District hears new words to old refrain

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School board members have heard dozens of reasons why they shouldn’t cut programs at local schools to balance a projected budget shortfall. Last week, the debate took a new turn.

At a public hearing in Malibu (the second in a series of six meetings on the budget crisis), the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District heard several versions of “the best defense is a strong offense.” Rather than balancing the budget on the backs of “non-essential” programs and salaries for librarians, nurses, coaches, and music and ESL teachers, the board was told to go after the 300 additional permitted students it needs by offering better programs.

Dan Sandeh summed it up this way: “Don’t spend less, make more money.” He received enthusiastic applause from the crowd of parents, teachers and students who had come to plead with the board to spare their programs.

Pam Prickett, a Webster parent, said, “These are shocking choices. I’m dismayed that cutting programs is the first choice for balancing the budget. It should be the last. The schoolhouse is the nurturing ground for our future. Try to maintain the integrity of the schoolhouse as the center of our community.”

Former Councilman Jeff Jennings noted these crises arise about every eight years to deal with unexpected shortfalls. He reminded board members when the district faced shrinking enrollment 10 years ago, it considered combining Juan Cabrillo and Malibu High schools. “At that time, parents said, ‘You’re going about this the wrong way. You support and believe in education, but you’ve got to sell the product; shrinking programs is not the way. You have to have faith and go forward and expand programs, not shrink them.'” He added news of support from the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu was positive. “We want to encourage you to aggressively pursue those avenues and alternative avenues. People vote to spend tax money on programs that are improving, not for programs that are in trouble.”

Jennings also urged the board to continue to demand Sacramento deal with “the mess that public education funding in California has become” and to demand Congress live up to its long-ignored promises to fund requirements for special education at the level promised years ago.

Judy Slosser, a classified employee at Juan Cabrillo and parent of a Malibu High School student, pointed out, “How lean these programs already are. Librarians have already been replaced with library coordinators. My sons have lost their sports. Colleges don’t come to high schools that don’t have good sports programs, so there will be no scholarships. The district shouldn’t seek short-term solutions to long-term problems. Once a program is gone, it will not be reinstated.”

John Mills said, “We struggled for our football team. The basketball team is struggling for lack of coaches. We’ve lost kids to Palisades and other schools that have far better sports programs.”

Reminding the board the PTA already funds many programs that were previously trimmed from the district budget, Juan Cabrillo PTA President Linda Pieper said, “We raise money for coaches, music, arts. If these cuts go through, we’ll be done. We’ve gone to everyone in the community so many times. We do it in good faith, but they’re going to slam the doors. We’re getting embarrassed to ask for more.”

The school nurse program is also an asset to the community during disasters, said Ann Ernst, school nurse at Cabrillo and Point Dume schools. The long distance to hospitals can be offset by nurses on site providing first aid and CPR, and disaster support. Ernst also said a number of complicated health problems have increased dramatically. “Close monitoring allows these children to go to school safely in regular settings.” Kristina Kimball, a sixth-grade student at MHS, pleaded, “Please don’t take away nurses. I’m a diabetic. I need advice and help from Mrs. Relles.”

MHS teacher Sher Chycoski made a compelling case for music education for all children, not only those who plan to be musicians. “I’ve taught 2,000 students. When one of my students says, ‘You know, Miss Sher, yesterday so-and-so didn’t want to come to school because she was going to kill herself. The only reason she came was because she had music class and she could talk to you.’ And later on that student wrote the most beautiful song about how her heart was hurting. So if you could just remember, music is for everyone.”

Webster Principal Phil Cott said with cooperation and commitment from the two cities, “I don’t think we’ll see these Draconian cuts. It’s human nature to rally together in crisis. But what we need is for everyone who got into the process because of the crisis to stay involved. I hope this is a political awakening.”