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By Frank Gruber

December 5, 2011 --The Santa Monica Malibu School Board did what it had to do last week when it voted to centralize and equalize fund raising and expenditures for extra personnel and other educational programming in the district. (See story: Santa Monica Malibu School Board Approves Controversial Gift Policy, December 1, 2011.) It had to do this, it’s important to note, because of the praiseworthy success of P.T.A. parents in raising money for their children’s schools.

If these parents had limited themselves to the proverbial penny ante bake sales, then the issue would not have surfaced, as they wouldn’t have raised enough money to fund personnel and programs. Before anyone talks about the justice of sharing, or the injustice of not sharing, one needs to applaud these parents for stepping up when the State of California has let California children down.

Over the years I have often criticized the School Board, usually because they have often played merely a reactive role vis-à-vis the district’s administrators. In this case, however, the board did good. The board, starting in August, made this an issue that new superintendent Sandra Lyon had to deal with, but never, during the contentious process, pointed fingers at anyone. Ultimately the board members argued effectively, with considerable eloquence, for the logic of centralizing fund raising and expenditures.

In the eloquence department, while all the board members at last week’s meeting displayed some, I need to highlight the remarks -- a speech, really -- of Board Member Nimish Patel. It might have been the best political speech I’ve ever heard in Santa Monica. (Not that there are many examples -- mundane local issues don’t usually call for speechifying).

Mr. Patel, after explaining how he became involved in school politics through the P.T.A. at Franklin Elementary, raising money for the school with some of the very parents who were now opposing the centralized fund raising policy, and after stating emphatically that no parents should have to apologize for doing what’s best for their children, described how now, as a board member, he has seen the disparities in the district, and how much the children from poor families need help.

Then, as if to invoke FDR’s “nothing to fear but fear itself,” Mr. Patel addressed the fears that some parents had about change, reminding everyone that the talent in the community, including the talent that had raised so much for schools from Malibu and the wealthier neighborhoods of Santa Monica, was certainly enough to solve any problems the new policy might create, and to raise enough money in the district to equalize funding without reducing programs at any school.

Mr. Patel brought down the house.

Let’s hope he’s right about the talent and the community.

A lot of the discussion about the proposal, and opposition to it, focused on the timing of implementation of the program. Many parents argued that the proposal was rushed, and that the board should only be voting on a finalized plan, or that the Santa Monica Malibu Education Foundtion would not have enough time between now and the July 2013 start date to raise the necessary funds.

It’s true that the devil is always in the details, and that the details of this plan, to be worked out through the work of a new advisory committee, are going to be complex. But the board hasn’t enacted anything beyond setting a goal and a timeline. As Superintendent Sandra Lyon told the board last week, “nothing is going to change tomorrow; . . . nothing is going to change until that plan is laid out and we’ve come to the board, made presentations [and received approval].”

The remarks of all the board members, and Ms. Lyon, showed that those in charge understand the issues. In terms of the political culture of the day, however, it is worth noting that politically this has been a case, reflecting the national mood, where the rhetoric from the extremes of both sides has tended to define the argument, masking a lot of agreement on core issues.

On one hand, it was hard to take seriously testimony from some parents from wealthier neighborhoods who said that the issue was not their willingness or unwillingness to share, but rather the details of the plan and the process the board used to get to it, when at the same time they were predicting that if parents couldn’t give money to benefit only their own kids, they would enroll those kids in private schools, or, in the case of Malibu parents, secede from the district.

On the other hand, it’s insulting to gift-giving parents to call this disparity a civil rights issue, as some proponents of the plan have done (perhaps carelessly, or unintentionally). Parents donating money to their local schools are not standing at the door as the heirs of George Wallace. A lot of the emotion that came from the gift-giving parent side clearly arose from the hurt caused by having their generosity to and affection for their local public schools linked to injustice.

As for the idea that Malibu would secede, one has to look at the realities. It’s unlikely that the budget of the proposed district, which would have only about 2,000 students, would “pencil out” so that the County Office of Education would approve secession. Regardless of the enthusiasm Malibu parents have for their schools, voters in Malibu do not support the schools to the same extent that voters in Santa Monica do. Bond issues and parcel taxes that support the schools might not have passed if voted on only in Malibu.

Not to say that there is any profound reason for Santa Monica and Malibu to be in the same school district. In fact it’s crazy: more than 20 miles, and another school district, lie between the Santa Monica and Malibu high schools. I doubt many in Santa Monica care if Malibu is part of the district (even if Malibu property owners contribute somewhat larger percentages of property tax and parcel tax revenues than the percentage of district students who live in Malibu), but there’s not really an alternative.

Decades ago Malibu might have become part of the Los Angeles Unified District, or in an alternative universe Malibu might have been part of a larger, contiguous district carved out of mammoth L.A. Unified. But it’s unlikely, in any universe, that Malibu parents would want to join with L.A. Unified, nor is L.A. Unified likely to break up.

More than likely, Santa Monica and Malibu are hitched up (for) good. Let’s make the best of it.

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email 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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