CEPS Candidate Interview Questions – CITY COUNCIL – 2012
Frank Gruber is an author and former columnist for the Santa Monica Lookout. He is running for his first term on the Santa Monica City Council
CEPS is grateful that our work to “promote a shared community vision” to support public education has been so strongly supported within our community. What have you done, personally, to show that you are more than a supporter of public schools, and that in these times of adversity, our community can count on you to be a “champion” of public schools?
In 1999 the School Board selected me to serve on the Prop. X oversight committee. On the committee, I was a “champion” for building real schools – for not making do with portables. Around the same time, CEPS was formed, and I was one of the original members. I resigned all my affiliations in 2000 when I started writing my weekly column for The Santa Monica Lookout News, but as a columnist I was a champion for all the school funding initiatives, including SMC bond issues that at the time were opposed or not supported by a majority of City Council members. I also believe I bring a sophisticated take on the whole issue of local school funding: for my column I wrote analyses of the politics of school boards and school funding that Superintendent Neil Schmidt told me were among the most trenchant he had ever read, and School Board Member Ben Allen has told me that he has used some of my writings on the subject in a course he teaches at UCLA on school finance.
Describe how you feel that excellent public schools benefit a city.
I could spend far more than 1400 words answering this question, but aside from the obvious local benefits such as higher property values, less crime, a more attractive work force, and lower social service costs, let me repeat an argument I have made often when supporting parcel taxes and bond issues, which is that anyone who expects to rely on Social Security or Medicare in his or her retirement needs to support schools because it’s the productivity and earning power of the generations that follow us that will pay for those programs.
Santa Monica’s City government has a unique relationship with its schools and its education community. Please explain what you think is unique about that role. What is your understanding of ways that the education community and city leadership work together and support each other? What would you do to protect and strengthen that reciprocal role along with the direct funding support that the city provides to the schools?
The City supports the school district by sharing revenues in several ways – including the shared facilities program and the sharing of Measure Y taxes; the latter is the “most unique” means of the City’s support, since many other cities have shared facilities programs. Because of the City’s support for the district, the City and the education community have a joint interest in the economic vitality of the city. That doesn’t mean that development doesn’t need to be regulated; but it makes no sense to claim, as some people do, that Santa Monica has no use for economic development. You can’t be for the schools and against economic development.
I also believe the City and the education community have a joint interest in promoting the building of family-friendly housing in Santa Monica. Simply put, the district needs more children in the district, and to get them, the City needs to incentivize the building of housing with more bedrooms. The education community can support efforts by housing developers to get the City to do that. In my campaigning for City Council, I have met young couples who would like to stay in Santa Monica when they have children, but at present few two- and three-bedroom apartments and condominiums are being constructed.
Where I would like to see the City get more involved in education, or in factors that improve the environment for educating children and their ultimate success, is to develop early childhood education and outreach programs (which could be under the new “Cradle to Career” rubric) that directly address readiness and ability to learn in school. To give one example, when my son Henry entered John Adams Middle School he became involved in the wonderful music program there, and it was obvious to his mother and me that his success in that program contributed to his academic success. But Henry also had an advantage in the music program because his parents could afford to give him private lessons. I would like to see the City develop an after-school program that provided the equivalent of private lessons to children whose parents cannot afford them. In brief, public schools are the great ladder to success in our society, but they should not bear the sole responsibility of solving the problems of inequality in that society.
State funding cuts to education and local cities are hurting both entities. However, it is safe to say that education has taken the greater hit. What do you know about Propositions 30 & 38 on the November ballot? What is your position on these measures? What is your understanding of the impact on our local public schools should both measures fail?
Prop. 30 is of course the governor’s measure that increases income taxes sales taxes for specific periods, and 38 is Molly Munger’s “Our Children, Our Future,” measure that would provide more money for schools over a longer period. While neither measure would provide much additional funding for the schools, both would prevent about $5 billion in cuts. My position is to support both propositions; I accept the reasoning of the California School Boards Association and State Superintendent Tom Torlakson that the best thing to do is vote yes on both propositions. If both fail the impact would be disastrous; as I said, an estimated $5 billion in cuts statewide, perhaps up to $10 million (or more) locally.
Should both ballot measures fail, do you feel that the City could have a further role in supporting our schools? If so, what might you propose – and “champion”?
If both 30 and 38 fail the City is going to need to look at ways to support our district until the state solves its funding problems. As I said, the district would lose millions in funding. Obviously, replacing this amount is going to be difficult because the City is also facing budget problems, but something would have to be done.
On a longer-term basis, one idea I have proposed that I believe should be considered is a countywide tax to support all the public schools in Los Angeles County, much as Measure R was passed in 2008 to fund the county’s long-term transportation needs. L.A. County has a population larger than that of all but a few states, and its voters, in district after district, including L.A. Unified, have voted over and over to tax themselves for school bonds. There’s no reason (and it would be worth re-litigating Serrano in the unlikely event that someone challenged the county’s right to support education over and above state funding) that the educations of the children of our urban county should be held hostage to the no-tax pledges of Republicans in Sacramento from exurban and rural districts. If elected to the council, I will try to use my position to influence county leaders to develop such a tax; it’s worth remembering that Measure R was the brainchild of two Santa Monicans – Denny Zane and Terry O’Day.
What is your position on SMMUSD’s bond measure, also on November’s ballot? If you support the measure would you carry that support on your campaign literature?
I support the bond and testified in favor of it before the School Board. I will include support for it in my literature.
Would you support sharing new revenues with local schools and if so, do you have any ideas about how to raise new revenues?
To a certain extent, to answer this question, please refer to my answer to #5. Any answer to any question about “new revenues” is going to be a bit unclear until the dust settles over the fate of redevelopment revenues. The City’s general fund will benefit from a share of tax increment that was going to the redevelopment agency, but it’s also clear that the City will have hangover obligations from redevelopment, and will need to find new funding for affordable housing (hopefully that will be resolved at the state level). At the same time, the School District will have advantages for raising capital funds, which might be used to develop recreational facilities at Samohi that the City could then pay the district to use, thus benefiting the district’s operational budget and gaining new and needed play fields, etc., for the City without incurring capital costs. So there are opportunities, but more needs to be learned before acting on them.
Taking a longer view, what other areas of mutual support might you promote between the schools and Santa Monica’s city government?
I’ve tried to take a long view in some of my answers so far, but for a really long view we have to deal with the fundamental problem of school funding in California, which is that a combination of unintended consequences from the Serrano decision and intended consequences from Prop. 13 removed virtually all of the power of local school boards to raise funds for education. A system that developed over generations to make sure that funding for education was insulated from demands from “grown-ups” for their needs was destroyed, and the result is that public education has to compete with roads, healthcare, prisons and everything else that politicians who are elected by adults want to spend money for. Attempted solutions such as Proposition 98 haven’t been effective; there’s no way to be sure the money is there no matter how to split the pot. The long-term solution is political. If elected to the council, as a newly successful politician with whatever influence I have, I will do everything I can to create a system, possibly on a statewide basis, that once again separates education funding from the rest of state and local finance.