Dear SM-MUSD Board Members and Superintendent Lyon,
Please excuse this long e-mail. I hope you find these thoughts worth contemplating.
I am writing to urge you not to proceed with the proposed Districtwide Fundraising Plan and to instead convene a group of experienced professionals to review alternative strategies for closing the resource gap among SMMUSD schools.
I understand the District has a compelling goal to provide equal opportunities for all students regardless of socio-economic status. While a worthy pursuit, it would be a grave mistake, with generational consequences, to pursue the goal in a fashion that ultimately proves destructive. Just as forced busing proved to be the wrong plan for the right cause, the Districtwide Fundraising Plan will also prove to be a misguided attempt to right a social wrong that ultimately will hurt the District far more than it will help.
Before I explain why, let me share a few words about myself. I have been a professional fundraiser for the past 17 years, 13 of which have been spent raising money for public education. From 1985-2000 I lived in Santa Monica and had six foster children – African-American, white, Latino, and Asian – who attended five different Santa Monica schools, ranging from Franklin Elementary which consisted primarily of high income families, to Olympic High School which was populated primarily by students from less advantaged backgrounds. Since 2000, I have lived in Malibu where I have had a son at Webster elementary school for the past five years.
Here are my predictions of what will happen if the Board adopts the Districtwide Fundraising Plan:
1. Voluntary donations by Malibu parents (and Franklin and Roosevelt parents) to their children’s schools will drop by hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
2. The District will lose the passionate fundraising performed by a significant legion of Malibu (and Santa Monica) parents.
3. Giving to the SM-Malibu Educational Foundation will increase by only a small fraction of the larger decrease which will occur as a result of Malibu (and Franklin and Roosevelt) families reducing their giving, resulting in a net drop in parent support of district schools totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
4. Staff and programs in Malibu schools which are currently paid for by local PTAs will be sharply curtailed because the Santa Monica Malibu Education Foundation will not succeed in raising sufficient funds to provide for those things.
5. The funding which Districtwide Fundraising Plan advocates hope will become available to less-resourced Santa Monica schools will fail to materialize.
6. Significant numbers of Malibu families, distressed by the drop in quality in their children’s schools, will continue to act in their children’s interests and enroll their children in private schools which provide the staff and programs that Malibu parents want for their children and for which they are able and willing to pay.
7. Given the fact that Malibu schools are among the highest achieving schools in the district, the districts overall achievement scores will drop as parents take their high-scoring children out of public schools.
8. Given the fact that academic achievement is generally correlated with income, the flight of high income students in Malibu and Santa Monica to private schools will reduce the number of high achieving students in classrooms and reduce their former school’s achievement scores.
9. The District will, in fact, achieve a minor narrowing of the resource gap, but it will not be achieved by substantially bringing up the bottom. Rather, the narrowing of the resource gap will be achieved simply by reducing the financial resources available to schools at the top.
10. Similarly, the District will, in fact, achieve a minor narrowing of the achievement gap, but it will not be achieved by significantly bringing up the bottom. Rather, the narrowing of the achievement gap will be achieved largely by reducing the number of high achieving students in high income schools.
11. As a result of families withdrawing their students from district schools, SM-MUSD will lose the state funding it currently receives for enrolling those students.
12. Future school bond measures will have a more difficult passage due to the fact that fewer families will have children enrolled in public schools, the number of passionate parents advocating for the bond measures will be reduced, and the number of votes cast in support of such bonds will drop. Given the razor-thin margin which bond measures have received when successful, the loss of passionate and influential advocates and the resulting loss of votes can have devastating consequences for future district budgets.
13. The SM-MUSD Board of Education will have demonstrated again why it needs to find a way to create Malibu representation to help prevent actions that unintentionally, unnecessarily, and unproductively alienate its Malibu constituents.
Here is my recommendation: Convene a task force of experienced, professional fundraisers whose children are or have been students in Santa Monica-Malibu schools. There are many of us. Task the professional fundraisers among us with the challenge of coming up with a plan to increase the resources enjoyed by the low income schools rather than reducing the resources benefiting the high income schools. Everyone wins in that kind of solution. In the Proposed District Fundraising Plan, the schools, the district, the parents, and most of all the students will lose. No matter how hard mission-driven board members and administrators may wish it were otherwise, wishing the impossible will only make reality worse.
We must understand that the District Fundraising Plan is not like federal tax policy where you can transfer wealth from high income to low income earners simply by declaring that the wealthy MUST pay the tax. Your plan requires voluntary giving – and people will not give when they are ANGRY about the plan. Angry parents will not give. They won’t. Fundraisers understand this reality, and if district leadership ignores this, it will be to the district’s peril.
I have heard some in Santa Monica complain that the privileged people of Malibu (and Franklin and Roosevelt) who object to the plan are behaving selfishly. But if one stops and really thinks about it, Malibu parents spend their time and resources in the same way that each of you on the School board do. Each one of you, in fact, could choose to devote your energies to schools far needier than Santa Monica’s most needy, to children in far more desperate circumstances than our kids in Santa Monica. Yet even though there are schools and children far worse off than our own, you are investing your time and resources in Santa Monica simply because you have chosen, consciously or not, to make your investment in the community to which you belong. Is that being selfish of you? Maybe in a sense it is but, in the end, we all allocate our times and resources in the ways we want. Malibu parents are doing precisely the same thing. Their behavior and motivations need to be understood as being no different than your or anyone else’s and managed appropriately.
Let me close with an analogy. During the 13 years I worked in the University of California system, UC Berkeley and UCLA raised hundreds of millions of dollars more from private gifts than the other UC campuses. Yet the president’s office at the University of California always knew that reducing Berkeley and UCLA’s ability to raise large sums of money was not the solution to the other campuses’ needs. Similarly, while I was at UCLA, the Schools of Medicine and Business raised millions upon millions of dollars more than the school of nursing or the humanities. Yet the Chancellor knew that reducing Medicine’s and Business’s ability to raise money was not the solution to other schools’ needs.
Please don’t think that you will help the less resourced schools in Santa Monica by preventing Malibu parents from making their schools the best those schools can possibly be. You cannot add height to a short person by cutting off the head of a tall one. True, the difference between the two will diminish and the short person might actually feel less short. But the short person has not truly been helped despite the tall person’s loss.
Please put this matter in the hands of experienced professionals and solicit their advice. Let’s narrow the differential by raising the bottom up rather than by taking the top down. It’s not a perfect world and we will never get all the way there. But let’s act constructively. There is too much at stake to do otherwise.