Unless opponents can put together a successful campaign before the end of the month, it appears the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District staff's plan for a centralized fundraising policy will be approved by the Board of Education. A majority of the board members said they support the plan, at least in concept, during the meeting Thursday night at .
The proposed policy, known as Districtwide Fundraising, would prohibit school PTAs from raising money to hire personnel and to support programs and services eliminated because of SMMUSD budget cuts. The nonprofit Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation would be placed in charge of these efforts. It would also be the only entity that could collect corporate gifts in excess of $2,500.
Proponents say the policy is needed because students at schools that raise more money are able to get a better education than others in the district. They say spreading the wealth throughout the SMMUSD would raise the bar for everybody and bridge the student achievement gap.
Opponents say the plan would reduce district fundraising overall because fewer people would want to contribute if the money were not going to their children's schools. Also, they say it would kill programs dependent on PTA funding. And they object to what they consider to be a policy that was put together quickly with little research.
Board member Laurie Lieberman said the opponents' fears would not become reality.
"I just don't believe that districtwide fundraising for personnel and programs has to kill off private fundraising at our wealthier schools," Lieberman said. "And I think the only thing that would make that happen would be if we allowed that to happen. And I don't know why anybody would do that to their own kids and their friends' kids."
Board President José Escarce said he "wholeheartedly supports" districtwide fundraising.
"The disparities in our district are too large to ignore," he said.
Board members Nimish Patel and Oscar de la Torre also said they support the concept. Both men stressed it would need to be done carefully so that it would not destroy existing programs. Board member Maria Leon-Vazquez said she was withholding her comments until after she heard from speakers at the Nov. 17 meeting in Santa Monica. Board member Ralph Mechur left the meeting before the discussion began because his life partner Linda Gross heads the Education Foundation. Board Vice President Ben Allen was not at the meeting because he is traveling.
The proposal is not complete. Superintendent Sandra Lyon said she would want the corporate gift feature implemented immediately following the board's approval of the policy later this month. An advisory group would begin meeting next year to study and prepare the final details for the other features. A proposal would go before the board in the spring and be implemented by the fall of 2013.
That this concept has not even been fully vetted, yet is expected to be voted on this month was one of the features criticized by some of the more than 40 Malibu and Santa Monica residents who addressed the board on Thursday.
"The only thing that's painfully apparent is there's insufficient information before you to make an intelligent policy," said Malibu attorney Mike Sidley, whose wife Wendy is the past president of the PTSA. "The idea that the superintendent wants, to create a group to flesh this out, is something that should happen before the policy is adopted, not after the policy is adopted."
Leanne Portzel, a mother at in Malibu, said significantly fewer people would be willing to contribute if the policy were implemented because they do not trust or know much about the Education Foundation, an organization with a three-member staff that has never had to take on an annual fundraising effort like the one this policy would require.
"Our families give to the schools and principals and teachers and programs that they know and love and trust," Portzel said. "We don't know the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation … I am concerned the Education Foundation is not prepared for this responsibility."
Charlene Underhill Miller, also a Webster parent, added, "[Parents] will simply stop giving … So then what we end up doing is reducing the disparity by merely reducing the programs at the schools where fundraising is more active and successful. We lower the bar rather than raise the bar."
But other parents painted a brighter picture of how the district would change with the implementation of this policy. A coalition of parents representing the booster clubs and PTAs at Grant, Roosevelt and Franklin elementary schools in Santa Monica said they support the policy with some conditions. Education activist Lauri Crane, a Santa Monica resident, said the policy is needed in a time when the district is more dependent on fundraising because Sacramento continues to reduce its contribution.
"The neighborhood demographics have led to large disparities … with staff and programs available from school site to school site," Crane said. "This has been a topic of discussion in our school district for over 20 years, and the disparities have only increased during that time. The time to take action is now."
The next discussion on the policy will take place Nov. 17 at the SMMUSD office in Santa Monica. The board is expected to vote on the concept at a special meeting in Santa Monica on Nov. 29.