Council Aims to Gag Gag Orders
Tuesday night, climaxing a marathon meeting, the City Council approved a $437 million budget for the next fiscal year, but it was the disposition of a $530,000 allocation that dominated the evening.
It began late last fall, when the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s Chief Financial Officer Winston Braham refused to certify a District pay raise that he contended was not financially viable and resigned. Council member Bobby Shriver believed the Council should talk with Braham before it decided how much money to allocate to the District in the new budget. But, as part of his exit contract with the District, Braham had been required to sign a confidentiality agreement that mandated his silence on all topics related to the District.
Viewing the District’s imposition of the gag order as a breach of trust and common sense, Shriver, Mayor Pro Tem Herb Katz and Council member Bob Holbrook suggested they might withhold $530,000 of the proposed District allocation unless they heard from Braham.
During a hearing on the proposed new budget at the last Council meeting, three parents of children with special needs described the difficulties they encountered, including mandatory gag orders in private “settlement” contracts, in their efforts to procure the courses of instructions their children needed from the District.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Katz made and Shriver seconded a motion to withhold $530,000 of the District’s allocation until the gag orders were discontinued. Neither that nor a counter motion won the requisite four votes and so the question was continued to last night.
In the interim, Braham had agreed to appear and describe the circumstances that led to his departure from the District. In addition, the City received a letter from the District in which it agreed to commission a study, by “experts,” of its special education policies, and asked that the City not withhold any portion of the full allocation of $7.2 million agreed upon under the City’s Master Facility Use Agreement with the District.
Braham told the Council that he had refused to certify the pay raise as, in his view, it was not “sustainable,” given the overall state of the District’s finances. When the District rejected several alternatives that he proposed, he resigned. He also said that while he signed the gag order, he felt it wasn’t an “appropriate” action on the part of the District.
Speaking for the District, Superintendent Dianne Talarico and School Board President Kathy Wisnicki said that, in response to the questions raised by parents and Council members about the use of gag orders and the special education program itself, the District would import “experts” to conduct a study, which might take as long as a year to complete. The women then reiterated the District’s request that the Council not withhold the $530,0000.
Some of the speakers who followed them to the podium agreed, including lawyer Chris Harding, Santa Monica College Trustee Louise Jaffee, Chair of the District’s Financial Oversight Committee Paul Silvern, and SMRR chair Denny Zane. They not only spoke to the Council, but presented a motion they had prepared for its consideration and adoption. It called for payment of the entire $7.2 billion immediately, given the District’s promise to conduct the study.
As many, or more, people disagreed. Two of the women who had spoken at the previous meeting appeared again, along with a number of other parentsof children with special needs, who described the combative nature of their negotiations with the District, the gag orders, and the continuing “trepidation” they felt.
They also reported that the School Board had ignored their repeated requests that it look into the matter. Tricia Crane said that she had called other School districts in this area to determine whether, as District officials had claimed, that the use of gag orders was commonplace, and found that only one other District, Glendale, used them. SMMUSD Deputy Superintendent Tim Walker, who was brought here by former Superintendent John Deasy to head the Special Education program, had previously run the same department in Glendale.
During the Council discussion that followed, Holbrook, who was a member of the school board prior to becoming a Council member, said that, after last week’s meeting, he had received numerous emails and phone calls from parents, asking for his help. Some of them, he said, were afraid to identify themselves for fear of retribution. “They are my constituents,” he said, “and they need help.”
Holbrook, Shriver and Katz were clearly disturbed by what they heard from the parents and unsatisfied with Talarico and Wisnicki’s often incomplete and vague responses to their questions,
The three proposed that the City include the $530,000 in the allocation now, with the proviso that the District declare an immediate moratorium on gag orders. If the District refused to impose the moratorium, the funds would be withheld until the completion of the study on or before March 31, 2008.
[The full text of the motion appears at the end of this article].
Though Council member Ken Genser helped his colleagues frame the motion, he initially said he could not support it. But when it was clear that the motion would fail without his vote, He “reluctantly” voted for it, and it passed 4-2.
