The debate over funding for Beverly Hills' beleaguered school system boiled over into city politics this week when a candidate produced a letter from the state Department of Education endorsing the transfer of municipal funds to the schools.
The opinion by Joseph R. Symkowick, chief counsel of the Education Department, said this "would constitute an appropriate use of municipal funds that could legally be accepted by the school district."
His letter, addressed to council candidate Robert K. Tanenbaum, came after months of debate on proposals for the city to increase its funding of the Beverly Hills Unified School District, which faces an estimated $1-million shortfall in the coming school year.
It followed the lines of an earlier letter from County Counsel De Witt W. Clinton, who said legal justification may well exist for such a gift even though it is not specifically authorized in the law that governs the operation of cities like Beverly Hills.
City Atty. Charles D. Haughton declined to comment on the latest letter, which has not been formally submitted to the City Council.
Through a spokesman, however, he referred to an internal memo issued last year, when he found that there would be "substantial uncertainty and risk of challenge" in such a move.
Given the disagreement between the city attorney and the county counsel, Mark Egerman, vice president of the school board, said the board would not seek an unrestricted gift of funds at this time.
Instead, he said, the board is drawing up proposals to increase city funding under a contract that currently yields $1.2 million a year for use of playgrounds and other facilities.
"While we view it (Symkowick's opinion) as positive, it would not impact what we are doing with the city, because all of our proposals give value for any funds we receive," Egerman said.
The new proposals, which include city funding for school libraries, gardening and other maintenance costs, could add up to more than $1 million more, he said.
The issue failed to arouse much public interest at the time of the school board election last year, when only 3,778 of the city's 20,514 registered voters went to the polls.
Now, however, with the school board planning layoffs and teachers contemplating a strike, it has become one of the hottest issues in the race for City Council.
Goldie Jacobson of the League of Women Voters said the turnout of more than 200 residents at a candidates forum Monday was the largest at such an event in recent years.
Incumbent Annabelle Heiferman told the crowd that she has secured the commitment of local legislators in Sacramento to amend the law so that cities like Beverly Hills can make unrestricted gifts to their school districts.
Currently, only cities that operate under a charter can do so. Beverly Hills cannot, according to City Atty. Houghton, who warned that council members along with the city government could be held liable for misallocation of funds if a court finds they acted improperly.
Given that, Heiferman said, it is best to exhaust other alternatives first. "I don't mind taking a risk, but when you're on the threshold of getting legislation passed, why not go ahead with that," she said Wednesday.
Heiferman added that a gift of funds now, before the law is changed, could backfire if state education authorities cut their funding for Beverly Hills schools on the grounds that the extra money violated a court ruling intended to guarantee equal spending for education across the state.
But Tanenbaum, an attorney and one of five challengers vying with Heiferman for two seats on the five-member council, said the city should be willing to take a risk.
"If I could receive this (letter) as a private citizen, the council could receive it," he said. "Certainly we should have gone forward. We should take the risk because nothing is more important than our schools."
Among the other candidates, Maxwell Hillary Salter, said 40 years of experience in business had taught him to be wary of letters from lawyers.
"All it ends up being is a lawsuit," he said, endorsing an expansion of the current contract between the city and the schools. Rose Norton said she, too, feels that existing opportunities should be exhausted before "we delve ahead into a vastly different way of doing things."
Candidate M. Cynthia Rose suggested that the city make a substantial allocation to the Beverly Hills Educational Foundation, which would then relay the money to the school district.
Gene Quash, a securities broker, did not comment on the issue.