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Council Okays Money, District Avert Cuts

By Teresa Rochester

Briefly quibbling over semantics, the Santa Monica City Council Tuesday night voted unanimously to grant $2.1 million to the school district in time to avert painful program and staffing cuts for the 2000-2001 school year.

The bailout comes one day after the Malibu City Council voted unanimously to give the beleaguered district a one-time, unconditional grant of $150,000.

Tuesday's vote was delayed one week, after the council failed to garner the necessary five votes to change the city's budget. Councilman Paul Rosenstein -- who last week balked at the idea of handing over the money without requiring the district to establish a financial oversight committee and conduct an independent analysis -- forwarded a successful compromise deal, resulting in a 5 to 0 vote to approve the grant. (Mayor Ken Genser is in the hospital and Councilman Kevin McKeown cannot cast a vote because he is under contract with the district.)

The decision calls for the district to receive the money when it notifies the council that it plans to establish an independent financial oversight committee. The committee will be provided with support staff and will operate openly, conducting an independent review of the District's budget and enrollment projections and forecasting practices.

"This is good news for the community," Rosenstein said. "I think we all know parents and children and employees of the district have been concerned about this. Tonight's decision will enable that anxiety to be put to rest. That's good news for the community. The other good news is that the community will be part of that. What we're doing here is a short-term solution to the problem to get the school district through the end of the year."

The idea of an oversight committee was broached at Thursday's School Board meeting by Superintendent Neil Schmidt, who pushed for its creation after the council failed to agree on conditions. The superintendent also has contacted three agencies about conducting an independent analysis of the budget and enrollment forecasting, which has resulted in three multi-million shortfalls in 18 months.

While Tuesday's meeting lacked the high drama of last week's council vote, there was a momentary snag when council members failed to agree on the definition of the word "conditioned."

Rosenstein's original motion stated that, "The release of the grant is conditioned on the District publicly notifying the City Council by letter of its plan…"

Santa Monicans for Renter's Rights-backed council members, however, took issue with the word "condition," saying the district has already acknowledged its plans and is moving forward.

"That little word 'conditional' is an extremely important word to me and I'm sure other council members," Councilman Richard Bloom said.

Councilman Mike Feinstein pointed out that while the city is now in a stronger financial position then the school district, the tables may turn if Proposition 26 passes Tuesday. The proposition calls for school-related bond measures to be passed with a simple majority vote, as opposed to the two-thirds majority now needed to pass such measures.

"The school district is going to have the upper hand if we want to build new things for kids," Feinstein said. "What comes around goes around. This model sets us up for a nice friendly tone."

The discussion led to a change in the wording in Rosentein's motion, which in the end stated that, "The grant will be released when the district publicly notifies the city…"

The language was pitched to the council by City Attorney Marsha Moutrie and suggested by Schmidt. In the end it appeased the council, including Rosenstein.

Following the vote, Schmidt said the board will to begin determining criteria for the members of the financial oversight committee at its meeting Thursday.

While Santa Monica's council ultimately tacked, however loosely, some strings to its $2.1 million grant, the Malibu City Council, Monday night, handed over $150,000 without any mandates. City Staff had presented the council with 16 potential conditions, which ranged from spending all the money on Malibu schools, to retaining all programs and positions.

Malibu Mayor Carolyn Van Horn said the council decided not to attach any conditions because it wanted to ensure that all programs in the district remained the same.

"We were trying to be cooperative and solve problems," Van Horn said after the meeting. "We have quality education, and it's just not acceptable to cut those programs."

Schmidt will meet Wednesday afternoon with Malibu city officials to discuss how the district and city can resolve the issues facing the district.

Following Santa Monica's council meeting, parent Phil Brock, who heads the district's sports and physical fitness advisory committee, said he was not surprised by the vote. But he expressed concern about the vote signaling true change in the district.

"This district does not have a clear vision of what needs to be done, Brock said. "The ability needs to be there to avoid crisis… If a financial advisory committee really has teeth and the Board of Education really understands what it's doing, then you can see changes."

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