The San Marino school board has been busy with the work of getting students back to school. Earlier this week, they took the first step in hopes of keeping all campuses open and avoiding dramatic employee cuts. At a special meeting Monday night, the board voted 5-0 to take another crack at passing Measure E, a $968 per parcel education tax, which will now go before voters at a June 29 special election. The parcel tax — which generates approximately $4.1 million per year — was defeated by voters on March 2 because it did narrowly missed receiving the required two-thirds majority.
Less than two weeks after the defeat of Measure E, the San Marino school board unanimously approved a resolution calling for the elimination of 41 teaching and advisory positions in order to balance the budget for the 2021-22 school year, it was announced at Tuesday night’s board meeting.
Though the results of the election have not yet been certified, Measure E had been approved by 2,192 voters (63.04%) to 1,285 (36.96%) who voted in opposition. Measure E required a two-thirds majority for passage.
Measure E raised $4 million annually at $968 per parcel, adjusted by the lesser of the Los Angeles Statistical Area Consumer Price Index or 3%, including commercial properties within the boundaries of the school district. First approved by voters in 2009 for a six-year term, the parcel tax was renewed in 2015 and will now expire in June 2021, erasing approximately 10% of the district’s budget.
Measure E, the parcel tax that raises $4 million annually for schools within the boundaries of the San Marino Unified School District, had fallen behind the pace needed for victory following an initial ballot count that was taken after polls closed on Tuesday evening at 8 p.m.
At The Tribune’s press deadline, Measure E had received 1,850 yes votes (62.82%) with 1,095 votes in opposition, or 37.18%. The parcel tax required two-thirds approval by the more than 10,400 registered voters who live within the boundaries of the school district to pass.
That tally included all votes that were received by day’s end Tuesday either via mail or in-person drop-off since the election began.
Doreen Summers, a longtime advocate for public education, has entered the race for the San Marino Unified School District Board of Education, which will have two positions open in the Nov. 3 election.
Summers grew up attending public schools and received a B.A. in political science from Rutgers University, a state institution in New Jersey.
“I fiercely believe in public education and over the years have done my part to advocate on behalf of students when I see the need,” said Summers. Her advocacy began when her children were in 2nd grade on the East Coast, where she successfully petitioned the local school board for smaller class sizes. She also was a co-founder of Verona Cares, a volunteer parent organization that helped parents navigate curriculum changes and high-stakes testing affecting their children.
The San Marino Unified School District has contracted with a company to provide child-care services for its employees and other essential workers.
By a vote of 4-1, the SMUSD Board of Education on July 21 approved a pact with Right at School, a child-care vendor that provides services to youngsters from transitional kindergarten through 8th grade.
Right at School began providing services in San Marino on the first day of the school year, Aug. 12, in a former STEM lab at Valentine Elementary School, while district students receive instruction via distance learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The service is currently being used by “less than 10” young people, according to district Superintendent Jeff Wilson, who connected Right at School with the SMUSD based on his experience with the company when he was an assistant superintendent with the Arcadia Unified School District.
Encouraged by passionate pleas from community members and former students to rescue programs that have positively impacted their lives, the San Marino Unified School District Board of Education last Tuesday night voted unanimously to rescind layoff notices for nine of the 13 certificated employees remaining on the list of pink-slipped employees.
Using more than $848,843 that was donated to the San Marino Schools Foundation’s “We Are San Marino” campaign, the board was able to restore most of San Marino High School’s popular and successful speech and debate and drama programs, its Japanese language class, a full-time music position, four elementary core teachers as well as full-time science and elementary positions.
All that remains of the 31.2 full-time teaching positions who received “reduction in force” notices at the board’s March 10 meeting are two teachers, a counselor and a speech language pathologist. The other educators either elected to take an early retirement or accepted other positions. The Schools Foundation has since launched an incentive program that will include matching funds in hopes of filling the final four spots.
The previously eliminated speech and debate program received substantial support from the many who wrote the district or called into the meeting; among them is Matt Spence, a 1996 graduate of San Marino High School and national champion. Spence later received a diploma, studied at Oxford and served as a national security advisor for President Barack Obama. Spence was in the situation room with Obama during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and he said that his experience in speech and debate was “instrumental” in his career.
