Council Delays SMMUSD Allocation

Everything suggested that last Thursday night’s Santa Monica City Council meeting would be relatively short and simple.

It was the final of three fiscal year 2007-2008 budget study sessions, and most of the heavy lifting had been taken care of at the Tuesday and Wednesday night sessions.

Priorities had been set. All of the City department reports on past projects and plans for the coming year had been made by staff and amended, in some cases, by Council members.

The controversy over the confidentiality agreement that the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s chief financial officer, Winston Braham, had signed on resigning seemed to have subsided.

When Braham refused to certify the school district’s budget and resigned, he was given a $189,000 severance package, with the proviso that he not reveal the reasons for his rejection of the budget and his subsequent resignation. Many residents and some City officials were disturbed by the deal, as it suggested that the District had financial problems that officials didn’t want to reveal.

In response to pressure from some Council members, the restrictions were later modified, but Braham still refused to speak. Several Council members suggested that they might delay payment of some or all of the City’s annual allocation to the District unless Braham cleared the air, but Thursday morning Surf Santa Monica reported that though Braham probably wouldn’t break his silence, the Council would probably not hold up the allocation to the schools.

In an e-mail to Surf Santa Monica, Braham summed it up bluntly: “… the district will always rely on the City’s financial support and even to their detriment the City will always acquiesce.”

Thursday night, the Council moved briskly through the Consent Calendar, heard requests for City funding of a variety of service and arts programs, as well as staff’s list of recommended grants to community service organizations and agencies and cultural/arts programs.

The Council also heard the first reading of an amended ordinance modifying the permanent and temporary relocation fees that landlords are required to pay tenants.

Then, the Council – minus Council member Kevin Mckeown, an employee of the District, who recused himself — took up the last item on the short agenda. After the Council heard the staff’s recommendation that the new budget include the City’s allocation of $7.2 million, under the terms of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Master Facility Use Agreement, members of the public spoke, and the first speaker, Tricia Crane, brought the proceedings to a full stop.

The mother of a child with special needs, Crane has long been a member of the Special Education District Advisory Committee, which developed a comprehensive and workable special education strategic plan at the request of the Board of Education, and in concert with some teachers and staff members. It was approved by the District’s Board of Education in 2004, but has never been implemented by the staff.

As a result of staff changes at the District’s highest levels, and an — apparently written — change in policy regarding the the creation and implementation of federally-madated Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) of special education students, some parents of children with special needs have had to make individual confidential agreements with the District that address the particular needs of their children.

Crane briefly laid out the recent history of the District’s special education “policies,” including the use of strict confidentiality agreements in special education contracts. Following her statement (full text of her statement follows this story), Crane responded to questions from Council members.

Visibly nervous, she said she had gotten a number of phone calls from parents asking her not to speak to the Council and that she knew she was, in the view of some of them, “a pariah” for speaking out at a time when school funding was at stake, and, by doing so, angering District officials.

She went on to describe her own efforts to work with the District’s Special Education staff to procure the particular course of instruction her child needed. The extended negotiations reached an impasse when she refused to sign the confidentiality agreement, or “gag order,” put forward by the District on the advice of her attorney.

Crane later signed an agreement that was revised by her lawyer, but expressed concern for parents who didn’t have lawyers to guide them through the complex process and advise them of their rights.

Crane’s child now attends a private school.

Following Crane to the podium were two other parents of children with special needs. Both of the women reiterated Crane’s allegations about the flaws in the District’s “special ed” policies, as well as her critique of the gag orders. They also described their own struggles to secure the requisite courses of instruction for their children. One mother recounted her recent move out of the Santa Monica-Malibu school district, stating that the private agreement she’d signed at SMMUSD could not be forwarded to the new school district, as it had a confidentiality clause that prevented its being shared even with educators. As a result, her child began school at the new District with an incomplete and unclear record from SMMUSD.

