In what two board members proclaimed to be the most significant votes of their tenures, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education voted unanimously late Tuesday to shake up the district's fundraising rules.
Shortly before midnight and after more than three hours of public input, the board voted 6-0 to prohibit school PTAs from raising money to hire personnel and to block them from funding programs and services eliminated in the wake of state budget cuts.
The nonprofit Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation will be placed in charge of these efforts as early as the 2013-14 school year, but no later than July 2014.
"Allowing individual PTAs to raise and expend money to hire staff in SMMUSD is a practice ... [that] has created great inequities across the district," said Superintendent Sandra Lyon. It "creates a climate in which the instruction and instructional experiences students receive and the conditions in which teachers work are altered by the amount of money individual PTAs can raise."
The sweeping changes will spark a "change in culture that includes caring about all children in the district," said Board member Laurie Lieberman, who added that the move isn't a cure-all to closing the achievement gap.
But the changes have also wrought divisions between parents in Santa Monica and Malibu, which has no representation on the Board of Education and is now looking to .
New details released by Lyon during Tuesday's meeting call for the formation of a 30-member advisory board to guide district officials in figuring out how exactly the new plan will be carried out.
The advisory board will include representatives from the district's Financial Oversight Committee, each school PTA and other coalitions such as the African American Parent Student Staff Support Group as well as school administrators and members of the Education Foundation. It will be formed by the first week of January.
Members of the advisory board will be tasked with finding out what's currently being offered at each individual school and at what cost, determining the types of programs every student in the district should have access to and meeting with staffers in districts such as Manhattan Beach and Palo Alto that have already adopted centralized fundraising models.
The 6-0 vote came after dozens of parents urged the school board to postpone its decision to allow more time to suss out details of the plan—a request echoed in a Sunday Los Angeles Times editorial. One mom called Superintendent Lyon's proposal a "Robin Hood plan" that needed more fleshing out.
Many residents on both sides of the aisle said more evidence is needed to prove the new model will be successful in ensuring every student in the district has equal access to faculty and programs.
"The goal of the proposed policy is laudable. I do believe strongly in equal access to education," said Lincoln Middle School PTA President Karen Gardner, who went on to express concern that the board was taking a "shoot first, look later" approach to developing its plan.
Opponents have said 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.
In one extreme example, district statistics show that in Malibu plans to spend $1,096 per student this school year on instructional personnel through money raised from the PTA, while in Santa Monica is expected to spend $65 per student.
In an attempt to assure Malibu residents that their schools will not suffer when the new fundraising plan is implemented, the school board wrote into the new policy a statement expressing its commitment to sustaining existing specialty programs at individual schools, like the marine science program currently offered at PDMSS.
Plus, PTAs can still contribute by raising money for activities, like field trips, and for new equipment, like computers, said Board member Ben Allen.
"This is not going to prevent parents from giving directly to schools," he said.
Allen and fellow board members offered the approximately 200 people in attendance Tuesday night explanations as to why they each supports the new fundraising model.
Board member Nimish Patel's oration drew hearty applause and a small standing ovation. Although he said how PTA funds are raised was a factor in his and his wife's decision to live within the boundaries of in Santa Monica—where he said he has continually helped raise $600,000 for the school yearly—he has spoken recently with parents whose children go to school hungry, who don't do their homework because they don't have electricity or who don't live next door to rich to movie producers and CEOs of companies with extra cash to donate.
"This year, I realized we have two communities," Patel said.
"Public school should be equal for all who attend them," said Laurie Latham, president of the PTA at in Santa Monica. "The process hasn't been perfect; I don't know if everyone will hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' ... [but] taking a step in the direction of equity is the right thing to do.
Board of Education member Ralph Mechur was absent from Tuesday's meeting. He has said he would not vote on the fundraising policy change because his life partner is Linda Gross, the director of the Education Foundation.