The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education has approved a controversial shift to a centralized fundraising policy for the district.

The board voted 6-0 Nov. 29 to revise the district’s acceptance of gifts policy, designating the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation as the sole organization that can raise funds to pay for personnel and professional development at school sites. Under the policy, individual Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) will no longer be able to fundraise to pay for staff or programs at their schools.

The approval came after hours of public testimony for the second consecutive meeting on the issue that involved speakers arguing for the status quo and others for the move to districtwide fundraising.

District officials said the policy change is intended to create a structure for increased giving and program equality for all schools. The district hopes to remove barriers that contribute to achievement gaps for different groups of students, and ensure that funds raised provide equal access to education for all students, staff said.

Noting that there are disparities among various communities in their ability to contribute additional funds for programs and services, which can result in unequal educational opportunities among the schools, district officials called for a centralized fundraising model. Allowing individual PTAs to raise money to hire school staff is a process that has been fraught with difficulties and has created great inequities, district Superintendent Sandra Lyon said at the Nov. 29 meeting.

“It is my job to ensure that all students in the district have equitable access to programs and the educational experience regardless of which schools they attend,” Lyon said.

The revised policy is slated to be implemented in all elementary schools by July 1, 2013. All corporate gifts over $2,500 and smaller gifts totaling $2,500 in a year to district elementary schools will be directed through the education foundation effective July 1, 2012.

Following the gifts policy approval, Lyon said a superintendent’s advisory group will be formed in January to meet with other districts that have successfully transitioned to centralized fundraising and will return to the board in June 2012 with recommendations. A memorandum of understanding with the education foundation on the policy will also need to be approved.

Lyon noted that districts that have implemented the centralized approach have sought to better use their resources and be strategic with the funding they have. Some benefits include a move to community based fundraising that will provide a consistent revenue stream, and building synergy among the fundraising campaigns, she said.

PTAs will continue to be able to raise funds for school supplies and other items, but they can also focus on “core” activities like volunteering, Lyon said.

Not everyone was convinced that changing to districtwide fundraising was the right move. Some said they fear the revision will lead schools to lose money while others argued that more time is needed to make such an important decision.

“I believe the imposed mandate requiring all school donations to be directed and centralized, without a public vote, rather than directly to the school for which the donation is intended to go is beyond the scope of the board’s authority,” Steve Gallardo said.

Tom Larmore, former Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce chair, said he supports the policy but believes the July 2013 date for the policy to take effect does not provide enough time for some fundraising goals.

“Let’s channel this energy in a way that increases the resources available to all schools to levels currently achieved only by a few without penalizing those that have been more successful,” he said.

The fundraising change has come as city leaders in Malibu are pursuing the possibility of separating from the unified school district. The Malibu City Council voted Nov. 28 to initiate the process of exploring possible secession.

Others argued that no delay was necessary and urged the board to take a stand for equity among the schools, stressing that it is a “unified” district.

“We don’t need proof ahead of time before we change a practice that we know is fundamentally wrong,” said Laurie Latham, PTA president at Edison Elementary. “Public schools should be equal for all those that attend them.”

Board Member Ben Allen said he is excited that the board is “taking a stand for equity” and noted that the new gifts policy would not prevent parents from giving directly to their schools.

In supporting the motion, Board Member Nimish Patel, who said the decision is probably the hardest one he has made on the board, explained that he realized there are two communities in the city, one where groups can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and the other where the majority of students are at or below the poverty line.

Board Member Oscar de la Torre said the district can set an example with the new policy for ensuring equity among its schools.

“I think we need to be the example to the rest of the state and the nation of what can be accomplished when people of all walks of life and backgrounds come together to build an institution that provides equity and access of opportunity to all children,” de la Torre said.

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