Can school district do the math?


Hard on the heels of the discovery it will be even $1 million deeper in debt than it thought, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District was told to work out its budget problems by greater partnering with the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu.

As the cities are grappling with bailing out the district from the worst budget crisis in decades, District Superintendent Neil Schmidt announced last week that next year’s budget shortfall would be $2.5 million instead of $1.5 million calculated in January.

To make matters worse, the $1 million error arising out of projected attendance data had been discovered by a parent, not a district staffer.

“It’s a mess,” said Pepperdine University Professor Michael Jordan, a candidate for the district’s Board of Education. “This is the first time that Malibu will make a financial commitment to the school district, and the district has lost a measure of credibility. Parents, teachers, and the community are angry, and they are saying, ‘Form a partnership and start taking care of our kids.'”

Explaining the miscalculation, Schmidt said, “We are asked to make budget projections years in advance, and we are providing information on a monthly basis. Every time we communicate these changes, the public perceives that things are unstable. The budget is fluid, always changing. We still don’t know what we will get this year. There’s not much in school finance that’s ever final.”

Assistant Superintendent Art Cohen used a spreadsheet to show, with information received in the last 10 days, including new revenue, the budget shortfall at the worst would be $1.4 million. Part of the increased revenue is coming from the district lease of facilities at Big Rock and Malibu Canyon to Malibu, Cohen said.

Santa Monica council staff has been very understanding of the “financial challenges,” Schmidt noted, and there has been a discussion of accountability.

The board is considering bringing in the county Office of Education, the state School Services advisory group or the California School Board Association to review the board’s budget practices and enrollment projections. “We believe we should do that to show we are on the right track,” Schmidt said.

Reportedly, the Santa Monica City Council is considering funding an independent investigation.

The district is also considering creating a permanent budget advisory committee that would liaise between the community and district staff, Schmidt said. The current advisory Financial Task Force, created by Schmidt in September, has been meeting in closed session.

On hearing Financial Task Force Member Neil Carrey say the board should give the cities “a strong message” the board will do what the cities ask, Malibu Board Member Todd Hess said, “I have to think this is the opportunity for the agencies to come together.”

Jordan noted, “There will be significant and positive change. We will survive this financial crisis and, in the long term, the partnership will remain and help us all.”