School board approves privacy contract moratorium


The district will receive an additional $530,000 dollars in exchange for agreeing to place a moratorium on confidentiality agreements.

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education on Thursday followed the recommendation of its staff and voted to place an immediate moratorium on the signing of confidentiality agreements with parents of special education students. The temporary halt to the practice had been recommended by SMMUSD staff in response to last month’s demand by the Santa Monica City Council that the district do so if it wanted to receive a $530,000 increase this fiscal year to the city’s annual contribution.

Although the board accepted the staff recommendation in general, it did not choose to follow it completely. The staff had suggested a letter should be sent to the City Council accepting the Santa Monica officials’ demand, but with the inclusion of several “clarifications” on how the moratorium would function. During the board meeting, several parents and school activists said they felt the clarifications showed an untrusting attitude and included a possible loophole to avoid the moratorium. Also, the board members said they believed the letter, or at least portions of it, was not necessary, and that what needed to be done was to immediately accept the moratorium that was being demanded by the Santa Monica leaders and some members of the district community.

“Today, we have an opportunity to practice responsive leadership…” said board Vice President Oscar de la Torre. “We [should] take a position today on placing an immediate moratorium on these confidentiality clauses… The reporters that are here in the room, the parents and all the City Council members; they need to know that in good faith that this school board is responsive and that we will today place a moratorium.”

The three other board members in attendance at the meeting agreed with de la Torre. They also requested that SMMUSD Superintendent Dianne Talarico speak with the Santa Monica City manager about reconvening a subcommittee consisting of district and city officials that in 2004 created the agreement between the two entities establishing the city’s annual financial contribution program through at least 2009. The committee’s new purpose would be to discuss various issues regarding SMMUSD/Santa Monica relations. These include the details of an independent review of the district’s special education program, which is supposed to occur during the moratorium, and the City Council’s demand that the district never again contractually order the silence of an outgoing employee as it had with former Chief Financial Officer Winston Braham (the clause in the contract was eventually lifted due to City Council pressure and Braham spoke at last month’s council meeting).

Santa Monica Mayor Pro Tem Herb Katz, who has been one of the most vocal critics of the SMMUSD’s special education policy, said this week he “couldn’t be happier” with the school board’s action.

“They made the only decision they should have made,” Katz said in a Tuesday interview, adding that he hopes the moratorium eventually leads to a permanent end to the use of confidentiality agreements. “The practice in my opinion shouldn’t have started in the first place. If they really look into this, that practice should end. It’s not for the benefit of the public.”

Katz, along with a majority of the Santa Monica City Council, said at last month’s council meeting he was concerned about the confidentiality agreements because, he said, they created an element of fear for the parents. The council members heard testimony from several parents who talked about that fear at last month’s meeting. A few of the Santa Monica leaders said they had also heard similar comments from numerous other parents prior to that meeting.

Of the 1,500 special education students in the district, 88 are receiving increased special services, according to the SMMUSD. District officials have said inserting confidentiality clauses in the agreements between parents and the district regarding these special services are necessary because each education plan is different for each student. The secrecy prevents parents from trying to compare what their child is receiving to another when the comparison might not be valid.

The moratorium does not place an end to parents meeting with district officials to create what is called an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, for their child. But agreements coming out of those meetings cannot include confidentiality clauses.

Facility project list approved

Also, at last week’s meeting, the school board voted to issue the first series of Measure BB bonds. Voters approved the $268 million bond measure last year to pay for district facility improvements. The first series of bonds being issued will total no more than $60 million.

Additionally, the school board approved a list of potential projects estimated to cost $190 million for which the Measure BB funds will be used. The approval of the list starts the process for the planning and designing of the projects. Among the items is a $10 million district wide “technology integration” that calls for improvement to the SMMUSD’s computer, telephone and fire alarm systems. The list also states school-specific projects. The Malibu projects total $34.7 million (see sidebar for project list).

Meanwhile, the financially strapped school district is looking to make sure it will not be losing any future income. The board on Thursday voted to create a citizens committee that will study the feasibility of holding an election to renew the 2003 voter approved-Measure S parcel tax during the Feb. 5 Presidential Primary or in June. The $225-per-parcel tax, which expires in June 2009, generates approximately $6.5 million per year for the district.

The committee will determine the public’s enthusiasm for the tax’s renewal by creating and conducting a poll. It will report to the school board on its findings in October.

Lastly, the board also called for a special meeting this Thursday to interview the two candidates who applied to replace Emily Bloomfield on the board. Bloomfield left at the end of June because of her husband’s job transfer to Washington D.C. The candidates, Ralph Mechur and Nicole Piccard, will be interviewed on Thursday. The board will then vote on its choice at the Aug. 9 meeting.

Malibu School facility projects

Malibu High School

($27.5 million)

1. Reconstruct new library and administration offices

2. Reconstruct middle school wing into new two-story classroom building that includes three science labs

3. New parking area with emergency access to track and field facility

4. New drop-off and pick-up area

5. Construct synthetic turf athletic field for soccer and football

6. Construct two tennis courts

7. Enhance amphitheater

8. Install ventilation system in competition gym locker rooms

9. Remove three temporary classrooms and construct new high school commons

Juan Cabrillo Elementary

($3 million)

1. Remove temporary classrooms at front of school and construct four-classroom preschool facility and yard

2. Remove two temporary classrooms on playground

Point Dume Marine Science Elementary ($1.6 million)

1. Replace natural gas lines and furnaces

2. Construct two-classroom preschool facility and yard

Webster Elementary

($2.6 million)

1. Construct parking lot at front of school

2. Remove three temporary classrooms and construct new classroom building