February 7, 2023 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

SMa.r.t. Column: Grading the School Board

Elections are a chance to review the performance of the governing bodies and chart a new direction when that performance has been found insufficient. In the case of our local School Board, the report card of their performance shows much room for improvement and its performance looking ahead looks even less promising. If we focus just on fiscal management (leaving aside for discussion purposes student performance and quality of instruction) we see a school district that is completely out of control. 

The first fact that should color all decisions is that Santa Monica’s school population is substantially declining. My children went all the way through Santa Monica’s public schools and they received an excellent education. However, when they started in 1994 the district had about 12,000 students; today it has less than 10,000 and that lower number is being artificially inflated by the steroids of importing hundreds of out-of-district children. Meanwhile, as the enrollment is shrinking, our school district is fanatically increasing its debt burden on the our remaining future businesses, residents and their children. Just a few examples:

A net zero District

After asking voters for $1.4 billlion of bonds obligated in the last two decades, with an outstanding debt of $845M (as of 6/30/20), the District still only gets about 25% of its power from roof top solar collectors. A wealthy district like ours should be entirely net zero, meaning it produces all the power it needs from local renewable resources (solar, wind, geothermal etc.). The abundant sunshine on our wide-open, low-rise campuses, and their high daytime power loads are perfect for roof top photo-voltaic solar collectors.

 This energy independence would allow the district to continue operating, even after the inevitable future power brown outs. Needless to say, the District’s air-conditioning power loads are only going to massively increase with increasing global warming. Note that student performance declines measurably as classroom temperatures go up. Finally this enhanced power could help staff conveniently recharge their cars (for a fee) and help SCE deal with the escalating charging shortfall caused by the increase use of electric cars.

Energy independence

This energy independence is one of the few ways that capital improvement funds can directly reduce the District’s operating costs. By spending capital improvement funds (bonds) on solar collectors, we can reduce the district’s growing power bills freeing up those expenditures for paying for debt servicing or for more teachers (or raises) needed for project or enquiry-based learning and the countless other worthy and necessary operating expenses. 

A secondary benefit of power independence, among the widely distributed campuses (except downtown) means they can be temporarily repurposed as cooling centers during the unavoidable disastrous heat waves. Remember last year when Portland Oregon reached a deadly 116 degrees? This tells you no City, including ours, is safe from fatal heatwaves. Cooling centers would be a vital and lifesaving service for our large senior population that has proportionally little installed air-conditioning. Equally important, it would be an emergency way for the District to “repay” the City’s businesses/residents  for making them endure decades of crushing bond and tax payments.

The inability of the Board to anticipate the now normal arc of global warming shows a startling short sightedness. But the failure to learn has extended to other missed opportunities. 

21st Century internet infrastructure

Our City should have its own city wide high speed broad band fiber optic internet system. Today corporations such as Spectrum and Frontier are muscling their way between the user and the high speed fiber grid already installed by our City. These corporations are charging outrageous fees which, when added to the City’s telecom taxes, are an unnecessary and increasing resident and business burden. The School District saw this when trying to teach remotely to students during the Covid crunch, many of whom did not have the ability to participate equally, particularly the with the libraries closed. This problem also effected seniors (often on limited incomes) and really all residents of limited income. So the district should be partnering with the City or College, if they are going to pass bonds, to have a City utility wide broad band system built out from our existing public fiber grid. This would cost about $110M or about 9% of the total bonds approved since 2006.  Again this would be a way for the District  to “repay” the City’s residents and businesses  for making them endure decades of crushing  bond//tax payments. With a municipal broadband system our residents, business, schools would have inexpensive ultra-high speed internet.

But these are all forward looking initiatives, which would be normal for an “A-“ or even a  “B+” district that wants to be a good progressive community member, but way beyond our District which is not looking ahead and can’t imagine a brighter future. Perhaps we should dumb down our grading system for our District and just look at its past performance? Unfortunately, there the historical news is equally grim:

Escalating debt

First we have a runaway pension obligation overhang of $233M as of 6/30/20. This has ballooned up at a compounded 16% a year from the $110M it was in 2015 and is now almost twice the District’s entire annual operating budget. This represents a debt of about $4600 for each Santa Monica household or about $23,000 per student! But the important fact is that the School Board has no plan to address this: absolutely no plan at all. In fact, their current situation might be even worse with the stock market turbulence reducing the financial performance of CalPERS and CalSTRS, the District’s two pension plans. 

