Our Schools Have a Problem Money Won’t Fix
“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.”
–Sir Walter Scott, 1808
March 29, 2010 –Since my oldest daughter started kindergarten in 1977, I have volunteered in probably 50 capacities (Stairway of the Stars, parcel tax and bond committees, PTAs, and Band Parents among them) for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. For the past 12 years I have chaired Restore Barnum Hall, a group that raised $1 million and monitored the restoration of Santa Monica High School’s auditorium. For several years, that was an unpaid full-time job.
Yet last December I walked out of a school board meeting wanting the SMMUSD to take a flying leap.
I have calmed down since then. Now I just want six of the seven school board members and the superintendent to take a flying leap.
Why? Let me relate an experience Councilmember Bob Holbrook and I had with the board and top district administrators over the past year. Never in my 30 years in school and city government have I seen public servants act with such dishonesty and arrogance.
Here is the Executive Summary: Six of the seven Santa Monica-Malibu School Board members, Superintendent Tim Cuneo, and Chief Academic Officer Sally Chou participated in or condoned the following activities:
Kept money to which the district is not entitled
Covered up their mistakes rather than fix them
Ignored the district’s own written policy
Made up a “board policy” to avoid discussing legitimate public concerns
Used a favored clique of hyper-aggressive parents for tactical support
I would not have believed this chain of events really happened, had I not experienced it firsthand or received firsthand accounts from trustworthy people. I can document each detail.
Last March thirteen of the above-mentioned clique of parents, calling themselves Music Supporters, sent a letter—“at the request of Superintendent Tim Cuneo”—to the president of the Santa Monica Band Parents Association, which since 1963 had been the volunteer parent support group for all district music programs. The Music Supporters threatened to “exercise our full legal and civil rights and actions against you” if the SMBPA did not comply with eight demands. Most of them dealt with organizational problems that could have been easily fixed, but I suspected at the time and now am sure, the real reason for the attack was Demand #6: that the Band Parents make payments to the district’s Equity Fund.
SMMUSD parent volunteer groups can donate 85% of the funds they raise to the programs they support. The other 15%, with some exemptions, must go to the district’s Equity Fund, which redistributes the money to each school according to a need-based formula. The Band Parents had not paid into the Equity Fund because their articles of incorporation prohibited them from spending money on anything but music programs. The Music Supporters—and I believe district administrators and at least one board member—wanted that money to fund an intervention program at Samohi. They knew the Band Parents had the funds in a “rainy day” account established by past directors to protect the program if the district cut funding.
In a letter to SMBPA officers, Superintendent Cuneo threatened that unless Equity Fund payments were made, he would “recommend that the Board no longer accept gifts from the Association.” This would have shut down the marching band program, which cannot operate without funds parents raise. Believing that it would be illegal to violate their articles of incorporation, the SMBPA officers and directors resigned. Music Supporters appointed two of their own—Richard Bencivengo and Amy Van Pelt—to be president and treasurer, respectively.
Councilmember Holbrook—a former Samohi band member, Band Parent, and two-term school board member who has voted to give the schools more than $50 million of city money—and I got involved at this point because the Music Supporters were making personal attacks on people we knew to be completely honorable. These attacks, which blew minor oversights into “mismanagement and fiduciary irresponsibility,” were publicized on a website the Music Supporters created to justify their takeover.
Several months later Van Pelt e-mailed a bill to the Band Parents for $48,468—four years of Equity Fund payments. The 2007-08 totals included $65,390 spent for musical instrument lockers for the band room. The group was now being taxed 15% for improving district property, as well as protecting district property, since the district owns many of the larger instruments. The lockers had been designed for the band room as part of the Proposition X/1A capital improvement program that expanded Barnum Hall and the music building, which are connected. Many elements had to be cut from both buildings as construction costs escalated.
Restore Barnum Hall used the $1 million it raised to restore many elements cut from Barnum’s budget. We did not have to pay the 15% tax on any of them, because the district’s gift policy exempted “district-approved capital programs.” The lockers were no different, so I pointed out the $9,800 overcharge to the newly elected band parent officers. Still quaking from the superintendent’s threat to shut down the marching band program, these parents were not about to jeopardize their kids’ high school experience by questioning the bill.
