borrowed the column's name, bending it a little from "What'd I say." There isn't much to say about the passing of "Brother Ray," a/k/a "the Genius." Better just to listen.
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