San Marino Unified School District has collectively had the top-performing public schools in California for the lifetime of many of its students, but that doesn’t mean things are perfect — some parents and community shareholders contend, at least.
In a town hall style meeting Monday, parents, longtime residents and even teachers expressed as much in a packed Hill-Harbison House. The group gathered to take in and digest a presentation from resident Richard Copeland regarding the district’s approach to its facilities master plan and proposed bond measure, an approach he found to be lacking in accountability and responsibility.
Copeland, a former litigator and now mediator, said he feels there needs to be some mediation between district officials and the city’s residents.
“This is about community and obviously community is very important to everyone in this room tonight,” Copeland said. “I think [mediation] is the phase where we’re at, as far as what to do with our schools.”
Copeland assembled his presentation from a variety of public records requests, some of which he described as more difficult than should be — to a point that he suspected the district actually violated state transparency laws on several occasions.
From those records, he extrapolated that the district and its Board of Education failed to act according to prior surveying done in 2016 regarding a then-potential bond proposition, and improperly allocated large sums of money attempting to give publicity to the bond’s purpose of addressing facility needs.
Superintendent Alex Cherniss, in an email, said the district responded to the records requests as it could.
“The District spent months working on this request and released thousands of documents,” he wrote. “It was quite an undertaking while at the same time focusing on the day-to-day operations of the school district. If there are any more documents requested we will comply.”
Copeland highlighted a singular point of frustration by referencing a USC-UCLA football game that ended 50-0: for the past 50 school board meetings, the board, by his estimate, had not a single dissenting vote cast on any of its action items.
“There’s no ‘nay’ votes,” he said. “Where are they? How is it that everyone is agreeing on everything all the time?
“My guess is you could go back way further than 50 board meetings,” Copeland later added. “I just didn’t have the time.”
School Board President Shelley Ryan, who attended the meeting, said in a text message, “Each member of the board votes independently. I can only speak to my voting record.”
Based on the results of the bond surveying he compiled, Copeland concluded that, at best, around 55% of surveyed residents in 2016 were likely to support the bond, which is the minimum percentage required for passage. In a separate interview, Copeland found an official from the same surveying company indicated similar results for another school district meant a bond was unlikely to pass.
By contrast, Copeland pointed out, surveying for La Cañada Unified School District’s bond — which ultimately passed in November — showed 65% were likely to support it. Furthermore, LCUSD’s bond was an extension of an expiring bond tax — as opposed to a new tax being added on top of an existing burden — and a similar idea in SMUSD’s surveying indicated 60% support.
“When you want to add money on top of already existing tax burdens, people are not very supportive of it,” Copeland said. “The one thing is that we get a pass on in a tax extension bond. The only situation that indicated when a bond should potentially go forward was in 2020. We saw what people thought then about a new performing arts center and a swimming pool. They felt about it then as they do now.”
Cherniss said in an email that the survey results were slightly more favorable than were presented — 60% for an additional bond and 65% for an extension bond — and that the age of the survey was a factor into this year’s discussions.
“While I am not an expert on survey results, I do know that the district was advised by consultants specializing in this field that these results would not accurately reflect community sentiment in 2018 because the survey was two years old,” Cherniss wrote.
Despite what he presented as unfavorable survey results, Copeland said the district spent or allocated a total of $491,000 for bond counsel, political consulting and architecture services since the survey’s completion. This, combined with the survey and facilities needs assessment, amounted to more than $621,000, according to Copeland.
Julie Boucher, assistant superintendent of business services, said in an email that to date, $152,202 had been spent on those items and noted in a phone interview that money otherwise allocated for these services would not be spent until a bond successfully passed.
Audience members at the town hall often echoed Copeland’s points, with numerous PTA members bemoaning that money they had raised throughout the years appeared to be spent on consulting instead of on programming.
“It seems like the stewardship that we put into fundraising is not put into fund spending,” said Lora Wagner, a past executive board member of the Valentine Elementary School PTA.
A handful of teachers also attended the meeting, also expressing disappointment that more money wasn’t being spent on programming.
“We are here tonight because we are as frustrated with this as you are,” said Huntington Middle School teacher Robbin Nordsten, speaking to parents.
Copeland said he did not wish to impede improvements made to district facilities and only wanted to improve the process by which those were achieved.
“I don’t think any of us want our kids in substandard facilities where we have pipes breaking and leaking roofs and things of that nature,” he said. “Things need to be done.”
In addition to Ryan, those in attendance included school board member Lisa Link as well as City Council members Steve Talt, Gretchen Shepherd Romey and Ken Ude.
“Discussion regarding the district and the board was fairly critical, but I felt it allows the board and the district opportunities to improve accountability, transparency and fiscal management,” Ryan said.
A recording of the meeting is posted on the Facebook page San Marino Schools Participation Forum.