Parents strongly against ‘equity fund’ proposal by school board

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Even though the idea of equally distributing gifts or their cash equivalent throughout the school district has not been formally discussed or approved, parents are ranting against the legality of the proposal.

By Carolanne Sudderth/Special to The Malibu Times

Despite the fact the item was not on the agenda, nearly a dozen parents turned out Thursday night specifically to address the equity fund issue at the Santa Monica-Malibu School District board meeting. A good 90 percent were Malibu residents and a good two-thirds of them were staunchly against the proposal – despite the fact it has yet to be formally addressed.

Last month, SMMUSD Superintendent John Deasy suggested leveling the district’s demographic playing field by mandating that 15 percent of gifts to local schools, or their cash value equivalent, be put into what he called an “equity fund” to be managed by an outside agency and divided based on a formula weighted toward schools where students needed the most help.

The policy will not appear on the board’s agenda until January 2004. Nevertheless, parents have voiced outrage and/or enthusiasm at every meeting since the proposal appeared on the district’s Web site.

Those speaking against the equity fund questioned not only the legality, but also the likelihood of such a policy discouraging gift giving.

The board of the Webster PTA has taken a united stand against the proposal. “If the district exercises its rights to refuse gifts, then donors will exercise their rights to give elsewhere,” Webster PTA President Sandy Thacker said. “The [Education Code] states that parents have the right to volunteer their time and resources to aid children.”

Others suggested that, although the end was justified, the means were being forced upon them. Jerry Churchill, a Point Dume parent, objected to the absence of the word “voluntary” and the district’s “sense of entitlement.”

“You will find no better way to eliminate or greatly reduce these donations than to attempt to force parents to give to schools other than their own,” Churchill said. “Is attempting to do something for my own child violating the civil rights of another child in the district? That, sir, is ridiculous.”

As a trial attorney, Cabrillo parent Lucia Nordstrom objected not only to the legality of the “tax” but to an alleged “gag order” from the district office to the PTA president and principal of her school asking they “muzzle” their parents.

“As far as I’m concerned, the First Amendment is still in effect,” she said. “Please, this is an open forum, and we need to be free to discuss and agree to disagree that we can meet in the middle.”

Deasy refuted Nordstrom’s claim. He asked that a representative from the school comment on the statement, but no one came forward.

After the meeting, Juan Cabrillo Elementary School Principal Pat Cairns denied that anyone had tried to “gag” her or the PTA. “And anyone who knows me knows that no one could ever put a muzzle on me,” Cairns said. “Anyone who knows me knows that I always speak my mind – but absolutely no one called to say that I shouldn’t speak.”

Malibu resident Kathy Wisnicki cited the fact that although Malibu test scores tend to be higher, Santa Monica tends to contribute far more money to the district than does the City of Malibu.

“I’ve seen the work that the citizens of Santa Monica do to encourage their city council to give generously to our district,” Wisnicki said. “I think that to some degree, we have had our heads in the sand, and this will allow us to open our eyes.”

Point Dume Board member Kim Froelich also said she was thrilled. “After the fear and the anger and the ‘you-can’t-make-us’ kind of tenor left, then what a lot of people said is, we want equity. We want to do this.

“If we can get past the rhetoric and the true issue of institutional greed and kind of meet in the middle, then we will put our efforts towards equity in the whole district.”

But, she cautioned, the district will need to reach out to Malibu. The school board lost its only Malibu member when Pam Brady retired.

“Without members and the superintendent coming out to Malibu and offering it as a community, I just see people digging in their heels,” Froelich said.

Board member Julia Brownley told the group the board was also “muzzled” – in this case, by the Brown Act, which prohibits discussion of any matter by the board until the item is agendized. It is expected appear on that document in January.