Keeping the band parents out if it, I wrote a letter to Chief Academic Officer Sally Chou, who handles Equity Fund payments. I figured one exemption had just been missed, and she would make it right. She wrote back, “The direct response is, indeed, they are NOT exempt from the 15% contribution to the Fund. We derived to [sic] this conclusion for the following reasons.” The main “reason”—obviously concocted after my letter arrived, since she wrote that she had not been “familiar with the lockers”—was that only changes to the building’s structure were exempt. I knew this wasn’t true, since most of the exempted improvements to Barnum were not structural changes, but additions such as the upstairs carpet, the sound system, and the Wurlitzer theater organ.
Assuming that Chou was just following orders from her boss the superintendent, Holbrook and I then wrote to his bosses—the seven school board members. A couple of board members told us they would look into the matter but never got back to us. After waiting a month, we decided the only way to get the board to deal with the issue was to put it on their meeting agenda. Any member of the public can follow the procedure to do this.
Meanwhile, one of the Music Supporters (I was not permitted to see who) wrote to some board members, urging them not to give the Band Parents back their $9,800. The reason: “A group of dedicated parents worked tirelessly to turn the Santa Monica Music Department Equity Fund payment into reality for SMMUSD.” “We are still fighting the masses when it comes to questions about the Equity Fund . . .” My interpretation of this appalling statement: “We know best. Therefore, whatever we do to the masses is justified.”
Bob spoke with Board Member Oscar de la Torre before the meeting, and he agreed with us that the money should be returned. At the December 10 board meeting, we presented our case, citing the ten-year precedent for granting that type of exemption. We didn’t see how the board could make a believable argument to keep the Band Parents’ $9,800. Apparently, neither did they. So they refused to discuss it.
When de la Torre started to ask Chou why the capital programs exemption wasn’t applied to the lockers, Board President Ralph Mechur said, “There’s a procedure question,” and Cuneo came down like a guillotine, citing a “board policy” that prohibited discussion on agenda items from members of the public. He informed de la Torre that even clarifying questions of staff were not permitted, that the board would have to vote to bring the item back at a future meeting.
Holbrook and I, now back in the audience, were sure we had entered the Twilight Zone. We knew that California’s public meeting law, the Brown Act, permits questions of staff on any agenda item. Mechur, who has been attending public meetings for as long as we have, also knew this perfectly well.
The rest of the board—presumably familiar with the Brown Act—jumped right into the charade. Kelly Pye kept repeating the phrase, “move forward.” Jose Escarce said nothing. Barry Snell said almost nothing. Ben Allen found both sides of the argument “compelling.” Maria Leon Vazquez said that Holbrook and I had “no standing” to bring the matter before them because it had already been handled by the current leadership. (The fact that the “leader” who produced the numbers was the self-appointed treasurer, with no child in the band, who “worked tirelessly” to build up the Equity Fund with Band Parent money, was not mentioned.)
The messy issue now swept neatly under the rug, the board moved on to other business. Holbrook and I reeled out of the meeting, knowing we had been jobbed. Starting the next day and over the next two months, we asked to see the “board policy” prohibiting discussion on agendized items from the public. We were referred to the board policy on meeting conduct, which of course contained no such no-discussion provision.
Then the superintendent had one of the district’s attorneys write an opinion on the board’s conduct that night. In the second-to-last paragraph the attorney wrote, “ While the Brown Act does not prohibit board members from discussing matters placed on the agenda by members of the public,” the board should not take action on the item the same night (we had not asked for that). For obvious reasons, this letter was not officially shared with Bob or me. The email that went to board members along with the letter directed them to the final paragraph, which said that the board’s meeting policies are in compliance with state law. We had no issue with actual board policies—only the nonexistent policy created to suit the occasion.
In one last-gasp attempt to get the board to make things right, Bob and I wrote to Ralph Mechur and met with him at his request. Mechur told us that if the district honored the capital programs exemption for the Band Parents, other groups would want their assessments reconsidered. We asked, “Wouldn’t you want to fix all unfair assessments?” He had no answer.
Although the people who worked to raise it might disagree, the $9,800 owed to the Band Parents pales in comparison to all the unethical behaviors associated with it. If I thought this were an isolated incident, maybe I would follow the unwritten school-supporter code and pretend nothing is wrong. But judging by reports from other parents and teachers, I believe secrecy, arrogance, and manipulation are the norm at the top of the district organization chart. We should not tolerate it.
This year four school board members’ terms expire: Snell, Pye, Mechur, and de la Torre, the only one who wasn’t afraid of the truth, who has said he’ll run for city council in November. Voters can elect a new school board majority and clean house. If we don’t, we will get more of the same—and deserve it.