SMMUSD backs Santa Monica city tax proposal

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It is not guaranteed that funds from the tax, if approved by voters in November, would go toward the school district.

By Jonathan Friedman / The Malibu Times

At the recommendation of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s tax feasibility committee, the Board of Education last Wednesday voted not to consider a parcel tax election as a method to increase much needed district revenue. Rather, the board members got behind a half-cent city sales tax proposal approved one day earlier by the Santa Monica City Council for that city’s November ballot.

This measure will be coupled with a non-binding question asking voters whether they favor designating half the estimated $12 million in annual revenue generated by the tax toward the school district, benefitting schools in Santa Monica and Malibu.

Among the appealing aspects of the sales tax for SMMUSD officials is that it only requires approval from a simple majority. A parcel tax needs two-thirds voter support for passage. The recently defeated Measure A, a $198-per-parcel tax proposal that would have generated an annual $5.7 million for the district, failed to reach the two-thirds threshold but would have won in a landslide if it were a simple-majority election.

The Santa Monica City Council added the ballot feature of the non-binding question at the urging of education activists. Although the council members would have no obligation to give tax revenue to the SMMUSD, tax feasibility committee head Neil Carrey told the Board of Education last week that he is confident it would happen if the voters demand it. Carrey said he based this on “concerns expressed by the council members” and because Santa Monica’s recently hired city manager, Rod Gould, has a pro-education track record.

“There’s an enormous comfort level that if this passes and the advisory opinion passes, members of the City Council now and in the future will follow that opinion, and that will mean more money for the school district,” Carrey said.

A poll of 500 likely Santa Monica voters conducted by a city consultant showed that support for a half-cent sales tax was at 59 percent when people were not given additional information. This support rose to 64 percent when they were told of the city’s financial problems and potential uses for the money, including support for local education.

Malibu High School PTA president Wendy Sidley said in an interview this week she supports the board’s decision to get behind Santa Monica’s tax proposal.

“Malibu is once again lucking out with the City of Santa Monica helping out,” she said.

But Sidley said she hopes Malibu will step up and contribute to the district by giving cash and placing a sales tax measure on an upcoming ballot similar to the one proposed in Santa Monica.

“I think it’s time for the City [of Malibu] to definitely step up,” Sidley said.

Although Malibu has a $140,000 agreement with the SMMUSD for joint use of various Malibu facilities, the City of Malibu has not recently given a significant amount of money to the district. It has done so in the past, against the advice of City Attorney Christi Hogin, who has said doing this is not legal. Santa Monica is giving nearly $8 million this fiscal year to the SMMUSD as part of a contractual agreement for an annual contribution and Santa Monica has a joint-use facilities agreement with the district.

Malibu City Councilmember Laura Rosenthal said she would have to study the concept of a Malibu sales tax before deciding if that is a good idea. Rosenthal said she likes the decision by the board to back Santa Monica’s tax proposal, and noted that many Malibu residents shop in Santa Monica.

“Whatever we can do to raise money for the schools is really great,” she said. “This is an interesting and creative way to raise money for the schools.”

The sales tax proposal is not without an opposition. Although he voted to place the measure on the ballot so voters could make the final decision, Mayor Bobby Shriver said he did not support the tax. He said the city should cut spending to deal with its budget woes and that the school district should propose another parcel tax measure so it could be in control of the money and not have to depend on the council.

Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family and brother of California First Lady Maria Shriver, is a popular politician in Santa Monica and was the runaway top vote-getter both times he ran for council.

Others against the tax proposal include most of the usual opponents for school district parcel tax measures. They say it is regressive, a fact admitted on the dais by at least one council member who supports the measure, and that the city of Santa Monica does not need anymore money.