“I think back to at least four different times that I feel concretely how speech and debate made an enormous difference,” said Spence. “It was the skills of careful listening I learned in speech and debate that allowed me to do that. It was the skills of rapid preparation that allowed me to brief the president of the United States.”
Board member Chris Norgaard acknowledged those who participated.
“All of the students who wrote and spoke for all of these programs and all of these teachers, just the most eloquent, heartfelt messages I have ever read,” Norgaard said. He then thanked Grace Davis, a senior at San Marino High School who serves as the ASB representative to the school board, who “turned this battle ship in the right direction,” according to Norgaard. At the March 10 meeting – the last in-person meeting before the COVID-19 shutdown, San Marino High School’s speech and debate program was honored for its excellent showings earlier in the school year. Later in the same meeting during a discussion on budget cuts, it was suggested by Assistant Superintendent Linda de la Torre that speech and debate be changed from a class to a club. During her student advisory vote, Davis pointed out the irony of honoring the speech and debate program at the beginning of the meeting while later entertaining the notion of demoting it to a club. Davis voted “no” on the agenda item on March 10, but last week supported the re-hires.
“I wish to recognize the extraordinary efforts of Schools Foundation President Erin Bilvado,” said School Board president Joseph Chang. “I acknowledge her excellent leadership with her fellow trustees and staff. She and her fellow trustees have worked countless hours to spearhead the ‘We Are San Marino’ campaign.”
Additionally, the board heard the second reading of and later approved a legacy inter-district transfer permit program, whereby the grandchildren of those who have lived in San Marino for 10 years will be eligible to attend SMUSD schools to help offset declining enrollment. The motion was approved by a 5-0 vote, with Davis approving as well. The program will go into effect immediately, but the prospective students must be released by the district in which they legally reside.
“I recognize the reality,” said Board member Corey Barberie. “Young families can’t afford to buy $2-plus-million-dollar homes in San Marino.”
Board member Lisa Link said she has heard “a great deal of positive” about the program, which was first implemented in Beverly Hills.
The board also voted unanimously to take out a $6.8 million tax and revenue anticipation note, or TRAN loan. The district received a similar loan for the 2019-20 school year and expects to pay it off by July or August of this year. The loan carries a 1.85% interest rate.
“This is to manage our cash-flow situation,” said de la Torre.
“This is a pretty typical thing for a district our size,” Barberie added. “A district our size without significant reserves can’t make it through the year.”
The district has a monthly payroll tab of $2 million and its reserves have dropped to about 3%.
The San Marino Unified School District Board of Education last week approved the layoff of 30.5 full-time classified employee positions in an effort to balance the budget by the required May 15 deadline.
The district will provide RIF [reduction in force] notices to seven custodians, four building trades technicians, an athletics facilities maintenance technician, the elementary school art coordinator, two instructional assistants, three secretaries and other positions. Seven of the employees are retiring. The layoffs will save the district more than $2 million, according to Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Linda de la Torre.
By law, the district must provide a 60-day notice to classified employees, according to de la Torre, who said that the district could go back to the bargaining table to restructure some of the contracts.
Positions are listed according to the portion of the work day each occupies. For example, an employee who works a half day is listed as taking 0.5 of a position.
Students left the San Marino Unified School District at an accelerated rate following the 2018-19 school year, according to a report delivered at Tuesday night’s school board meeting by Jason Kurtenbach, the SMUSD’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. Exit data showed that 236 students left the district at that time, a marked increase of the previous year, when 173 went elsewhere.
Kurtenbach showed graphs indicating that 176 students left the district following the 2014-15 school year, followed by 168 in 2015-16, 152 in 2016-17, 173 in 2017-18 and the 236 who opted for other venues in 2018-19.
The San Marino Unified School District currently has 2,940 students enrolled in its programs.
“Since 1996, we have hovered anywhere near the 2,940 we have today to around 3,100,” said Kurtenbach in a conversation on Wednesday morning. He said the highest enrollment was in 2004, when 3,301 students passed through the district’s doors each day.
Kurtenbach said that the SMUSD has begun surveying families as to the reason for their departures and that 80 families completed the query last year based on requests for transcripts. Of the 80, 24 returned to the SMUSD and 56 “transferred out,” according to Kurtenbach.
