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  • We've heard complaints that SMMUSD spends too much money on buildings and not enough on students and teachers. Is that true?
    First, we have to understand the school district’s two sources of funds. For annual, ongoing operating expenses the district receives money from the state, like all school districts, and an additional $35M per year from local sources, thanks to the efforts by CEPS over the last two decades. Operating expenses are teacher salaries, cleaning and maintenance, security – any of the costs to keep our fine schools open and functioning. Capital funds are one-time dollars from voter-approved bonds – large sums of money are borrowed to finance new classrooms and other infrastructure improvements and repaid by an incremental addition to property taxes in the district. Bonds are essentially a voter-approved contract to build a menu of projects with strict civilian oversight of how these monies are spent. Some naysayers like to assert that the current school Board spends too much on buildings and not enough on classrooms. That’s easy to understand, since for most it’s quite obvious when a new building is constructed with bond funds at Samohi, for instance – anyone driving down Lincoln can see the construction. What’s not so evident to most is when funds are spent on improving education that goes on inside district buildings – few see, for example, the relatively new Project Lead the Way engineering track in operation at Samohi. So certain dissidents have seized on the notion that the current Board is more focused on construction rather than education. What these doubters fail to acknowledge is that by law bond funds can only be spent on buildings and other infrastructure, not on classroom resources such as teachers. And given that the voters generously offered to pay higher property taxes so the district can upgrade dated facilities, the Board has a fiduciary duty to complete the physical improvements for which the bonds funds were allocated. Does this distract from the Board’s focus on education students. Not at all, these competent Board members can focus on educational and physical programs at the same time. And in fact, the new buildings make for a much better learning environment and enhance the quality of our kids’ educations:
  • Is the current SMMUSD Board exercising fiscal competence?
    In a word, yes, contrary to the claims of challenger candidates. SMMUSD has one of the highest ratings in the state for our bonds, meaning that third parties look at revenues and expenses and determine that district finances are so well-managed that money can be borrowed at a lower interest rate. The Board has balanced the annual budget for the past three years. For the nine years prior to COVID-19 the unrestricted general fund ending balance has averaged a net gain of $1,247,894.89 based on end-of-year accounting. In addition, the Board judiciously took advantage of historically low interest rates to refinance older bonds, yielding a savings of $51 million dollars. And the latest bond was issued to take advantage of these low rates, reducing its total projected cost by $250 million dollars.
  • But wait, I’m told the Board just “wasted” $21M in bond funds buying a new headquarters building.
    The former district headquarters, just east of Memorial Park, is located in an area adjacent to the Metro E Line, which has been targeted as an area for future housing development and therefore should increase in value significantly. So the Board purchased another building on 4th Street to serve as the headquarters for now and many years in the future. The District has owned the land under the building for many years so the purchase price was discounted from market value. The new building allows the District to consolidate operations currently housed in four different locations, leading to greater economies of scale and increased collaboration. In the interim, the old headquarters is leased out and yielding revenues for operations. If you think about it, the Board has cleverly used restricted, non-operational dollars, which can’t be used to pay teachers, to generate funds which can be devoted to operations. And then in the future the old headquarters can be sold at a profit, recouping capital funds for future projects. It’s actually all quite clever and a very astute management of resources.
  • Is it true the current Board has neglected the education of our kids?
    Quite to the contrary, the Board has focused on the learning loss stemming from the COVID-19 lockdowns and virtual classrooms and has worked proactively to overcome the achievement gap between white and Asian students and their Latino and Black counterparts. Mental health programs have been enhanced and new paths for teaching, such as project-based learning, have been embraced. The facts are that under the Board’s leadership SMMUSD is ranked in the top 3% of all districts in the state and top 1% of districts in the nation, was just named the 7th best district in the state for teachers, and has been a model for academic innovation recognized county and state-wide. It’s no accident that the SMMUSD teachers have endorsed the same candidates as CEPS – those teachers know better than anyone whether or not the Board is providing the resources and culture to do the best job they can.
  • What specifically has the District done to help stem pandemic-related learning losses?
    The Board and district increased funding for Expanded Learning Supports. This included: Hiring more mental health workers; Expanding summer school for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs); and Expanding the number of kids who can participate in Academic Support Program (ASP), the district’s one-on-one biweekly tutoring program. The tutoring is provided by a local Black-owned business with a stellar Yelp rating. Please read the article linked below for more information on the district’s success with learning loss:
  • Someone told me the Board ignored water intrusion problems at the Muir/SMASH campus and let the facilities “rot.”
    Faulty construction of these buildings in the 1990s, years before the current Board took their seats, has caused problems with leaking and water damage ever since. Over the years various steps have been taken to fix these issues without disrupting the use of the campus during the academic years. But certainly the problems were not ignored or neglected. However, eventually the issues became so pronounced during the heavy rains of December 2021 that the Board with great reluctance made the decision to close the campus for either a major remodel or a complete rebuild. With the generous donation of some classroom space at Santa Monica College, all the grades at the Muir/SMASH campus have been temporarily relocated into various other schools while the issues at their former home are remediated. Is all of this a major inconvenience for students and parents? Of course. But should the Board be faulted for trying to solve the issues for years without a complete shutdown of the campus. Of course not. For more on this please read Superintendent Drati’s statement.
  • Periodically I hear that SMMUSD should abandon district-wide fundraising. Does CEPS think this is a good idea?
    In a word, no. It used to be that SMMUSD parents raised money to be used at their children’s’ campuses. That mean that schools in affluent parts of Santa Monica had more money to spend per pupil than those in less well-off neighborhoods. Such localized fundraising was particularly hard on our five Title I schools (Title I is a Federal designation for a school which has a certain minimum percentage of kids from lower-income households). We believe that SMMUSD's transition to district-wide fundraising, with all the dollars raised at each campus put in a big pot and distributed equally among all schools, is much more inclusive and equitable, and aligns with our shared community values. CEPS find it interesting that the challenger candidates have accused the Board of neglecting John Muir because it’s a Title I school yet want to change fundraising to deprive those same Title 1 schools. In fact, the head of the PTA John Muir Elementary had this to say back when district-wide fundraising fully launched in the 2014-2015 school year: Thanks to the district-wide fundraising by Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation (SMMEF), John Muir students and teachers have a breath of fresh air at our school: Classrooms are now staffed by Teacher and Aide; Teachers receive on-going professional training; and students receive specialized support in reading. The 2014-15 school year is the first roll-out of improved programs district wide, after many years of planning, voting and fundraising. Tangible examples of the success of the program abound as we begin the second semester: integration of education and technology at each grade level; year-round Visual Arts and Music, as well as an introduction to Dance for upper grades. And finally, we have an infusion of science instruction for our elementary students.
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