Santa Monica school funding deal could prevent divisive election

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A group called CEPS has gathered enough signatures to put an item on the ballot that would guarantee $6 million of annual funding from Santa Monica to the school district. Malibu residents form local CEPS group.

By Jonathan Friedman/Staff Writer

and Leah Barta/Special to The Malibu Times

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and the city of Santa Monica are racing against the clock to complete a deal on city funding of the district. Santa Monica City Manager Susan McCarthy and SMMUSD Superintendent John Deasy have been negotiating for several weeks, and a proposal is expected to be ready to go before the SMMUSD Board of Education at its Thursday meeting. It is expected to be presented to the Santa Monica City Council at its meeting on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a group called Community for Excellent Public Schools, or CEPS, has gathered enough signatures to put an item on the November ballot that would amend the city charter to require the city of Santa Monica to give $6 million annually to the district with an increase if city revenues grow by at least 3.5 percent. CEPS will meet on Friday to determine whether it will turn in the petition. If it does, the election will take place regardless of any agreement that is approved between the district and the city.

SMMUSD money that comes from the cities of Malibu and Santa Monica goes directly into the district’s General Fund. Therefore, an increase in the amount of money Santa Monica gives would mean more for the Malibu schools. However, the SMMUSD Board of Education has already approved in concept a proposal for 15 percent of district donations to be placed into a fund, with that money being distributed to the schools based on a formula that gives more to those with economically disadvantaged students and other hardships. One of the elements of the proposal being debated is whether 15 percent of money from the cities would have to be put into the fund.

The CEPS proposal has created intense debate in Santa Monica since it was first proposed in January. Santa Monica city employees have lashed out against it, saying it threatens their jobs in a time when the city faces annual budget deficits for several years. City council members have also come out in opposition to it, calling it fiscally irresponsible to guarantee an amount of money that might not be available. Nevertheless, negotiations between the city and the district have led to an agreement on the $6 million annual contribution according to The Lookout, a Santa Monica news Web site.

CEPS member Rick Gates said the group would have to decide on Friday whether it likes the agreement. If it decides it does not, then it will pursue with the election. “It’s a matter of whether the city gets close enough to what we want, and how close is close enough,” Gates said.

Santa Monica City Councilmember Mike Feinstein has been a vocal opponent of the CEPS proposal. In March, he came to a school board meeting to propose various other options, including the city leasing vacant district land. Feinstein said an election would divide the community. In an e-mail sent to The Malibu Times Tuesday, Feinstein wrote that he still feels that way.

“A ballot measure that is unnecessarily divisive, economically unsound and likely illegal as well, can’t but help to create divisions,” Feinstein wrote.

A new group has formed in Malibu called Malibu CEPS that is working to increase city funding of the district and to raise community outreach for the schools. Co-chair Laura Rosenthal said the group has only met twice since forming in February, so it does not have a set list of goals. She said she expects the group to have one by the summer.

Rosenthal said she was pleased the city of Malibu increased the amount of money it gave to the school district this fiscal year to an all-time high of $380,000, and it also reached a landmark joint-use agreement with the district for the use of its sports facilities. But Rosenthal said more is possible.