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Frank Gruber

A Bigger Mess, Part 1

By Frank Gruber

Anyone hoping that what former schools CFO Winston Braham would tell the Santa Monica City Council about the School District's budget would clear the air and help resolve the council's relationship with the School Board has to be disappointed after last Tuesday night's meeting. (see story)

What was a mess has become a bigger mess.

Mr. Braham's testimony gave confidentiality and no-disparagement clauses a good name, as it ignited a conflagration of finger pointing between Mr. Braham and members of the School Board.

Wednesday evening, the night after the City Council meeting, at the end of a special School Board meeting Board Member Emily Bloomfield made an impassioned speech. (see story) She complained that at the Council meeting no one from the board had been offered the opportunity to respond to Mr. Braham, and denied three key allegations that Mr. Braham had made.

Ms. Bloomfield denied that the members of the board -- or at least Ms. Bloomfield herself -- had seen the now (in)famous AB 1200 report containing Mr. Braham's dissent before he sent it to the County, and she said that despite repeated requests, Mr. Braham had not furnished the board with analyses of the impact on the budget of different salary levels that might be agreed to with the teachers union.

Ms. Bloomfield also denied that Mr. Braham had made recommendations in regards to the settlement agreements that the District entered into with parents of special education students, as he had claimed.

After Ms. Bloomfield spoke, Board President Kathy Wisnicki thanked her for her "courage," and said she agreed with her recollections. She added that contrary to Mr. Braham's statement, he had been present at every closed session where special ed settlement agreements were discussed.

Board Member José Escarce then spoke and said he agreed with the facts as stated by Ms. Bloomfield and Ms. Wisnicki.

Now Mr. Braham has fired back with a letter to The Lookout reiterating his charges that the Board was aware of his doubts about the fiscal feasibility of the 2006 union contract and chose to ignore them.

However you look at it, the dispute does not reflect well on the board. For instance, with respect to the AB 1200 filing, either the board chose to ignore Mr. Braham's warnings, or the board was so out of touch, or had let its staff get so out of control, that the board missed one of the more important financial filings of the year.

After three weeks of criticizing members of the City Council for seeking to humiliate the School Board, it's time for me to admit that the board is fully capable of humiliating itself.

Not that Mr. Braham's testimony served much of a purpose beyond giving him a chance to justify his own actions, and the council members a chance to take more potshots at the School Board.

Council Member Bobby Shriver's leading questions to Winston Braham, for instance, were comically interminable, especially the one where he tried to get Mr. Braham to agree that the District had fired him. Mr. Braham would have none of that -- he made it plain to Mr. Shriver that he "was the first to say goodbye."

Okay, it was kind of like a show trial, but if Ms. Bloomfield didn't like what Mr. Braham had said, she could have submitted a chit and I'm sure the council would have been pleased to hear from her. That might have taken "courage." What Ms. Wisnicki called courage Wednesday night, when Ms. Bloomfield made her statement on her home turf, instead came across as self-pity.

It was Ms. Wisnicki, along with Superintendent Diane Talarico, who presented the Board's case to the council, and she had all the time in the world to challenge Mr. Braham's allegations. But instead of being assertive, Ms. Wisnicki came across as already humiliated.

Call me a middle-aged parent, but if you want to make a statement that influences people, you've got to stand up straight and look people in the eye. Ms. Wisnicki not only didn't address the issues, beyond saying that the board "remained committed" to one platitude or another, but she rarely looked up to engage the council directly. And, honestly, it's hard to engage people eye-to-eye if your hair is falling down over half your face.

The District's specific response to the even more volatile aspect of the schools funding controversy, the District's policy of including confidentiality clauses in special ed settlement agreements, was embarrassingly lame. The District gave the council a package of financial data showing how much more the District spends on special education than other districts, but the numbers were so ineffective that no one on the council bothered to mention them.

As for defending the confidentiality clauses, the District left that to a letter from their lawyers. Those lawyer letters always help.

The board doesn't understand the "theatrical" aspect of politics, while its opponents do. The special ed parents who are angry about how the District has treated them have done an effective job of painting the District as "bad," notwithstanding the generous funding (at least compared to other districts) it has provided over the years for special ed, and an even better job painting Deputy Superintendent Tim Walker, who brought the confidentiality policy to the District two years ago, as the "bad guy." The District has inexplicably let this "narrative" go unchallenged.

The District should have made Mr. Walker available for the Council to question; otherwise, by keeping him under wraps, the District gives the appearance of accepting the role of "bad district."

Mr. Walker is the only person -- the only flesh and blood civil servant -- who could have explained to the council why the policy exists, and he's the only one who could have effectively explained to the council that he was capable of reevaluating the policy in the light of the council's concerns.

But that's not what happened. The board never understood the role that emotion plays at a City Council meeting -- perhaps the Board Members don't watch enough of them. Neither the board nor the District staff gave the Council Members who supported the Board's independence -- Richard Bloom, Ken Genser and Pam O'Connor -- any arguments to make in favor of that independence, other than the principle itself.

So now we are in a bigger mess because if the Board/Braham dispute is a conflagration, the council threw gasoline on the fire when it passed a motion by Council Member Bob Holbrook, supported by Herb Katz and Bobby Shriver and reluctantly by Ken Genser, that requires the District to immediately stop including confidentiality clauses in special ed settlement agreements.

But I'll discuss the ramifications of that tomorrow, in A Bigger Mess, Part 2.

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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