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Frank Gruber

People Who Govern in Glass Houses Shouldn't Throw Stones

By Frank Gruber

Because I was in New York I missed Thursday night's City Council meeting where the controversial topic was whether to increase the City's funding of the School District. (see story)

I was in New York because the great musical machine known as the Santa Monica High School Wind Ensemble, of which my son Henry is a saxophone-playing cog, was performing in Carnegie Hall. That's not the kind of event doting parents can miss.

Given that this will probably be the only time Henry will have the opportunity to perform on the renowned Carnegie Hall stage, and given that he had the opportunity because of the brilliance of the District's music programs at John Adams Middle School and Samohi, you can imagine where I come down on the dispute over school funding.

Give the schools the money.

But not only my parochial interests lead me to this conclusion. The council members who most oppose granting the additional money -- Bobby Shriver and Herb Katz -- seem to be pushing political points more than good policies.

Council member Shriver is annoyed with the confidentiality clause the District included in its settlement agreement with former CFO Winston Braham. While the District was wrong in the first place to require the broad confidentiality clause in the settlement, the District has resolved that issue by releasing Mr. Braham from the obligation in a manner any reasonable person would find satisfactory.

Indeed, Mr. Braham's persnicketiness in parsing the language of his release from the confidentiality clause, as reported in The Lookout, has made me wonder whether Mr. Braham was the forthright and reasonable bean counter he had the reputation of being.

Council Member Katz objected to increasing the contribution to the District because of his annoyance with the confidentiality clauses the District includes in agreements with the parents of special needs children for their educational programs. But this is micromanaging. Special needs funding has become the great minefield of education finance, and the City Council would be well-advised not to bumble onto it.

Paul Silvern, who, as Chair of the District's Oversight Committee, has not been shy when it comes to reviewing the District's finances, was certainly correct when he pointed out at the Council meeting that the District's finances are not only more transparent than the City's, but also subject to many more layers of review.

As one who has reviewed, or tried to review, the City's budgets over the years, I can attest that they are monuments to confusion -- each year expenses shift from one category to another, making them hard to track; it's hard to separate capital costs from operating expenses, especially when it comes to the City's various funds, and it's hard to determine what money has been authorized and what has been spent, or which employees are merely budgeted for and which have actually been hired.

As for accountability, let's not forget those years early in the decade when the Council drastically increased operating expenses and staffing, without any regard to what might happen to the City's pension plan obligations if the stock market dropped. Which it did, like a stone, and City had a financial crisis beyond anything the School District has suffered.

And as for confidentiality agreements in settlement agreements -- what about all the litigation and real estate deals and personnel matters the City Council resolves in closed session?

The difference is that the City doesn't get its money from the state, and the City Council is not responsible to a higher level of government. Judging from bond issues and such, the schools are the most popular governmental institutions in Santa Monica. If we the people could, we would give our school board at least the powers to tax or levy fees that the City Council has.

Then the District wouldn't have to beg.

* * *

Since I've recently come to know and appreciate Santa Monica's Woodlawn Cemetery, and since I've previously written about Ricardo Crocker, the Santa Monica police officer and Major in the Marines who was killed in Iraq, I made a point yesterday to attend the Memorial Day Observance at the cemetery.

Part of this year's ceremony was to be a commemoration of Major Crocker's life, and his mother and sister received tributes from Assembly Member Julia Brownley, Mayor Richard Bloom, Council members Robert Holbrook and Kevin McKeown and representatives of the Police Department.

Yesterday's was Santa Monica's 69th annual Memorial Day Observance, but it was the first one I've attended. I doubt I ever paid attention to the ceremony. It is a manifestation of a Santa Monica that existed prior to my moving here -- a city of service clubs, like the Elks who were the primary organizers of the event -- and a manifestation of an era when more of us were veterans.

Most of the residents laying down flowers in front of the memorial to the fallen were gray -- greyer than me -- and many were stooped, but the keynote speaker, First Lieutenant Colin Browning, of the Marines, was only four years out of Annapolis. The memories he invoked were quite recent and specific -- his memories of four noncommissioned officers in his platoon who died in Falluja.

It looks like families will be remembering their dead, and we will be paying tribute to them, for at least another 69 Memorial Days.

A combined choir from John Adams and Lincoln Middle Schools sings at the Memorial Day Observance. (Photo by Frank Gruber)

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