Throwing Money at Schools Won't Help: SMMUSD Needs to Get Back to Basics of Education
It's not complicated. Students need dedicated, supported teachers and a safe, comfortable physical environment conducive to learning
October 21, 2020
As a student in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district in the 1980s and 90s my classmates and I were blessed to experience a public education second to none. I formed tight life-long bonds not only with my classmates but with our devoted teachers.
Up until COVID I was still following around iconic choir director Mrs.Linda Anderson, my beloved mentor, role model and surrogate Mother. I still talk to legendary Samohi English teacher Berkeley Blatz, fully mesmerized by his magical perspective on life. The very best teachers were proud to work in our school district and a diverse array of parents were grateful to send their children there. A child of immigrants, I benefited from this pinnacle of American public education thanks to the Santa Monica-Malibu community that had invested in and carefully charted its course for decades before I arrived.
Now that my own daughter is entering the district, I am deeply concerned about its future. Although this is the second most well-resourced school district in all of Los Angeles county, and the school board has successfully cajoled tax payers into voting for multiple bond measures, including the 2018 $485 Million SMS bond measure (the largest K-12 bond measure in California at the time), our school district is failing to provide students with the physical and academic conditions they so desperately require to thrive both now and in the future.
De-Prioritizing Our Precious Resources
You don't need a PhD in education to understand what students need today and in the decades ahead: Dedicated, supported teachers and a safe, comfortable physical environment conducive to learning. It's just that simple. These are the same things students have always needed, and the current state of the world makes them more important than ever.
And yet, the SMMUSD appears primarily disinterested in securing these two fundamental conditions of a quality education for our students. This spring in the middle of the pandemic, 49 teachers were pink-slipped. In the end it appears as if 12 teachers were let go. There is really no way of understanding how many educators or instrumental staff members were eliminated or forced into early retirement because there is no report and the district fails to be transparent. The board eliminated important positions including the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, while retaining the Director of Education Technology - a role that approves dozens of for-profit vendors that gain access to personally identifiable student and teacher data.
The fact is, we need to hire, not fire, teachers. Measure R overwhelmingly passed in 2008 promised taxpayers to "protect smaller class sizes" and "retain highly qualified teachers"
Abundant evidence supports that smaller class sizes lead to student success. Students in smaller classes who complete high school are more likely to take college-entrance exams than those assigned to medium or large classes. The effects are even more powerful for minority and less affluent students. Instead of chasing untested "ed tech" fads, and pouring taxpayer dollars into them, the district should be hiring additional well-qualified teachers and giving them the support they require.
Our teachers are delivering during this incredibly challenging time, navigating the complexities of online instruction while looking ahead to putting their own health and safety on the line when in-person instruction resumes. But when that day comes, in many district schools they will be met with conditions that hinder students' ability to learn. We can't wish away the reality that the number of extreme heat days and poor air quality days will continue to rise, and our teachers and students require air conditioning to ensure them a comfortable and safe learning environment.
Many public and private schools have already completed their community engagement and are back to school with hybrid and distance learning plans while our district has just begun community engagement. Almost 40% of our schools don't have air conditioning. Students and parents complain that the bathrooms are in such a state of disrepair that their students refuse to use the bathrooms and have reported no hot water. The district drags its heels on a safe return-to-school plan and these direly needed facilities upgrades, yet it moves full steam ahead on a budget-breaking new building at Samohi that nobody asked for. Instead of prioritizing a future new building at a single school, let's first show our students of today that we value them, by ensuring them the physical environments necessary to fully focus on learning.
Shameful Budget Mismanagement
Reading about teacher layoffs and decrepit bathrooms, a reader with no knowledge of the situation would think that this is a disadvantaged, underfunded district. But the voters and taxpayers of Santa Monica and Malibu know well that that could not be less true - because they've been voting year after year to give the district money through measures such as R, YY, GSH, and $1.333 billion dollars in bonds since 2006 through Measures BB, ES, SMS and M.
Over the last 10 year $67M of Measure R funds has gone unaccounted for in the district audits. District residents pay this tax every year, and I wonder how many realize that instead of being invested in attracting and retaining the best teachers and ensuring our students the baseline requirements of air quality and warm water the district is using this money for bright shiny new objects, like the Samohi construction project which promises to demolish and replace the santa monica high school History building with a lavish structure reportedly costing $172M.
A Better Path Forward
It doesn't have to be this way. The generosity of our district's voters and taxpayers is unparallelled. Our schools possess a rich and storied history of which the community and alumni are rightly proud. And our current students are brimming with potential, ready to be the leaders and changemakers that our community is known for raising and which our world so desperately needs. But to ensure that future for them we need to elect school board leaders with their eyes, minds and hearts laser-focused on the needs of our teachers, students and parents.
As your school board member, I will advocate for teachers and smaller class sizes, and urgently prioritize upgrading our facilities so they're functioning, comfortable, and safe. I will bring common sense priorities and a fresh perspective. As a past student and soon-to-be parent in the district I will invest everything I've got into ensuring that our schools are worthy of the teachers who are their beating hearts and the students who fill them daily with their dreams, curiosity, and promise for the future.