Parents protest distribution of school donations

John Deasy

Superintendent proposes an “Equity Fund,” where all donations, private or otherwise, would be deposited and then distributed to lesser performing schools based on a “weighted” formula.

By Carolanne Sudderth/Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu and Santa Monica parents are up in arms over a revised “gift policy” for the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District. While some parents laud the idea of sharing the wealth, others look at it stealing-from-the-rich-to-give-to-the-poor.

Currently, donations of money or merchandise given to a specific school stayed at that school. Earlier this month, SMMUSD Superintendent John Deasy proposed that a percentage of all gifts – or their cash equivalent – be deposited in an “Equity Fund,” distribution of which would be weighted towards the schools with lesser performance. (The one exception is scholarships, Deasy said.)

The proposal is designed to more equitably distribute gifts and the profits of fundraising activities among district schools to assure that all students have the right to achieve the same level of academic performance as any other student in school.

In the introduction to his proposal, Deasy wrote that “It is the responsibility of the board to identify and remove barriers that contribute to gaps in achievement for different groups of students.

“Neither I nor anyone in our schools will be complicit in violating any student’s civil rights with respect to this basic tenant (sic) of a high quality education. There are inherent inequities that exist in our society that present themselves at our schoolhouse doors.”

“In a land so full of riches,” Deasy continued, “I am convinced that there is enough to go around so that all may realize the fullness of the opportunities we give most of our students and allow for all the full acquisition of high and rigorous learning.”

Per the proposal, 15 percent of all cash gifts would be deposited in the Equity Fund. Fifteen percent equivalent value of noncash gifts would be submitted, presumably by the school or by the contributor.

The fund’s fruits will be distributed annually in the form of block grants with distribution to be determined through a weighted formula. The formula has two components:

1. Equal weighting: Number of students participating in the Free and Reduced Lunch program, the English Language Learner Program and/or Special Day classes, and enrollment.

2. Fractional weighting: Number of students not proficient in the English Language Arts and/or mathematics.

The Equity Fund would be distributed proportionately based on the sum of those figures.

PTA Council Vice President Laura Rosenthal thinks it’s a wonderful concept, and one that is overdue.

“There are great, great, disparities between the schools in our district and we are a unified public school district. I think it’s important that schools have a chance to be equal.”

Test scores tend to correlate with the amount of money that the parents raise, she said. Malibu schools are more apt to have parent aides in the classroom, and parents are better able to afford field trips for the kids and extracurricular activities – and less likely to have parents working two or three jobs or families living out of a car.

“How can we in good conscience say that we will provide a great public education when we only provide it some kids at certain schools?” Rosenthal asked. “I think it’s really important for citizens to understand that the Equity Fund is to bring equity to the school. It’s just to narrow the gap.”

Some parents find the proposal a little too “Robin Hood” and are threatening to withhold their donations. Ken and Kristina Petersons’ contributions to Webster Elementary School are doubled through matching funds donated through their employers “Community Support Campaign.” In a letter to Deasy, they wrote they are happy to contribute, “but [we] do so with the understanding that our contributions of our time and our money are going to the specific purposes we have chosen to support.

“Should this measure be instituted, it is very clear to us that our personal recourse will be to redirect our voluntary, private contributions to other support resources dedicated to the education and betterment of our children.”

Officials of the Webster School PTA have taken a stand against the proposal.

PTA Board Member Sandy Thacker said, “We think that to merely reduce the existing fundraising monies is bad enough but this goes beyond that because the organization that would handle the funds would undoubtedly charge a 3 percent to 5 percent management fee, which would result in an overall decrease in fund raising in the district.”

The fund is anticipated to garner between $400,000 and $500,000, she said. Asked if this couldn’t be invested or otherwise pay for itself, Thacker said this has yet to be discussed.

Another problem, she said, is that the schools will not have access to the fund for a full year; the pump will need to be primed.

“We feel that this puts all school at risk the first year, especially schools that, by his [Deasy’s] definition, need the most help,” Thacker said. “We feel that’s putting all the schools at risk.”

It could also dampen enthusiasm for fundraising, she said, “[not only] because we’re paying an organization to manage the funds but also because you’re mandating this, you’re taking the risk of parents not wanting to donate when the funds are not going to their child’s school.

“What parents at Webster would prefer to see is parent participation and fundraising across the school district. Better to work on fundraising collaboratively across the school district.”

It’s one thing to share the wealth. It’s another to participate in fundraising, Thacker said. She alleged that records comparing amounts donated to each school have not been made available to the public.

“Uh-huh,” she said. “Thank you. I don’t know what type of fundraising other schools are doing. I would like to see that information shared across the district.”

Deasy said he felt the reaction on both sides was premature.

“The policy is being proposed by staff – the board will hear this for the first time in January followed by several months’ worth of hearings before the school board,” Deasy said. “Then, I suspect they will make changes, back and forth, and send it back to staff for changes, and, if – if – they choose to adopt, it would be not until late winter.”

He acknowledged there are still some bugs to be worked out, in particular, who submits the 15 percent equivalent value to the fund for noncash gift items, such as computers.

“You know we haven’t quite figured that out,” Deasy said.

He suggested that donors might be asked to provide some portion of the cash value towards the fund.

Another is who will manage the monies.

“The only thing I’ve said is that it should not be through the district,” Deasy responded, “so I’m not sure that there would be a fee at all. I think that’s just conjecture. It could be run by a local bank for nothing.”

He did say the funds would almost certainly be “put to work” (invested) and not only pay for themselves, but also increase the value of the funds.

The school board will hold its last meeting for the year on Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. in the SMMUSD offices at 1651 16th Street in Santa Monica. Additional information regarding the meeting can be obtained by calling 450.8338.