The next round of speakers urged the Council to accept the staff recommendation that it authorize payment of the full $7.2 million allocation, though several of them deplored the “gag orders” and lack of “transparency” in District finances.

Paul Silvern, chairman of the District’s financial oversight committee, disputed the latter charge, claiming that the District’s finances are subject to more rigorous scrutiny than the City of Santa Monica’s.

Kathie Wisnicki, President of the Board of Education, questioned at length by Council members, defended the District’s use of “gag orders,” and suggested that students with special needs sometimes even received more than the “fair and appropriate education” mandated by law under the current policies, but admitted that the money the District disbursed under confidential agreements was folded in with other disbursements rather than being shown as a separate expense.

At the conclusion of the public hearing, Mayor Pro Tem Herb Katz immediately made a motion that the District allocation be withhefd until the District “rescinds the gag orders.” Bobby Shriver seconded the motion. Katz then said that neither parents nor children should have to live in fear as Crane and others have, adding that he and his family had been through a similar ordeal years ago, as two of his children had special needs. Their experience prompted Katz’s late wife, Ilona, to run for the School Board.

The motion failed, and an extended discussion followed, during which Council member Ken Genser argued that while he believed that the Counci could properly ask that the District strive for more transparency, it could not mandate policy changes.

But a motion expressing that position also failed, and, after more discussion, and another failed motion, the Council directed that the increase in base funds should be held in reserve until “various unresolved issues” were addressed.

The Council adjourned in memory of Yolanda King, the daughter of the late Rev Martin Luther King, Jr., who collapsed and died in Santa Monica two weeks ago, She was 51. An actress and producer who lived in Culver City, King spoke at the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. auditorium in the Santa Monica Main Library last year.

Thee Council is scheduled to vote on the final budget at uts next meeting on June 12.

Tricia Crane’s Statement

Good evening:
I am here tonight to express my support of the City Councilmembers who believe that the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District should conduct its business with transparency and accountability and who have called for the lifting of a gag order that was imposed on the district’s former Chief Financial Officer, Winston Braham.
As a longtime supporter of our public schools, the aspect of this issue that concerns me most is the increased use of gag orders as an acceptable way of conducting district business.
And this use of gag orders is not just limited to the Braham situation. Gag orders abound in the school district. Parents are routinely being asked to sign gag orders in order to secure services for their children with special needs. These gag orders preclude them from revealing or discussing the particulars and the costs of services provided. As a result, parents not only live in fear of losing services for their children through an inadvertent slip of the tongue, but we as a community have no access to the financial records and no idea how many dollars are being spent as a result of these agreements.
In June of 2006 in its annual report to the Board of Education, the Special Education District Advisory Committee (SEDAC) challenged what we call the “secret deals” [private contracts between special education parents and SMMUSD as a substitute for Federally protected Individualized Education Plans.] The Board never responded. The staff castigated us. In our monthly meetings we continued to ask how contracts with gag orders were good policy. We were told by then-special education director Tim Walker that they were legal. Again in the 2007 annual report the SEDAC asked the Board to stop the secret deals. There was not one question on the matter and no comment.
There are many who would like to be here tonight but are afraid — people who have been gagged and are legally bound to stay silent on this issue. We don’t know how many there are. We don’t know how many dollars are being paid in secret deals. And it appears that the Board does not know either because, as I understand it, Board members have been advised by Tim Walker, now Deputy Superintendent, that they are not permitted to see the secret deals.
I have no desire to stop the flow of needed money to our schools. (I think the money should be released but only after these immoral policies are examined and dismantled.) After years of working on this issue with district staff and members of the Board of Education, I personally have become convinced that this practice is not only damaging to children, but it is also a convoluted method that manages to circumvent the protections intended by federal and state law.
I am here tonight speaking only for myself because I believe Council action on this issue is needed to create a more open and transparent environment at the school district and thereby restore accountability so that the community at large knows that it can trust its administrators and elected officials, certain that they are acting in the interest of all children.
Thank you
Tricia Crane

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