How do you think this is going to end? This runaway pension obligation is already effecting negatively the District’s bond rating. The District’s inability to manage costs has resulted in an ongoing requirement to submit a Fiscal Stability Plan for County approval.  All this despite the fact that the District is the recipient of unique (among California school districts) additional revenue streams provided by separate additional tax measures passed by the City’s voters.

This is not a pitch not to pay the teachers’ well earned retirement and medical benefits. On the contrary, teachers work very hard and deserve every penny, but it’s the Board’s job to have a realistic plan to find the money. Instead, the Board seems to be more  interested in distracting us with dramatic new construction and spending freely based on the residents’ generosity in approving repetitive bonds. Not surprisingly the Board’s need for distraction and the resident’s generosity leads to frightful wastes of your money.

Failure to maintain

Second, the maintenance of existing buildings is horribly neglected since it’s the least sexy of the Board’s many obligations. For example a relatively new school (John Muir/SMASH), that’s only about a quarter century old, needs to be entirely  closed down for a $20M year long mold remediation which had put students and staff’s health at risk. Somehow the Board failed to detect and solve a simple waterproofing problem that got away from them. But who cares about $20M: it’s just a rounding error on a $1.43B bond issue? But it still needs to be repaid one penny at a time plus interest by you the tax payer.

The third failure is not to preserve existing buildings. The poster child for this is the tragic demolition of the central historical History building at the high school. This building could have been rehabbed and replaced into service faster and for less or equal cost but it was somehow more glamorous to build a new building next to noisy Pico. The ecological cost of such a demolition of course are completely ignored as is the years long campus wide disruption. And naturally the new building is not a net zero building.  Again best to squander money on unnecessary expenses than carefully preserve and upgrade an existing building that has had pride of place for almost 90 years. On a smaller scale the same disrespect was extended to the destroyed redwood forest mural by Jane Golden (who could have repainted it)  at Olympic High School. Large scale or small scale the message is always the same wrong one: demolition is better than preservation. Every single building on the high school campus except Barnum Hall (a landmark) and possibly the English building will be replaced in a 20 year period whether it needs it or not. 

Crazy Overbuilding

The final failure is the crazy proposed overbuilding, that no one wants, planned for the Roosevelt and Franklin campuses. Cramming endless construction and filling every possible open space, the densification of these campuses is again completely uncalled for since the child population will grow very slowly if at all north of Wilshire while the pleasure and utility of open space is unchanged. Again squandering of construction money is symptomatic of a District that has lost its way.

In short we have a district with a shrinking enrollment that 1) is crippled by massive pension debt with no planned exit strategy, 2) cannot or is unwilling to properly maintain its existing facilities, 3) always selects demolition instead of adaptive reuse as the preferred strategy and  4) has pie in the sky plans for destroying the remaining  campuses with useless infill.

The key assumption of their (and SM College’s) business plan is that the residents and businesses are a limitless financial resource to be harvested at every opportunity.  This ingrained mentality is even structured, with a tacit agreement between the District and the College that they will take turns in proposing facility bonds every two years in the hope that the residents and business will not notice.  So, do not be surprised if there is a new School bond issue in 2024, again relying on the residents unquestioning educational generosity.  Of course, this subtly increases the housing costs for everyone in a City already beset by very high housing costs.

What you can Do

So for fiscal management the School Board has unfortunately gotten a mid term grade of “D” and when the 2022 numbers come out it will probably be downgraded to an “F”.  Essentially the Board has become a real estate operation with an education side-hustle.  That side-hustle is about to become much more complex with the divorce with Malibu that, with all its fiscal costs, will require even more attention to fiscal details that has been lacking in the past.  Even if the residents have been previously very generous with their money, it is not free and should be very frugally and carefully managed particularly in mind of the Board’s complete lack of preparation for the future challenges of global warming.

If your child brought home a “D” report card with an “F” warning, you would immediately ask for drastic changes. Fortunately, you as a voter have that ability now to create those drastic changes by electing a whole new school Board.  

Therefore, S.M.a.r.t. endorses the challenger candidates of: Angela Di Gaetano, Esther Hickman, Stacy Rouse, and Miles Warner for School Board. Vote for them. They will bring a vitally needed new direction for your beleaguered School District. 

By  Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA

S.M.a.r.t Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect & Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect & Planning Commissioner, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA & Planning Commissioner, Marc Verville M.B.A, CPA (Inactive), Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE.

For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing

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