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Frank Gruber

The Council and the District (Part 1)

By Frank Gruber

The question before the Santa Monica City Council in regards to increasing the City's payment to the School District is how deep the council wants to involve itself in the administration of the district.

The fact that children are involved, including children with learning disabilities, does not elevate this question "above politics." It's a question mired in politics.

To begin with, the reason the council is in this mess was political. A political organization, Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) used political pressure, in the form of a threatened voter initiative that would have taken City money and given it to the School District outside the council's control, to induce the council to commit to a greatly increased annual contribution to the District.

At the time, the political heat was so intense that one normally mild-mannered council member, Pam O'Connor, called the CEPS activists "bullies."

Now other activists -- including, ironically, some of the same people who in the past agitated for more money for the schools -- are using the leverage of the District's dependence on City money to pressure the council to demand changes to district policies they don't like. That's politics.

At the same time, some members of the council are using the threat of withholding discretionary funds from the District as an opportunity to score points with their constituents. That's politics, too.

All of government involves noble causes, noble as defined by at least the proponents of the cause. There are also always opportunities to take a stand for transparency in government and fiscal responsibility. But regardless how noble your cause is, or how virtuous you are, the bringing to bear of power to achieve your ends is political.

A reliable indication that an action is political is if the person taking the action solemnly pronounces that what he or she is doing is not political. Another good indication is when someone changes language to make it more emotional -- such as when Republicans call the estate tax the "death tax," or when someone calls a contractual confidentiality clause a "gag order."

There are people who are good at politics, in that they are good at marshaling power, and there are people who aren't so good. Our School Board has never been known as a powerful political body, but then, let's be honest, the politicians on it are amateurs. They are our neighbors, and they mean well, but in any case school boards in California don't have much power, since they have little control over revenues, and more ambitious local politicians tend to run for City Council.

Our School Board members often seem overly credulous when considering the advice they get from their staff. One example of that was including a confidentiality clause in the contract settling former Chief Financial Officer Winston Braham's contract after his resignation. This was not only the wrong thing to do -- yes, the public has the right to know! -- but also inept politically.

Friendly advice to the Board: I'm a lawyer myself and I suggest that the next time you're getting advice from a lawyer about a contract, remember that the boilerplate in a contract -- such as a confidentiality clause in a settlement agreement with an unhappy former employee -- exists less to protect the client from some unlikely bad thing that might occur than to protect the lawyer from a charge of malpractice if the event transpires.

So the right thing to do, if a clause in a contract is going to look stupid in the light of day, is thank the lawyer for the advice, assure the lawyer you've taken it into account, and then tell the lawyer to strike the provision.

When it comes to rectifying your original blunder, don't footsy around. You may know that your "no disparagement" clause only means Mr. Braham should not make false derogatory claims, but why quibble? Tell him to say whatever he wants to say -- and do it right away, not months later.

But there's another kind of bad politics, too. It's called grandstanding. My question to those council members who may still want to humiliate the School Board over Winston Braham -- you may control the money the Board wants, you may have the outrage, but are you being smart?

True, if the District were hiding its finances, that would be a legitimate reason to withhold funding. But that is not case.

Since last fall, when Mr. Braham and the Financial Oversight Committee expressed their reservations about the District's contract with the teachers' union and its impact on the budget, the District has taken many steps to make the budget transparent. Mr. Braham himself, as reported in The Lookout, has said that he has nothing new to say. (see story)

Friendly advice to the City Council: You've made your point. It's time to lay off the District about Winston Braham.

But it's tempting to nearly all politicians to play to the gallery by trashing government and the bureaucrats who operate it. Bureaucrats are easy targets, as they rarely publicly contradict elected officials, especially when they are asking for money. It's also easy to flatter the public over their perceived persecutions. Santa Monica politicians are particularly good at this -- think of the thundering over hedges, or, for that matter, the Council's knee-jerk reaction to try to solve every problem of every Santa Monican.

This attitude, however, ultimately makes it harder to govern. The School District is facing big structural financial problems over the next few years, because of declining enrollments (ultimately a result of the City's anti-development policies, but in the short run the result of the School Board acceding to the wishes of Santa Monica and Malibu residents by reducing the number of out-of-district permits), and the excessive bashing of the District by some council members will hurt the School Board's ability to solve these problems by, among other things, persuading voters to extend the parcel tax.

Government-bashing also begets more of the same, and that's what has happened in this case. Even if Bobby Shriver, the council member who has agitated the most for hearing Mr. Braham's testimony, suddenly decided that he was satisfied with the District's response on that issue, the District would still be in trouble with the council.

That's because some parents of special education children who object to how the District is operating its special education program have used the opening afforded by the Braham debacle to take their complaints to the Council.

But I'll get into that tomorrow, in Part 2 of this column.

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