Focusing on fiscal good times, the Board of Education is poised to ask the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu for aid in implementing several recommendations of a citizens financial advisory task force.
In the past year the district has been struggling with the possibility of a major budget shortfall, in part, because of a smaller-sized student population that has not met earlier predictions. The revenue uncertainty and the absence of good hard financial data created a crisis of confidence in the administration of the school district. It led to public criticism of both the board and the district administration, headed by superintendent Neil Schmidt, who has since announced his retirement.
Hiring a third party to recommend fiscal and budget management practice improvements was of the highest priority, and one the City of Santa Monica has offered to pay for, the task force said.
The Financial Task Force, created by Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Neil Schmidt last fall to cope with the sudden budget crisis a year ago, presented its final report to the district’s Board of Education June 14.
Small business owner Wendy Cary of Malibu, non-profit inner city charter school development and management firm head Anita Landecker, attorney-CPA Neil Carrey and RAND think tank researcher Jean Gebman of Santa Monica are the members of the task force.
Working with an advisory council that included Malibu resident Lisa Curtis and Pepperdine University president Andrew Benton, the task force made 16 administrative, expenditure and revenue recommendations that ranged from hiring a firm to improve fiscal and budget practices to increased lobbying in Sacramento.
Under the heading of “Building and maintaining a partnership relationship with the cities of Malibu and Santa Monica,” the task force said, “The undercurrent in this report is that it is essential that the district reach outward for support and not be insular.”
In spite of the “positive corrective actions” of the district and thein fusion of cash by the cities, “there continues to be deficiencies in District financial management and business problems that need to be corrected,” the task force told the board.
“It was deeply emotional for all of us,” said Cary of the task force’s six months of work. “It is truly amazing how the four of us agreed on everything.”
Santa Monica parent Debbie Mulvaney, who spoke after the report was presented, agreed.
Mulvaney, who holds an MBA in finance, described the chaos when the PTA and site governance council at the Roosevelt school tried to work out a budget.
“We were astounded at the mess,” said Mulvaney, an international bank vice president. “The information was inaccurate and months behind. We could not track it. The staff tried to help and had to look in places for the simplest information.
“To address budget issues without accounting software is ridiculous,” Mulvaney added, referring to the recommendation for “significant retooling of the financial and management systems,” specifically, state-of-the-art Internet purchasing systems.
Board president Todd Hess estimated the task force recommendations would cost $3-$5 million a year, and it is believed the recommendations might add to criticism that the Board is administratively top-heavy.
“The revenue we have is basically spoken for,” said Hess, noting the recommendations might cut away from the classroom. “You are asking us to reorient our priorities. What should get less?”
The task force and board agreed to take action before other interests helped the cities spend their budget surpluses and before salary negotiations begin in the fall.
“We need to seize the opportunity,” said board member Dorothy Chapman.