The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is drumming up support for a bond measure on the November ballot, but it's unclear exactly how the money will be spent if it's approved.
If approved by voters Nov. 6, the $385-million general obligation bond would fund facility and technology upgrades across the district, but officials have yet to provide a specific spending plan.
A documented titled “Future Projects” on the district’s website lists cost estimates for capital improvements projects at elementary and secondary schools. Members of the board of education and other district officials have pointed to it while discussing the potential of the bond funds provided by Measure ES.
Yet the document is seen as little more than a starting point. Six years later, needs identified at some schools—such as building classrooms or replacing portables—are no longer relevant.
The district’s facilities improvements department did not respond to repeated requests for further specifics.
School Board Places Bond on November Ballot
Members of the board of education, however, have said that earmarking will not begin until after the bond money is approved. The district says it plans to go school-by-school to assess current needs and work with members of the community by that time.
The general obligation bond would cost the average home owner $185 per year for up to 30 years, at a rate of $30 per $100,000 of assessed value. So for Malibu homes worth $1 million, the cost would be about $300. The money could not be used to fund salaries for teachers or other employees.
Moving forward with a bond measure without a spending agenda set in stone can be a risky political move, according to Michael Shires, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University and an expert in education finance.
Districts almost always tell voters exactly what they’re buying—it’s easier to sell, particularly when it comes to a price tag of almost $400 million, Shires said.
Cami Winikoff, a Malibu film producer and parent who is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the Malibu Community Preservation Alliance and Malibu Township Council to block the installation of permanent lights at the Malibu High School athletic field, said she wanted to see more specifics.
"I could never imagine going to a board and saying, 'Write me a $385 million check and I’ll let you know later what I’m going to do with it later,'" Winikoff said.
Malibu will receive 20 percent of the Measure ES funds. District officials are now floating the idea of a Malibu-only "super-site committee" to give a wide swath of community stakeholders control over where that money ends up.
At a meeting at Webster Elementary School in Malibu last week, district Board of Education member Laurie Lieberman stressed that Measure ES only authorizes the district to sell the bonds.
Until site committees have fully assessed the needs and construction plans are in place, Lieberman said, taxpayers will not pay a dime.
“We’re not saying, ‘We need money now,’” Lieberman said.
Other supporters of Measure ES echoed Lieberman’s emphasis on the future. Waiting until the bond money is approved will give the district the reason to move forward with the assessment process, said Rebecca Kennerly, a member of the Measure ES committee.