The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the adage goes.
The San Marino Schools Foundation, which tabbed James Lau as its interim executive director about a year ago, decided to continue to rely on him to run the nonprofit organization for the foreseeable future. The foundation board’s leadership will change in July, going from Chris Maling to Erin Bilvado. The San Marino Unified School District, the foundation’s beneficiary, recently hired a new superintendent, Jeff Wilson, to take over the district after his predecessor departed in August.
And yet, the bottom line didn’t — and doesn’t — change. The SMUSD, with an eye toward providing the best public education for its students that it can, needs help. The SMSF was created in 1980 for this single purpose. To accomplish that, the foundation needs the community’s help.
“I think the future looks bright,” Maling said during a recent interview. “We are excited about our new leadership at the superintendent position and want to take advantage of other opportunities that will benefit students and overall support the community. We need the support and financial help of the community to do so.”
SMSF is responsible for at least $2 million in support for the SMUSD each fiscal year, a sum that funds the salaries and benefits for 21 faculty and staff members at the district’s four schools. Additional money raised by the end of a fiscal year can be dedicated to a variety of things; most recently, it helped San Marino High School’s Titan Student Center get up and running last year, kick-starting the district’s student-wellness initiative.
With the SMSF deciding on how to spend that extra money through essentially a grant application program, the possibilities could be varying and far-reaching.
“It’s about empowering excellence, and I like to think about the possible things we could do with additional support from the community,” Lau said. “These are great opportunities to partner with some of these organizations. There’s so much we could do and so much our students could achieve, and it’s really just limited by our imagination.”
As of March 31, the foundation had $1.895 million in donations for the 2018-19 school year, still short of its goal of $2.75 million. (SMSF officials were still netting out April’s donations but did estimate an additional $90,000 had arrived that month.) Challenges for the foundation, Maling explained, included general economic uncertainties and also the holding patterns resulting from the school district’s leadership change.
“Giving is down across the board for nonprofits,” Maling said. “A lot of it has to do with the new tax law changes. In enrollment in the district, we see a downturn in that as well. We had some headwinds at the beginning of the year with leadership transitions. It was an accumulation of many things that led [potential donors to pause] to see what direction the foundation is going in and what direction the school district is going in.
“Everything’s about momentum and building on the previous year, so when you have a couple of setbacks, that kind of affects the community psychologically,” he added.
The foundation has been running a long-term campaign this year to achieve 100% participation by the San Marino community (which, in the school district’s case, sometimes creeps just beyond city limits), essentially doubling what has been around 50% for some time now. Lau said that, starting with the new year, he hopes to kick around some different ideas with the new leadership to get some other campaigns going.
“It posed a bit of a challenge to create new initiatives,” Lau added, referring to the superintendent vacancy. “With someone coming in, we can begin to take a look at these things.”
Bilvado, set to take the reins as board president on July 1, said she also looks forward to brainstorming with Superintendent-to-be Wilson. After a long tenure in the Arcadia Unified School District, Wilson has experience in a San Marino-esque environment, Bilvado said. Arcadia, like San Marino, is home to a high-achieving school district, a charitable community and a large contingent of families from China and Taiwan.
“I’m really interested to hear his perspective on the different opportunities for us,” Bilvado said. “I get the sense that parents are looking for something more, so how do we get to that next level?”
Bilvado said improvement in outreach, specifically from a cross-cultural approach to overcome language barriers, on her mind.
One barrier that persists are the residents whose children graduated long ago or who have no kids and don’t necessarily feel inclined to donate to the foundation. Although the SMSF suggests a donation of at least $2,500 per household, Bilvado said she’d rather boost the participation rate even if that involves smaller donations.
“Even if it’s $100, this active participation is really important,” she said.
Echoed Maling, “We look at it differently [for residents without families]. The real estate values in San Marino have a direct correlation to the success of our schools. That may not mean anything to renters necessarily, but property owners should absolutely care.”
Real estate often is a talking point for foundation and district officials, for good reason. Even amid the bursting of the housing market bubble and the Great Recession, San Marino’s property prices remained steady or even improved slightly. That made city officials in particular happy because property taxes bring in most of the operating and capital revenue.
“What’s interesting is not only was there just a minor dip, but it rebounded greater than before,” Maling said. “It has consistently increased 12-15% annually since.
“What we want to instill in the community is, we’re not just looking for parents. We want everyone who steps foot in San Marino to feel empowered to have skin in the game. It all ties in together. We feel that giving is addictive, and if we start the process with the younger generation, then they will grow knowing that that is a part of their DNA.”
Lau mentioned another correlation between better educational offerings and the community’s well-being: lower crime rates. Based on his previous work with the Fight Crime: Invest in Kids initiative, Lau said it’s an understanding that holds up.
“I think here in San Marino, crime is not a huge concern, in large part because of the school district,” he said.
Instead, the huge concern is school district funding. In the wake of Proposition 13’s passage in 1978, property tax revenues that funded public education were gutted and funding formulas have since changed in ways that favor larger, at-risk districts, which in some cases get thousands more dollars per student than SMUSD receives.
Educating the community on how the SMUSD is “severely underfunded” is another task Bilvado said she intends to tackle.
“We have to make that difference somehow, because it’s not any cheaper for us to educate our students,” she said. “There’s a lot of frustration about that, but that’s our world.”
“We still have a long ways to go to get to pre-recession levels of funding,” Lau added.
Because the state’s Local Control Funding Formula shifts large amounts of tax funding to districts in which 55% of the students either qualify for free or reduced lunch, are learning English or are foster youth, school systems that don’t meet that threshold are often left wanting. The SMUSD receives approximately $9,000 per student, for example, while the Pasadena Unified and Los Angeles Unified school districts both receive nearly $14,000 per student.
The San Marino district has found ways to close the gap and ensure sufficient staffing to keep class sizes manageable. Two parcel taxes routinely renewed by voters fund a total of 47 full- and part-time positions in the district, in addition to the 21 positions funded by SMSF.
Keeping those class sizes smaller was a motivation for the SMSF to pledge its $2 million annually to fund teaching staff. Moving forward, leadership hopes to lure large donors by employing other creative endeavors to enhance the district. Picking up the tab for the Titan Student Center last year was a step in that direction.
“As SMUSD is evolving, you’re seeing a much more prominent role for wellness,” Bilvado said. “Once we meet that [$2 million] minimum, then we can get really creative things that can really set San Marino apart in looking at the mind, body and soul of our students.”
Because the SMSF is its own entity, donations can also be a way for the community to lobby the district for a specific project or plan to the district.
“We have our own governing board, but we collaborate and work in partnership with the district,” Lau said. “I think that’s why these people are invested with [the foundation]. They’re active and have a say in these solutions.”
Promoting and enhancing these factors that help make San Marino unique are why SMSF asks for the community’s continued support.
“Our mission is to ensure an amazing education for our students,” Bilvado said. “Through the work of the foundation, we promote financial support and community engagement to further that cause. We need every community member to help support our children.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the adage goes.