At last Thursday’s Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education meeting, parents and teachers from both cities took board members to task over district spending and subsequent teacher layoffs.

Although it was unclear during the meeting how many layoffs there would actually be (that was to be decided during a special board meeting on Tuesday, May 13), community members expressed frustration over what they saw as misallocated funds by the district that caused the current budget shortfall.

The May 7 board meeting—which took place virtually, per LA County’s Safer at Home order—was attended by more than 100 participants. At the five-hour mark, 164 participants remained on the call. 

The layoffs are part of the district’s Stabilization Plan, which was presented in March in response to a potential $10.8 million deficit going into the 2020-21 school year. The plan also includes restructuring certain services, freezing a technology refresh, reducing overtime and restricting district vehicle usage. 

During an agenda item regarding a resolution to approve the Measure R parcel tax increase, some called into question the district’s ability to spend frugally. Malibu and Santa Monica residents currently pay a $420.75-per-parcel tax; the increase sought to adjust for inflation—and therefore, increase by about $15 per parcel—an amount based on the Consumer Price Index (the average change in cost of consumer goods and services). 

“When you’re short $11 million and firing teachers, yet you’re spending on pet projects... It’s not your money. This is our money and we want it to go to teachers, not administrators,” Santa Monica resident Mark Cullen said. “The top six administrators make $1.3 million—six people.”

He asked the district to be “more responsible” before asking its constituents for more money. Another speaker, Laura Ford, asked board members how they could justify asking for more money during a pandemic.

The original language of the measure stipulated the district would provide an expenditure plan—an itemized list of spending based on finite purposes, including preserving programs, sustaining achievement in a variety of subjects at all grade levels, and attracting and retaining skilled teachers. Since the year it was passed, 2008, between $5 million and $6 million of each year’s spending was designated as “balance used to preserve programs and replace funds lost due to inadequate state funding” per year, with no further explanation.

Board Member Oscar de la Torre asked staff whether it was “true” that staff had not been itemizing Measure R funding. Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati placed the blame on school board members, and said, “We were just following the protocol that you board members have approved for the last year[s] since 2008.”

Drati confirmed he would ask SMMUSD Assistant Superintendent of Business and Fiscal Services Melody Canady to itemize spending moving forward. The resolution passed with a unanimous vote, with assurances from board members that it would be itemized and used toward funding teachers. 

The board meeting later shifted toward talk of the much-anticipated agenda item of the evening: layoffs. 

Drati explained that as student enrollment has decreased over the past few years, the number of district staff—across the board, from teachers to administrators—has increased, resulting in the need to “align the staffing to the enrollment.”

Normally, he said, staffing reduces through retirements, resignations and other similar reasoning. When that isn’t the case, layoffs are the next step, as is the case for this school year.

“I don’t know a single superintendent in our county right now that’s not having layoff conversations,” Drati said.

District Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Dr. Mark Kelly said 49 teachers were put on notice about a potential termination, otherwise known as a pink slip. Twenty notices so far have been rescinded.

Those who were given pink slips are legally allowed to request a hearing to contest the notice via the state of California’s Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). A handful of teachers did contest their notices; the OAH decision came in an hour prior to the BOE’s Thursday meeting. As such, the board pushed a final vote adopting a resolution to implement layoffs to Tuesday, May 12, in a special meeting.

Despite this decision, the board moved forward with discussion and public comments on the matter.

Among Santa Monicans and Malibuites, the consensus was clear: Keep cuts away from classrooms. 

Malibu’s Melissa Solano addressed Drati’s prior “reassurance” of no combined classes and loss of faculty due to budget cuts back when the idea to combine Point Dume Marine Science School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School started to take shape.

“You said all these things, but yet after our community experienced devastation, your actions are going to kill Malibu schools,” she said.

Solano spoke of her personal experience with Malibu Elementary School kindergarten teacher Jaime Hammack, who teaches Solano’s six-year-old child. Hammack is one of the teachers who received a pink slip.

“Jaime’s taught my child to read with so much excitement and passion. She’s taught my child to be a problem solver,” Solano explained.

Seth Jacobson, a Malibu resident and SMMUSD Financial Oversight Committee chair, said, “All avenues should be taken to maintain staffing levels.”

He went on to suggest a moratorium on outside contracts and programming, a focus on delaying litigation and mediation instead of legal retainers, and a short-term pay reduction for district leadership.

Going a step further, Malibu Elementary School teacher Nancy Levy questioned the need for the Malibu pathway director, Isaac Burgess IV, whose total pay including benefits amounted to $174,688 in 2019, per the nonprofit Transparent California.

Following public comment, Board President Jon Kean spoke of a disconnect between the district and its constituents. 

“I don’t feel that many people who spoke tonight feel that the fiscal crisis is real within the school district,” Kean said, adding, “You have told us to support teachers and spend less on technology, and right now, through this COVID crisis, we’re learning technology and teachers are unfortunately inexorably linked, so it’s a conundrum.”

He implored people to wait for the May 21 meeting, during which staff will present a plan to make $7 million in budget cuts to combat the deficit.

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