High Irony Content By Frank Gruber

Given that the state and the economy are in crisis and both the City of Santa Monica and the School District have to deal with budgeting with less money, it's probably not perceptive of me to say that last week was a slow one for news in Santa Monica, but that's the way it felt.

Locally, the fiscal crisis is being managed.

Both the City and the School District are in comparatively good shape, the City because the economy of Santa Monica is so diversified, and the district because somehow it accumulated a reserve of $21 million.  This reserve will allow the district to avoid the wholesale lay-offs that are hitting other school districts as the result of the state's crisis.

How the district accumulated this reserve is something of a mystery.  I mean it's clear what happened -- for several years the district's administrators budgeted more than the district ultimately spent.  But no one I've talked to -- including School Board members, administrators, and members of the Financial Oversight Committee -- was willing to take credit for this farsightedness.  (Or, for that matter, to give credit to anyone else.)

The irony is that the district began accumulating the surplus three years ago when Winston Braham was Chief Financial Officer.  You remember Mr. Braham: he caused much chaos and consternation when he wouldn't sign off on the budget in the fall of 2006 because he feared the impact of the deal the School Board made with the teachers union for a 6 percent salary increase.

It turns out that while Mr. Braham was fretting so publicly about the budget, and the members of the Santa Monica City Council, among others, were eating up what he had to say, he was establishing a budget plan that created surpluses because it was so conservative. 

It also turned out that, as predicted by Harry Keiley, head of the teachers union (http://www.surfsantamonica.com/ ssm site/the lookout/columns/FrankGru ber/FG-2006/12 2006/12 11 2006 He Dont Get No Respect.htm], the contract wouldn't cost as much as predicted because of faculty turnover.

But giving Mr. Braham credit for the accumulated surplus can't be the whole story, since he left the district more than two years ago.  His boss at time, former Superintendent Dianne Talarico, resigned in 2008, and so she's not around to take credit for the surplus either.

Regardless whether the reserve is the result of conscious policy or serendipity, it's the big story this year when it comes to the School District's budget this year.

Unfortunately, a much smaller story about the district's budget is stirring all the passions, including, according to a memo that went out from the Samohi PTSA, "anger and confusion." 

Some parents at Santa Monica High School are incensed that in a budget-cutting move the district has reduced the number of "houses" at the high school from six to five, which has meant that the school will be losing an administrator -- the "principal" of one of the houses.  While some parents consider this an attack on the house system, the amount of anger and confusion has been increased because the house principal losing her position, Wendy Wax-Gellis, is a popular figure at the school.

I find the whole thing ironic, for several reasons.  (Irony is the dominant theme of this column.)

First, when the house system was instituted a few years ago, there was more parental skepticism about it than enthusiasm.  Now we find out that it's crucially important not only that there be houses, but also that there be six of them.

Second, my son graduated from Samohi last year.  He and his friends thought the house system was of little use for students, who typically take many courses and participate in activities that are outside the house system.  Speaking as a parent, it was flattering to get emails directly from the house principal about house events, but it's not as if I ever acted on them.

Third, one of the goals of many parents in the district has been to reduce the size of Samohi, which has been accomplished: the school has about one-sixth fewer students than it did when the house system was instituted.  Given this reduction in size, it's hardly surprising that it needs fewer administrators, and one way to accomplish that is to have one-sixth fewer houses.

Fourth, to my knowledge there has been no evidence that the house system has had any impact on educational achievement or on improving the academic performance of underprivileged children; and even if the house system is better, well, every student at Samohi will still be a member of a house of about the same size as before.


To me, the hysteria -- and I use that word advisedly, based on the emails that have been flying around -- is nothing so much as a reminder that parents have a hard time giving up the control they have over their children, which inevitably happens when the darn kids do things like go to high school, which means among other things that their parents can no longer chat up the elementary school teacher.

To compensate, some parents establish rapport with some administrators; they see it as personal betrayal when the district doesn't value that rapport ahead of, say, saving money to hire teachers.

Parental involvement in school politics is important, but parents should stay away from operations.  One reason is simply that parents tend to disagree with each other.  Much of the angst behind the current dispute results from the fact that some parents support Ms. Wax-Gellis while others support another administrator who kept her position.

I'm thinking the district should post signs outside of schools with language taken from commercials for cars: "Professional drivers, closed course."

Meeting notice:

Tomorrow evening the Planning and Community Development Department is hosting a workshop to discuss, as part of the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) update, the issue of conserving the character and scale of the City's residential neighborhoods, which the City has identified as the "highest priority" for LUCE.

Meeting details:
Tuesday, June 2, 6:30 p.m.
Santa Monica Main Public Library
601 Santa Monica Blvd.
For more information, go to: http://www.shapethefuture2025.net/

If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at mail@surfsantamonica.com . If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email frank@frankjgruber.net
The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.
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