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By Frank Gruber

March 8, 2010 -- It seems forever since I've written a column about anything other than land-use and its alter ego in Santa Monica, politics.  Occasionally I need to stick my head outside the obsession-with-development bubble and look around and see what else is going on.

One thing that is going on is California's budget crisis and the impact on local schools. The news that the School District is planning for layoffs -- layoffs that might eliminate the elementary school music program -- is not good.

On the other hand, the news from the schools themselves is good. Everyone at Santa Monica High School has been excited this past week with both the girls and boys basketball teams playing for championships.  (The girls won their CIF division title game Thursday while the boys lost theirs Saturday, but both teams are going to the state finals.)

And a 1985 Samohi graduate, Marine Lieut. Col. and astronaut Randy Bresnick, came back to the school last Friday to tell current students about what it's like to circle the earth.

The music program keeps rolling along.  Tonight there will be a free concert to celebrate the restoration of the Wurlitzer organ in Barnum Hall that will feature both professional and student organists and the Samohi Wind Ensemble; the program will include a Laurel and Hardy short to be shown with organ accompaniment.

The Samohi orchestra is doing its usual -- returning to Walt Disney Concert Hall to participate in a community concert on March 13 and then giving its first concert in New York City in April.  As a fundraiser, the orchestra is hosting an evening next Thurs., March 18, with Walt Disney Hall architect Frank Gehry and cellist Lynn Harrell. (For more details about the orchestra events and for ticket information go to

So, okay, this column is not usually a community events calendar, but the big issue in Santa Monica this spring be the parcel tax vote coming up in May.  Hard to believe, but our schools having enough money is more important than the balance between commercial and residential development.

Let's put it this way:  if there were to be no music program in elementary schools, the only students in the high school programs -- or certainly in the higher levels of those programs -- would be children whose parents had enough money and foresight to pay for private lessons for them before they entered middle school.  There is a correlation between music training and success in school, and this would exacerbate the achievement gap in our schools.

The vote on the parcel tax will be by mail, there will probably be a low turnout, and the question will be who is more motivated: the schools' supporters or their perennial opposition (see Group Forms to Oppose District Tax), who in the past I've called "right-wing nihilists".

Economic times are tough and it's always hard for the school's supporters to obtain the two-thirds vote needed to enact a parcel tax. The only time in recent years when the Santa Monica/Malibu electorate failed to enact a parcel tax was in 2002 when the country was also in a recession and -- for different reasons than now -- there was a turn to the Right in the political zeitgeist.

I hope -- in fact I trust -- that local voters will realize that the current financial crisis affecting schools has absolutely nothing to do with management of our local schools. No institutions are perfect, but whatever complaints anyone has about how our district operates, any fair-minded person must acknowledge that the crisis is the result of (a) the economy and (b) the gridlock in Sacramento.

I call the opposition right-wing nihilists because their opposition doesn't appear motivated by anything recognizable as traditional conservatism.  They just don't want to pay taxes, although they hide that behind a lot of bogus populist rhetoric.


I'm a liberal, but I acknowledge a constructive role conservatism has played at times in American political life.  Conservatism did not always entail a mindless opposition to taxes and government.  When I think of traditional conservatives, I think of a focus on local institutions, especially local school systems.  There are no jurisdictions in American that pay higher school taxes than the traditionally conservative suburbs of East Coast and Midwestern cities.

Here we have an acclaimed local school system that's been a pillar of this city for more than a century.  What could be more conservative than that?  Yet our "conservatives" oppose a tax that is necessary to (barely) keep it going.  How radical; how nihilistic.

* * *

Another local institution that is suffering because of the economy is the Pier concert series, which last summer celebrated, gloriously, its 25th anniversary but is now facing oblivion because of an 80 percent drop in corporate sponsorship income since 2008.

Tomorrow night at its meeting the Santa Monica City Council will consider allocate $35,000 as a challenge grant to encourage donations to keep the concert series going at at least a reduced schedule of seven instead of the regular 10 concerts.  But to get that money, and to keep the series going, the Pier has only two weeks to raise $57,000.

To donate, go to

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In the music good news department, a few years ago Santa Monica had few classical music concerts, but that has changed.  A lot of the programming at the Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center is classical, and there is also the Jacaranda chamber music series of concerts at the First Presbyterian Church on Second Street.

This Saturday night's Jacaranda program should be especially interesting.  It will feature music from composers whose music to a great extent was lost in the mid-20th century because of Hitler banning it and then persecuting the composers.  James Conlin, the conductor at the L.A. Opera has also been working to rediscover this music with the opera's "Recovered Voices" program, but here is an opportunity to hear work by two of these composers, Franz Schreker and Pavel Haas, along with the better known Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Korngold in a more intimate, and local, setting.

For more information, go to:

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In the general good news department, the weather cleared on Sunday and here's a picture from the beach.

Santa Monica Beach
Photo by Frank Gruber

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on

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