Of the reasons given for the decision to look elsewhere, Kurtenbach said that 17 cited “class size,” 10 mentioned “environment” while others chose “challenges.” Kurtenbach explained that this option could mean “it’s either too challenging or I want to be challenged more.”
School Board President Joseph Chang surmised that EB-5 visa restrictions have resulted in students leaving the SMUSD and said he knows of several families who have relocated to Canada.
Kurtenbach also provided enrollment data for private schools in the area, which showed marked increases on a graph that included Westridge, Loyola, Pasadena Polytechnic, La Salle, Mayfield and Maranatha.
Superintendent Dr. Jeff Wilson then provided an update on the district’s facilities, including scenarios that will be in effect if the $200 million bond is either approved or rejected by voters at the March 3 election.
“The voters will tell us what we will do from that point on,” Wilson said. “My mission is about helping our teachers and principals, and our staff, our aides, our nurses, everybody that does that hard work of educating our kids, to give them the best possible opportunity to be successful.”
Wilson reported that student safety is “right at the top” of his objectives and said the district has “significant” deferred maintenance needs that can be addressed with monies from the general fund, a bond or a special endowment, that was suggested last year by a member of the Facilities Advisory Committee.
Wilson also said that if the bond passes, he considers a new performing arts center, a new pool at San Marino High School and new district offices “the lowest priority items.”
He also said the the district has sufficient facilities assessments, but needs a Master Plan.
Things became tense during the communications section of the meeting, however, when Barberie reported that he had been asked questions by community members about the upcoming bond election. Barberie brandished a four-page color flier that has been mailed to San Marino residents containing information about the project that Barberie said is false, including an claim that the SMUSD’s Facilities Advisory Committee Committee—to which Barberie served as board liaison—evaluated and unanimously agreed that our schools need over $200 million in upgrades.
When contacted by The Tribune on Wednesday, Barberie said that the unanimous decision “was that the district should move forward with a bond to address our most significant needs.” He said the committee never took a vote on the $200 million figure.
Barberie said that he was never consulted about either the contents of the flier or its cost,
State law says that school boards and its members may not actively advocate for a bond or parcel tax but can provide factual information.
“This doesn’t sit well with me,” Barberie said. “I just want a fair election.”
Wilson did not immediately return an email requesting data on the flier.
After more than two hours of lively discussion, the San Marino School Board voted on Tuesday night to place a $200 million facilities modernization bond before voters at the March 2020 election. School Board Member Corey Barberie cast the lone dissenting vote while Shelley Ryan, Chris Norgaard, C. Joseph Chang and Board President Lisa Link all supported the resolution, which was set forth by Norgaard and seconded by Chang.
California law states that bonds must be approved by more than 2/3rds of board members to pass, so the 4-1 vote fulfilled the minimum requirement.
Earlier in the meeting, Superintendent Dr. Jeff Wilson introduced three possible options for the board to consider. The $200 million bond and March vote was the highest dollar amount and the earliest possible election date of the three options.
If approved by voters in March, the bond will actually be considered a continuation of an existing bond that currently costs taxpayers $60 per $100,000 of assessed home value, annually.
Sixteen community members made statements during the public comment section regarding the item, and while some supported a smaller dollar amount, it appeared that 11 opposed the bond while five voiced their support.
Barberie, who served as liaison on a Facilities Advisory Committee (FAC) that researched the district’s facilities and came back to the board with a recommendation for the maximum amount, said the board should first develop a facilities Master Plan and place a smaller bond before voters. A 55% majority of voters must approve the bond for passage.
“I have been struggling with this quite a bit,” Barberie said during the board discussion period. Barberie stated that he felt Wilson needed to “create a vision for the district” and said that a smaller bond, in the neighborhood of $100 million, would offer “more flexibility.”
A few speakers suggested the district pay more attention to curriculum, but Board Member Shelley Ryan stated that a facilities modernization program would not get in the way with its typical business.
“I don’t see it as a conflict,” Ryan said. ‘We all want what is best for the children. We are looking at curriculum every day.”
Chang stated that he is active at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens as well as Huntington Hospital and said that those institutions have remained at the top of their respective fields due to investments in facilities.
“Curriculum is a different issue,” he said. He also said that state-of-the-art facilities will “motivate the kids.”
Norgaard noted the many neighboring communities which have passed bonds, including South Pasadena, La Cañada, Alhambra, Arcadia and Pasadena as well as other districts in Southern California and around the nation.
