After over a year and a half, the Santa Monica City Council voted at a recent council meeting to release remaining account funds — in the amount of $804,470 — to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) as part of its Master Facilities Joint Use Agreement.

Since June 2007, the city had withheld these funds pending further action by the school district regarding its controversial Special Education Program.

The city cited concerns brought forth by parents of special education students about a policy that had been in place for several years requiring them to sign confidentiality clauses in their settlement agreements.

In order to receive the funds, the council required that the district put a moratorium on the policy and conduct an independent evaluation of its special education plan by March of last year. The district has complied.

At that time, Tim Walker was deputy superintendent and Dianne Talarico was superintendent of the district. Since then, both have resigned.

An independent audit of the district’s Special Education Program, conducted by Lou Barber and Associates, noted several concerns — including the fact that confidentiality clauses create a sense of “secret deals and unequal treatment of students and families.”

“The use of settlement agreements with confidentiality clauses needs to be reduced dramatically,” the consultants said, adding that the district needs to “create a culture of much more transparency and openness in dealing with the students and families.”

Since that time, “the school district has taken positive steps toward resolving Special Education issues,” said interim superintendent Tim Cuneo.

At the board meeting, over a dozen people spoke — including a number of special education parents — about whether or not they thought the council should release the funds.

Several parents suggested releasing half of the funds and withholding the other half with some kind of oversight.

“I think it would be significant if you would release half of the funds to show good faith to the community that the work that is going forward is valued,” said special education parent Tricia Crane, who is a member of the Special Education District Advisory Committee.

But for Richard Milanesi, also a special education parent, it was more complicated.

“I wish you could give it [the money] to them today,” he said. “But if you bear with me for a second.”

After a pause, he continued, “My drainpipe is broken in my house that leads all the way out to the street. It’s cracked. It’s got to be replaced. The plumber comes. There’s a trench that has to be dug all the way across my property. And the bill is $2,800.

“Am I going to pay the plumber in advance before he does the work? Or am I going to pay him after the city inspector comes, which is in place to protect me that the work is done correctly? Am I on the right track here?

“My heart tells me [to] give the money to the school district, but my brain tells me that if you release the funds, everything stops right now. The improvements will not continue. So I implore you to hold the money back until the work is done.”

Gleam Davis, co-chair of the BB Advisory Committee, disagreed.

“I’m here to ask you to release the money to the school district tonight,” she said. “I think there are three things that are absolutely true. And one is, you put two conditions on the release of the money back in June and the school district has met those conditions.

“Two, I think there have been some tremendous efforts made at the district towards fulfilling the district’s obligations towards families with special needs children.

“Three, it’s also true that it has a long way to go. Unfortunately, the district needs the money. As you all know, the state is in a very difficult financial condition right now. Eventually, that is going to affect the school district.

“But moreover, I think that at some point we need to recognize that the district has made strides and has set in place committees and other institutions that will continue to make those strides.”

The council has received regular reports from the district on the Special Education Program from city manager Lamont Ewell, district representatives and parents of students in the district.

And in a letter to Mayor Ken Genser dated January 5th, Cuneo outlined the steps the district had taken to better its Special Education Program. Those steps were also outlined to the council at the meeting by school board president Ralph Mechur.

“Through the leadership of the SMMUSD Board of Education, the collaborative effort of the SEDAC [Special Education District Advisory Committee], PTA [Parent Teachers Association] and district staff, and the literally thousands of hours contributed by parents and staff, I am proud to say that we have addressed the requests by the council as it relates to Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Special Education services,” Cuneo said.

He then “respectfully request[ed] that the council take action to release the funds held in reserve.”

The City Council agreed to release the $804,470 in funds. Of that, $527,779 is from fiscal year 2007-08 and $274,691 is half of the fiscal year 2008-09 amount.

At the meeting, Genser told the members of the community that they should not view the council releasing the funds to the district “as the end of the line.”

“We have a major issue coming up, which is to renew the contract,” he said. “When we renew that contract, if we perceive that there isn’t good faith and if we perceive that the residents of the city, the parents of the children of this city, are not getting good service, I have a feeling that this council — it takes four votes to make a decision here — but I have a feeling that there would be conditions put on it [the money] if we felt they would be necessary.”

The school district agreed to keep the council apprised of its progress in addressing the needs of its special education students.