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School Board Hits Brick Wall On Financial Oversight Committee

By Teresa Rochester

It was a straightforward mandate from the City Council to the School Board: Establish a Financial Oversight Committee and receive a $2.1 million bail out grant.

But the Board of Education hit a brick wall Thursday night when it attempted to get the committee off the ground.

With only four members present, (Julia Brownley, Pam Brady and Margaret Quinones were absent) the board was unable to garner the unanimous votes necessary, when board member Dorothy Chapman attempted to add to the statement that the committee will operate openly and under the rules of the Brown Act and report directly to the Board of Education.

"Though I agree with the implied message, I think we need to make it very clear and explicit," Chapman said. "This is public perception we're talking about here. I'm not trying to be difficult or frivolous here. I really think for public perception and to rebuild trust with the public we need to be very clear about the intent of the Financial Oversight Committee."

Calling the wording redundant, fellow board members shot down Chapman's proposed addition, resulting in a parliamentary tug-o-war, five failed votes and the issue being tabled until the board's next meeting in the hopes more board members would be present.

"I'm happy to see (the Brown Act) is implied," said board member Brenda Gottfried. "The additional language seems to be redundant."

Gottfried suggested the statement about the Brown Act be moved to the comments section of the item, but Chapman wouldn't budge, insisting that it be spelled out in the wording of the recommendation.

After the meeting Gottfried said moving Chapman's amendment to the comments section was a compromise on her part. She added that Chapman's statements about public perception were overstated.

For some in the audience, Thursday's deliberations were oddly reminiscent of the Santa Monica City Council's unusual move two weeks ago to reject the $2.1 million bailout grant for the district and reconsider it the following week.

Deliberations between the five council members present stalled when members couldn't agree on who should mandate a financial oversight committee - the district or the council - and at what point the money should be released.

The council finally reached an agreement this week, mandating that when the board established a financial oversight committee the city would release the bailout grant. In its decision the council stated the committee would operate openly and under the state Brown Act.

Parent David Cole seemed dismayed at the board member's actions.

"That's how dedicated they are to not open the process," Cole said. "They are not willing to listen to the will of the people or the will of the City Council."

In a separate action, however, the Board of Education did approve the formation of a committee to study the renewal and possible increase of Santa Monica's and Malibu's parcel tax. If recommended by the committee and approved by the board, the parcel tax would appear on November's ballot. The tax generated $2.3 million last year for the beleaguered district.

The board also authorized the district to hire the consulting firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maulin & Associates, to the tune of $20,000, to conduct voter surveys about the tax.

Superintendent Neil Schmidt said that if the committee okays the idea of placing the tax renewal on the ballot, the committee would then have to organize a campaign committee to raise approximately $100,000 to get the word out to voters.

"This is a very important thing," said Board President Todd Hess. "It is long-term income, not a short-term fix. It's something we can count on for a long time."

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