Mayor Richard Bloom and Council Member Pam O’Connor voted against it. As he is employed by the School District, Council member Kevin McKeown had recused himself.
Once that was done, passage of the full $437 million City budget went very quickly. By law, there was a series of votes, all of which were unanimous.
In addition to $530,000 increase in base funding to SMMUSD, subject to the aforesaid conditions, there were a number of other last-minute additions.
They included: $2,300 increase to Martin Luther King Day celebration; $14,800 for the Center for the Partially Sighted; $30,865 for the Cal Safe Teen Program; $50,000 set-aside for redesigning police badges; $9,600 for additional sidewalk cleaning on Main Street; and $30,000 additional funding for the Pico Youth & Family Services Center
In other action, after hearing from City staff, the appellants’ attorney, Rosario Perry, his consultant, and more than 20 other people, the entire Council agreed with staff that the appeal of the Landmarks Commission’s designation of the Teriton Apartments at 130-142 San Vicente Boulevard as a landmark be denied.
The current owners of the modernist Garden apartment complex, which was built in 1949-50, appealed the landmark designation because they wanted to demolish the building and replace it with housing for Jewish refugees from the Middle East. Landmarks can not be demolished.
Teriton residents, including Genser, had received eviction notices, prior to Tuesday night’s hearing. As a tenant, Genser recused himself, but a number of his fellow tenants and neighbors spoke in defense of the building. Among them were an 86-year old writer who has lived there since the building opened and an 11 year-old boy who said he has traveled to four continents and is always happy to come back to his “beautiful” home.
Representatives from NOMA and the Santa Monica and L.A. Conservancies also spoke in behalf of the building, as did a number of city residents.
Conditions to City Council Approval of the City Manager’s Recommendation
for the Master Facilities Use Agreement with the Santa Monica-Malibu School District
Below are suggested conditions for the City Council’s consideration. These conditions address the issues concerning the public and Council—District financial accountability and District special education policies and practices.
1. Financial Transparency and Accountability. The District agrees
a. In future employment, settlement, or other agreements with its Chief Financial Officer or any persons responsible for District financial matters, the District will not include a provision such as, or similar to, the third sentence of Paragraph 6 of the General Release and Settlement Agreement with Winston Braham, which states, “In addition, Braham agrees not to make comments to any third party concerning the financial condition of the District unless requested to do so by the Superintendent or Governing Board of the District.”
b. To meet and confer with the City Manager’s office during fiscal year 2007-2008 to consider modifications to Paragraph 7 (entitled “Accountability”) of the Master Facilities Use Agreement, for the purpose of strengthening its accountability requirements.
2. Special Education. The District agrees
a. To retain independent consultant(s) to conduct a thorough, open, and public review of District special education. This review will include the financial, policy, program, and practice aspects of District special education. This review will include opportunities for public input by parents of special education students, persons with expertise in special education, as well as members of the public. The review will specifically explore viable alternatives to the District’s recent practice of prohibiting parents from speaking to others about the special education services their children receive. The District will ensure that the consultant(s) retained to conduct the review are genuinely independent from any District officials. The District will begin this review process promptly and complete it by March 31, 2008.
b. Pending results of the review described in (a) above, to place an immediate moratorium on adding a confidentiality clause to any agreement made between the District and parents regarding special education services provided for their children, unless a parent requests such an agreement or such an agreement is required by law.
Conditions, page 2
3. Good Faith Compliance. The District agrees to amend the Master Facilities Use Agreement to provide that the City Council reserves the right to reconsider the approximately $530,000 increase in the Agreement’s base amount as part of the City Council’s fiscal year 2008-2009 budget process if the City Council finds, after considering information provided by the City and District staff, and a public hearing, that the District has failed to make a reasonable effort to comply with the foregoing terms and conditions.
4. Effectiveness of Funding Increase. The increased base amount of approximately $530,000, as recommended by the City Manager, shall take effect once the District has
a. Instituted the moratorium described in 2(b) above
b. Retained an independent consultant and begun the public review of special education described above
c. Submitted written acceptance of all terms and conditions above