Fundraising underway to mitigate $7.1 million school district cuts

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The district must collect enough money by mid-August to allow for laid-off staff members to come back for the 2010-2011 school year.

By Jonathan Friedman / Special to The Malibu Times

An ambitious 60-day fundraising campaign is underway in an effort to reverse some of the $7.1 million worth of cuts the Board of Education was forced to make earlier this month to the cash-strapped Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s budget. Because this campaign will likely only bring in one-time money for the 2010-11 school year, and therefore will do nothing to attack the SMMUSD’s structural deficit caused by a significant loss of state revenue, district officials are also looking into long-term, ongoing new revenue streams, including another parcel tax measure that could go before the voters as soon as November.

Those wishing to contribute to the fundraising campaign, which is headed by the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation with assistance from the PTA and other volunteers, will have choices as to where their money will go. The school board last Thursday approved three so-called funding buckets. One bucket will be dedicated to bringing back laid-off elementary school classroom teachers. The other two buckets will be designated for two programs apiece: one will be for bringing back counselors and secondary school classroom teachers, and the other will be for elementary school music and elementary school libraries. Money designated for any of those two will be divided evenly to benefit both programs in those buckets. Funds cannot be dedicated to specific schools.

Planning for the fundraising campaign began almost immediately after it appeared victory was not possible for Measure A, the $198-per-parcel tax proposal that would have generated an estimated $5.7 million per year. Education Foundation head Linda Gross told the board she had received a large number of phone calls and e-mails from people wanting to help, thus showing that there is “enthusiasm and desire to reinstate [programs affected by] these cuts.”

“This is a real opportunity,” Gross said. “We have reached now, with our partnership with the PTA and other community groups, to really involve more people than have ever been involved before. And frankly, fundraising is about relationships. It’s about who knows who and who you can talk to.”

The district must collect the money by mid-August to allow for laid-off staff members to come back for the 2010-2011 school year. For many in Malibu, the bucket containing counseling is an important one. Malibu High School lost two of its five counselors with the recent layoffs. This leaves one college counselor and one regular counselor for more than 700 high school students, with the third person dedicated to the middle school program.

“With only three counselors for all of Malibu High next year, I worry about my younger friends,” said Roya Sahafi, Malibu High School’s student representative on the board.

A concern coming from some Malibu residents who spoke to the board was that the school’s skilled college counselor, Ah Young Chi, was let go. Another counselor will move into the position. The person is trained to be a college counselor, but lacks experience.

Mike Matthews, SMMUSD’s assistant superintendent for human resources, noted that because of the seniority rules for layoffs, there was no way to protect somebody just because the person might have superior skills.

Matthews said a larger concern to him is the new counselor to student ratio at the school. Several board members said they might not have fully grasped the ramifications when they authorized the staff-recommended cut, and said the item should be revisited in August if it could not be brought back through fundraising.

Also during the meeting, the board heard from the district’s Financial Oversight Committee. FOC Chair Cynthia Torres said the district needs to develop a long- range strategic plan on fundraising. The FOC presented three topics, or charges, it said the SMMUSD should focus on during the next fiscal year. They include new revenue sources, developing a financial management plan for special education and analyzing financial practices in other districts that could be done in the SMMUSD. District staff will fine tune these charges and bring them back to the board for consideration at an upcoming meeting.

Details of how long-term fundraising would work and who would be charged with what tasks, including how much involvement should come from the FOC and whether the Education Foundation should head it, were discussed. That will be sorted out soon, but all officials agreed that “collaboration” was the best approach.

Also, the board voted for a tax measure feasibility committee to reconvene so that analysis of Measure A could be done and for a determination to be made whether another parcel tax measure is worthwhile. Board member Ben Allen said he supports putting a measure on the ballot, since Measure A received 64.25 percent support, close to the two-thirds support needed for passage.

“If we’d gotten 45 percent of the population voting ‘yes’ on this thing, we could kind of leave our tail hanging between our legs and just mope off into the sunset,” he said. “But we clearly have the strong support of a very strong majority of our community.”

If a measure were to go on the November general election ballot, it would need to be finalized by early August. If a tax were approved in November, money generated from it would not be available until the 2011-12 school year.

Allen and Board member Oscar de la Torre said the committee should get creative and look into alternative versions of a parcel tax measure, including one that is based on square footage rather than a flat amount for all property owners. Measure A opponents argued it was unfair that it would tax the same amount per property, regardless of size.

Last week, an Alameda Superior Court judge ruled that a 2008 voter-approved parcel tax that charged different amounts for commercial properties based on size in the Alameda Unified School District was legal. This was the first time a legal decision had been made on this kind of parcel tax. An attorney for one of the plaintiffs in two lawsuits against the district said he would appeal.

Allen, who is an attorney, said in an interview on Monday that he had heard about the decision, but had not yet read it. “I will be spending a good deal of time reviewing it,” he said. “It is certainly relevant.”