School board approves $90K for consulting contract to begin strategic planning process

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Emergency parcel tax proposal to be presented to school board in early December.

By Jonathan Friedman / Special to The Malibu Times

The formation of a new strategic plan is about to begin for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, and school officials promise this version will include clear priorities that are financially feasible and would be a general improvement over the last strategic plan, approved in 2002.

The Board of Education at its meeting last week approved a $90,000 contract for strategic plan consultation services with Gensler, a San Francisco-based firm with offices throughout the world, including one in Santa Monica. Although known to many as an architecture and design firm, Gensler is involved in many industries, including strategic planning.

Gensler will work with district officials and a yet-to-be-formed strategic plan team to create a document by May that will set the goals of the school district for the next several years. The process will include interviews with various district stakeholders, two “community open houses” to collect input from the public and data gathering.

District Superintendent Tim Cuneo said the final product will have “very clear priorities that have costs associated with them.” He said the 2002 Strategic Plan was flawed.

“It was too general,” Cuneo said. “It wasn’t specific. It’s very hard to make decisions around. So we’ve learned from that. And we can use those things in order to go forward.”

The decision to hire Gensler was not met with unanimous enthusiasm. Board members Barry Snell and Ben Allen abstained from the vote. The other five members voted in favor of the contract. Snell said he was troubled that proposals from other firms were not presented to the board.

“We are in a time constraint, but I also feel that the board has been limited in its being able to make a decision on this contract without a broader selection process,” Snell said.

Snell’s view was shared by Financial Oversight Committee Chair Cynthia Torres, who spoke during public comment on behalf of the committee.

“We’re somewhat familiar with the firm’s experience in this area and we understand they have some relevant expertise to offer,” Torres said. “But it [the selection of Gensler] seems to have been decided with limited input from others.”

Board member Maria Leon-Vazquez said the selection of Gensler was made by the superintendent after receiving advice from board members on what kind of firm was desired.

“In our community we have so much involvement and everybody wants to have their hands on everything,” she said. “And sometimes we can’t have everybody’s hands in the making of the soup. We just can’t have it.”

Board member Jose Escarce said, “Based on what I heard about this particular firm … I’m very comfortable with this.”

Also at the meeting, Neil Carrey, who heads the committee determining the feasibility of another SMMUSD parcel tax measure, told the board a scientific poll would be taken during the weekend to get an idea of the public sentiment.

The committee will meet later this month to discuss the findings of the poll. It will then form a proposal regarding a tax, including an amount. This proposal will be presented to the board on Dec. 10.

The board formed a committee in August to explore the possibility of putting an “emergency/temporary parcel tax” on the ballot to help fill a projected eight-figure deficit. District residents are already paying $346 per parcel to the SMMUSD. Voters approved the measure for that tax, which has no expiration date, in 2008.