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Frank Gruber

It's Time to Take the Pledge

By Frank Gruber

The dedication last Friday afternoon of the new affordable apartments Community Corp. of Santa Monica built at Main & Pacific was a sweet occasion. This was a project that took far too long to build, delayed as it was by all the meetings it took to placate -- or, inevitably, not to placate -- the objections of a group of neighbors.

It was more than four years ago that I wrote about the project Tumbleweeds_or_
(April 21, 2003,) and by then CCSM had already been meeting with neighbors for almost two years.

There's always a lot of talk in Santa Monica about historical preservation, but more than old buildings, what's at risk here is the loss of working class families. For most of its history Santa Monica was a blue-collar town. Workers first lived in little wood frame cottages. Wages went up as the region's prosperity increased, and workers could buy modest, but more solid houses like you still see in Sunset Park. Later on, workers lived in apartments, after all the single-family lots were occupied.

In those days, the market took care of worker housing, although much of it was cheaply built to standards we would not accept today. Now because of the cost of land and their higher cost of better construction, the only way to build housing affordable to lower-income people near the many low-wage jobs that Santa Monica still has is to subsidize it.

This phenomenon of needing to subsidize housing is one that is pervasive throughout the developed world, regardless of political or economic system.

CCSM Executive Director Joan Ling speaks at the Main & Pacific dedication, as CCSM Board Chair Patricia Hoffman looks on.

One of the neighbors who opposed Main & Pacific was Renée Montagne, the well-known co-host of NPR's Morning Edition. Actually, I'm not sure how much of the development she opposed, because although it seemed to me from public comments that she opposed the whole thing, she told me herself that she only wanted it reduced in size by one story.

In any case, a few months ago I attended a screening at Santa Monica College of "90404 Changing," a movie that is part documentary and drama about change in the Pico Neighborhood and displacement of old time residents by both convulsive events like the building of the freeway and incremental events like gentrifiers moving in.

After the movie -- which, by the way, presented nuanced views from residents about change in their neighborhood and what caused it -- there was a Q & A with the filmmakers moderated by Ms. Montagne.

Inevitably, the discussion descended to blaming "the City" for any change that anyone didn't like, regardless of the larger social forces involved. I walked out when Ms. Montagne stepped out of her moderator's role and cited Main & Pacific as an instance where the City had pushed development into a neighborhood that the residents didn't want, equating it to change in Pico.

I only bring this up because it's such a good example of how people use progressive rhetoric against progressive change, both as a sword to protect their private interests and as shield of rationalization to delude themselves about their own motives.

The radical change that took place in Ocean Park happened quietly, as well-off people such as Ms. Montagne or me and my family moved into the neighborhood and caused real estate to soar in value.

The City's support for CCSM, and CCSM's building of developments like Main & Pacific, is change only in the relatively trivial sense that in a developed area there is now a building in which 44 families can live.

Main & Pacific is preservation in the more important sense that it helps retain Santa Monica's working class character.

* * *

Joan Ling, executive director of CCSM, told me that about 80 children are living at Main & Pacific.

I'm glad to see that someone is doing something positive about the School District's finances. The District faces a looming, structural financial crisis because of declining enrollments, and those 80 children will counterbalance the trend a little bit.

Main & Pacific children play foosball in the community room.

At the moment I am scared to death about the District's finances. The reason is that both of the District's parcel taxes need to be renewed soon, and I fear that renewal will fail at the ballot box in a perfect storm of disgruntlement. (The Board is about to make decisions about the renewals and will hear a report from its "Parcel Tax Renewal Feasibility Committee" at a special meeting this Thursday evening at six 10-17-07-SMMUSD-Board-Meeting.)

Ever since last spring, when parents of special education students persuaded the Santa Monica City Council to condition the City's grant of half a million dollars on the District's making changes to its special education policies, the District has been a punching bag. What I am hearing are grumblings from many people, representing various interests, that they are so angry at the District -- either the Board of Education, the staff, or both -- that they will oppose or not actively support parcel tax renewal.

Who is unhappy with the District? Let's start with the special education parents. A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of the Special Education District Advisory Committee, where the DAC members were formulating comments to the District's proposal for hiring consultants to review its special education policies. The DAC members had a number of legitimate gripes about the initial draft of the document, and ultimately persuaded the Board to revise it.

But what frightened me was the tone I heard in conversation, a tone that I've heard since then in talking to other special education proponents. There is so much anger, that they are saying that if they don't get the changes they want, they will oppose the parcel tax renewal.

Then we have the controversy over capital expenditures under Prop. BB, which first looked like it would have the effect of alienating supporters of Santa Monica High School, and now looks like it will have the effect of alienating Malibu residents.

What a mess this is. I haven't figured out how a process of divvying up such a large amount of money could go on so long, only to be repudiated by the committee overseeing the process. (see story, October 16 2007 Committee Recommends More Funding)

Apparently Malibu parents believed that BB money would be divided up based on where the money comes from. Since Malibu has higher property values per student in the district that would mean that Malibu schools would get higher expenditures per student.

As a former member of the Prop. X Oversight Committee, I can confirm that that was the understanding with Prop. X. However, from what I can tell, that doesn't appear to have been part of the deal on BB, which (a) is for a lot more money, and (b) comes after many of the Malibu needs associated with opening the new high school were met with money from the previous bonds.

Somewhere between the board and the staff there was a catastrophic failure of leadership in not resolving such a fundamental issue before the process of allocating money began.

Now the District faces a revolt from unhappy Malibuans, who may not be mollified by the fact that Santa Monicans, by way of the City's donation to the schools, make a large donation each year to the schools that Malibu does not match.

Finally, I have heard from one Santa Monica parent, and I am sure there are others, upset with the parcel tax itself, because the tax is not based on the value of property. Her complaint is that the owner of a bungalow in Santa Monica pays the same as the owner of a mansion in Malibu (or north of Montana).

What everyone seems to agree on is that they love our schools and the people who work in them. What everyone must realize is that the lifeblood of those schools is the extra money the District receives from the parcel tax (as well as from the City of Santa Monica).

Without this money, it doesn't matter how much the District spends on capital improvements at any campus -- without money for maintenance, the new facilities will soon be degraded.

Without parcel tax money, the District will go broke trying to balance the needs of "regular" and special education.

Yes, the current crises were caused by failures at the top -- with both a board and a staff that cannot lead or have not led because they have tin ears when they listen to the public and squeaky little voices when they speak to it. But this is no time for blame.

This is what I propose. Anyone who wants anything from the District needs to take a pledge. Before saying anything about what you want, you need to pledge to support parcel tax renewal. Enthusiastically.

I know that I'm not going to value anything that anyone says about the District unless they're willing to take that pledge, because otherwise they have lost touch with reality.

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