“We have a unique opportunity to take advantage of historically low interest rates” Norgaard said.
He also referenced the FAC and recited the mission statement of the San Marino City Club, which which includes a charge to “secure the best civic, educational and cultural services and facilities possible” before casting his “yes” vote.
Link reminded the assemblage that she had voiced support for the $200 million bond at a previous meeting.
“There is no question in my mind that it is in the best interests of our students to have safe, secure, modernized, and educationally appropriate facilities,” she said on Tuesday evening. “I think it is important to invest in our students’ educations and futures, and given that this State does not sufficiently do so, it falls on local communities to step up and support our local public schools.”
Link also mentioned the local districts who have passed or completed bond projects.
“How sad it would be if this board and the San Marino community sent a message to our students that they are not deserving of the same investment,” Link said. “If the Board decides to move forward with a bond resolution, it will become the community’s responsibility to vote and decide whether it supports a bond to improve the District’s facilities. San Marino has a longstanding and strong tradition of supporting its public schools and its students, and I have faith that the San Marino community will continue to invest in its students if it is given the opportunity to make that decision.”
When the vote was tallied and the resolution passed, it appeared that half the audience applauded the result.
It might be a stretch to say that a 17-year, four-term incumbent’s re-election could be considered an upset victory, but given the enthusiastic climate surrounding the recent race for three seats on the San Marino School Board, the fact that C. Joseph Chang garnered the most votes might just be considered so.
Chang garnered 2,026 votes, or 22.4%, in winning his board seat for the fifth time. Fellow incumbent Shelley Ryan earned 1,548 votes (17.12%) in defending her seat and Corey Barberie outdistanced four other first-time candidates to claim the third post, which belonged to two-term Boardmember Nam Jack, who chose at the outset of the campaign not to run. Barberie gathered 1,378 votes (15.24%) to hold off Michael Killackey.
Possibly due to his extensive experience with the situation, Chang was humble in victory.
“This time, I was not running for myself, I was running for San Marino’s great tradition,” Chang said. “I was running for Andy Barth.”
Barth and Chang were both first elected in 2001 and served two terms together before Barth stepped down. Barth became the target of derision at a town hall meeting earlier this year when a community member criticized the new recreation facility currently under construction at Huntington Middle School which Barth has helped to fund.
Chang also said he refused to run on his reputation and “worked harder than ever.”
“I think some people would have liked to see me retire, but I felt the need to stabilize the school district,” Chang told The Tribune early Wednesday morning with a laugh. “And there is much more work to do. It is my hope we can bring the community together.”
Chang reverted to his original campaign style of knocking on doors.
“Every day, I did my homework,” he said of the daily routine. “It was a tough journey, but I felt it was the right thing to do.” After significant prodding, Chang admitted he was “very happy” with the mandate.
Ryan, who was first elected to the school board in November 2013, dedicated her victory “to the children of our district.”
“It is my hope that we can move the community forward,” Ryan said early Wednesday morning as she arrived at Ynez Elementary School in Monterey Park, a K-8th grade school with 900 students, where she serves as principal. “I am hoping we can find the common good of San Marino.”
Ryan also said she will continue to build relationships with institutions such as The Huntington and Caltech, both of which host educational co-ops with students from San Marino High School.
“I think that opportunities such as these provide very valuable learning experiences for our young people,” she said.
Barberie emerged from a field of first time candidates that included, in order of finish, Mike Killackey (1,279 votes, 14.14%), Jane Chon (1,184, 13.09%), Dr. Steve Sommers (1,139, 12.59%) and John Gabriel (490, 5.42%).
“I would like to first thank all those who supported my campaign,” Barberie told The Tribune. “Having never run for office, there is no way I would have made it to this point without their support and guidance, especially my wife Jennifer, who was by my side every step of the way. It has been a great experience being able to speak to so many passionate members of our community during this campaign.”
Since the voters apparently listened to him, Barberie said he will return the favor.
“I will continue to listen and hope to represent the community well,” Barberie added. “One of our first tasks will be finding a new superintendent. I hope adding my perspective to the board will help move this and other critical tasks forward with the input and inclusion of the community.”
The recently elected board members will be sworn in at the meeting on Tuesday, December 11 at 7:30 p.m.