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Measure ES “Desperately Needed” to Fund Improvements in Santa Monica and Malibu Schools

Frank Gruber for City Council





Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pico Business Improvement District
7th Annual Pico Festival
Sunday, October 28th

By Melonie Magruder
Staff Writer

October 31, 2012 -- With the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District facing a need for some $1 billion in improvements district-wide, and little help likely coming from Sacramento, SMMUSD has few options to augment funding.

The district can rely on private donations or the school board can place measures on the local ballot asking voters to approve either parcel taxes for operational needs or general obligation bonds for facilities needs. Measure ES satisfies the latter effort.

Measure ES on the November 6 ballot will authorize the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District to issue $385 million in bonds to be used solely for school facilities building and infrastructure improvement.

“We have huge needs to upgrade and improve our school campuses,” said Paul Silvern, a member of the District's Financial Oversight Committee. “ES is about improving the safety and expanding facilities for our students. It’s desperately needed. If ES doesn’t pass, those needs aren’t going away.”

While some voters might think that any district shortfall would be covered by the passage of either Proposition 30 or 38 (designed to raise funds for schools through small tax hikes), those ballot initiatives are only slated to fund operational costs for districts statewide.

“If (Proposition) 30 fails, it’s an automatic trigger for cuts to K through 12 across the state,” Silvern said. “Millions will be lost to SMMUSD if 30 loses.”

Not everyone is convinced Measure ES is right.

"Malibu would be paying in excess of 31 percent of this bond, as we have done on each prior bond," said school board candidates Craig Foster. "We will get back a fraction of what is spent, as we have done, in aggregate, on all prior bonds."

"Voters should know that the local schools have $10s of millions in unspent bond funds given by residents in recent elections," said Mathew Millen, past chair of the Santa Monica High School Bi-lingual Advisory Committee. "Further, prior to placing measure ES on the ballot the District made no assessment or needs list for this new money."

Still, district officials want to assure that there is at least funding for badly needed repairs to school facilities.

Though it seems like voters are asked every election cycle to pony up for a new school bond, Measure ES is actually part of the school district’s long-term facilities plan. Projects were identified several years ago through a district-wide assessment process. Measure BB, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2006, authorized $268 million in bonds to be issued to start off the improvement efforts.

Silvern helped steward Measure BB through budgeting, planning and construction phases. He also serves on the Citizens’ Advisory Committee tasked by the Board of Education in 2011 to focus on the district’s ongoing facilities needs.

According to the district’s financial oversight committee for Measure BB, bonds for all but about $80 million of the measure have been issued and funded the recent improvements in middle schools throughout the district. If passed, Measure ES is expected to focus on needed repairs for Santa Monica High School and Malibu High School, as well as elementary schools throughout the district.

Measure ES has been estimated to add about $185 to a property owner’s tax bill, but Silvern said the mechanics of arriving at that figure are somewhat complicated. The cost of the bonds will depend on the going interest rates at the time they are issued.

The best estimate of the highest tax rate required to fund the bonds, based on the assessed valuations available at the time of filing the Tax Rate Statement, is $30.00 per $100,000 of the taxable property within the District. Because the bonds will be issued over several years, property owner’s yearly tab will be gradually assessed.

“There is a lot of oversight on these bonds,” Silvern said. “For BB, the District has a full professional staff to focus on budgets and expenditures, it has a program manager (to make sure budgets don’t expand incorrectly), there are two oversight committees and a statutory requirement for an independent oversight committee to review all expenditures. Our money is being well spent.”

Silvern said that bond issues are not an unusual method to raise funds for school facilities and infrastructure. Nearly all school buildings in Santa Monica were built through bond issues and dozens of facilities bonds are being floated in districts throughout the state.

Ralph Mechur was the only school board member to vote against recommending Measure ES be put on the ballot. He says that, ultimately, he supports the measure and is on the steering committee.

“My only hesitation was whether this was the best time to present this measure to the voters,” Mechur said. “I would have preferred to wait till 2014. We have the Master Plan and there is still work left over from initial review in 2004 to 2006. I thought we should take the time to review the plans and make sure all the projects are still viable.”

Mechur said that more than 70 percent of ES’s funds will be spent on “hard construction costs,” with about $77 million slated for improvements at Malibu High School and $90 million allocated to elementary schools in Santa Monica. The remaining $200 million will be allocated in the next series of projects identified in the Master Plan. Mechur reiterated Silvern’s concern about impending cuts to education across the state if neither Proposition 30 nor 38 passes.

“If these ballot initiatives don’t pass, the school district will lose five million dollars,” Mechur said. “I’m hopeful that ES passes. It would be a strong message that our community takes seriously our school’s needs.”

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