School Board Resists Arts Program Cuts — For Now

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Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s financial year comes to a close in less than a month, but there is still a $469,724 gap to fill to make ends meet in the Santa Monica Malibu Education Foundation’s budget. The foundation raises money through districtwide fundraising and is responsible for bankrolling several arts and enrichment programs in schools throughout the two cities.

The looming possibility of arts funding cuts in district elementary schools due to a lack of parent giving has lit a fire under school board members to find new ways to raise funds.

Terry Deloria, assistant superintendent for educational services, reported last week that though “no one wants to reduce anything, because it’s all great,” meetings with school principals resulted in a consensus on which program would be on the chopping block if money doesn’t come in: P.S. Arts.

Under the proposal, P.S. Arts, a Southern California-based arts program that provides 30 weeks of programming, including musical instruction, to elementary school students, would be trimmed to save money.

“[The principals’] request was, if reductions have to happen, their preference was to reduce the P.S. Arts program from 30 weeks to 20 weeks, which would result in about $200,000 in savings,” Deloria reported.

This was unacceptable to two members of the school board; Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein and Craig Foster, the two newest members of the board, argued that it was too early to give up on a full slate of 30 weeks of arts programming. 

They also argued that the way around the lack of funding was enticing parents, especially those in Malibu, to give — not threatening them. “We do not do anything for our future other than harm it, by cutting arts programs at this point,” Foster said. “I think that the value of the programs and the value of the future of centralized fundraising is far more important than $200,000.” 

“I want to have a conversation about the benefits of these arts programs across the district for all kids,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein said. 

“So the question is, how do we have a conversation… without going to that place, that we know is so challenging for us at this moment?” he later added.

Tahvildaran-Jesswein was referring to other board members’ complaints over Malibu families not picking up the slack.

Earlier in the meeting, Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez complained that Malibu parents — and Malibu’s school board representative Craig Foster — were making excuses not to give while they waited to separate from the unified district. 

“We have two board members who were not a part of the board when we decided to run this districtwide fundraising, but they have to adhere,” Leon-Vazquez said. “They ran for that purpose and … they have to abide by it, until the break comes, and then we’ll deal with it when it comes.

“For us to say, ‘Oh, families from one city don’t give because of circumstances.’ You know, I don’t really care. I think, the personal side of it, people will make any excuse: ‘Oh, we didn’t do this, we didn’t do that, oh, the PCBs, you know this other thing happened,’” Leon-Vazquez said.

“I know people have the ability to give and I think they should be giving,” she later added.

Other board members got behind the idea of using positivity to bring parents to the table.

“I think what we were hoping was there will be a little bit of a call to action, because in four weeks I think that money could be raised,” Board President Laurie Lieberman said. “I appreciate the idea that there [is] more than one way we can do it.”

In the end, the board unanimously decided to send a letter to the Malibu City Council asking for donations toward the education foundation.

After the announcement of the budget shortcoming several weeks ago, a $200,000 matching grant from the PTA of Franklin Elementary in Santa Monica was received by the education foundation. Another $35,000 was raised at the Sand & Sea Ball, a gala dinner and dance competition that took place on May 22.