San Marino's Schools: Pockets of Poverty in Community of Wealth

Times Staff Writer

It happens, Selma L. Sax says, every time she goes to Sacramento to lobby for public education.

When she tells legislators that she's from San Marino, they say, "Oh, you're from that rich town."

"Wait a minute," replies Sax, who is vice president of the San Marino board of education. "I'm from an affluent community but from a poor school district."

San Marino's are Los Angeles County's poor little rich schools.

Although the community they serve is one of the wealthiest in the nation, San Marino's public schools are nouveau poor as a result of Proposition 13, shrinking enrollment and other inexorable forces.

Girl on a Yacht

To an outsider, a San Marino with fiscal troubles may bring to mind John P. Marquand's observation that nobody feels sorry for a girl on a yacht. In 1980, the city's median household income was $46,362, in contrast to a countywide average of $17,935. But this year, the posh little enclave of lush lawns and tasteful million-dollar homes has a bare-bones education budget of $9.2 million for 2,750 students.

Thus, San Marino has less to spend per student than other upscale districts such as Beverly Hills, La Canada and Palos Verdes.

Signs of the district's genteel impoverishment are many.

Its 130 teachers are among the most poorly paid in the county, their salaries trailing behind those of such less affluent neighboring school districts as Alhambra and Los Angeles.

On rainy days the city's charming but aging school buildings leak. Because there is no money to repair or replace their roofs, janitors spread sheets of plastic over them at the first sign of a storm.

Shortage of Supplies

The schools are chronically short of construction paper, paper clips, pencils and other supplies. "We don't actually run out, but we come close," one teacher said.

Because of reductions in the custodial and maintenance staffs, classrooms now are cleaned once a week instead of every day. One San Marino teacher has taught her fifth graders to neaten up the classroom carpet between vacuumings by picking up bits of litter with their dampened fingers.

The same teacher uses her own money to buy the 25-cent stickers that have replaced gold stars as coveted marks of elementary-school excellence.

Perhaps because fine public schools are as much a part of the San Marino tradition as the Huntington Library and the citywide ban on restaurant liquor sales, San Marino residents have rallied behind their economically troubled schools.

The community of 13,875 donates hundreds of thousands of dollars outright to the school district each year.

In addition, the residents, who include numerous corporate chief executive officers and at least one former U.S. attorney general, have helped stretch the district's budget by donating large amounts of time and energy. Hundreds of San Marino residents even have proved willing to don old clothes to paint their city's school buildings.

Even so, San Marino has become a no-frills district.

Gone are such familiar educational amenities as wood shop, home economics, choral music, a full-time nurse and professional librarians.

No More German Classes

Latin was salvaged, but German is no longer offered in the high school.

The district even has canceled its subscriptions to the grade-school paper of record, the Weekly Reader.

So far the district's fiscal woes do not seem to have eroded the quality of a San Marino education. The district continues to send 96 out of every 100 graduates to college, including Stanford, Harvard and other prestigious campuses. Its students still get high scores on standardized tests, particularly in mathematics.

But many residents are alarmed, especially in light of the defeat within the last year of two separate ballot measures that would have assessed each San Marino family $145 and provided a modest but reliable additional source of school funding.

The measures were endorsed by the majority of city voters but fell a few dozen votes short of the two-thirds required for passage.

As actor/sportscaster Merlin Olsen, a 17-year resident who supported the measures, explained, "What's frightening to me is the quality of education we've come to lean on is at risk. Part of our identity, part of our appeal as a community, is that we've always had quality schools."

Schools Supt. David Brown agrees that further economic erosion threatens the very nature of San Marino's schools, which traditionally have educated 85% or more of the children in a community where many parents could afford private schools.

"This clearly is not going to be the year that we're going to see a drop-off in quality, but we're close," Brown said. "Who knows how long it can last?"

Brown fears that the district's non-college-bound students already are being shortchanged by the paucity of high school electives. Some class sections are too large, he said, and the reduced counseling staff at the high school has too many students to advise, given the high academic expectations of the community.

The district's economic woes began a decade ago with the California Supreme Court decision in the case of Serrano vs. Priest. That 1976 ruling held that the state's existing school-finance system was unconstitutional because its heavy reliance on local property taxes allowed affluent districts like San Marino and Beverly Hills to spend more per student than poorer districts.

As a result of the ruling, Sacramento now divvies up most of California's education money, diverting a greater share to needier districts.

Proposition 13 also hurt the San Marino schools by freezing its property taxes at a time when the district had old schools and a conservative budget. The district has also been losing enrollment, from a high of 3,740 in 1961-62 to this year's projected low of 2,716. Fewer students mean fewer dollars from the state.

According to Supt. Brown and others, San Marino is too wealthy, its students too able and its citizenry too well-educated to qualify for much of the supplemental federal and state aid that augments the budgets of schools in poorer communities.

Lack of Alternatives

San Marino also lacks the alternative sources of income that have helped school districts in some other affluent communities mitigate the effects of Serrano-Priest and Proposition 13.

Less than four square miles in area, San Marino is, by design, a bedroom community, with no industry and only a few dozen businesses. Its schools have no corporate benefactors like those in Pasadena and some other districts.

Nor does San Marino High School have a producing oil well on its campus, as Beverly Hills High does.

The district raises money where it can.

"We aggressively lease our facilities," Brown said. The county pays the district about $150,000 a year to use Stoneman Elementary School, closed in 1983, as a facility for retarded and emotionally disturbed children. The district also leases classroom space to Chinese and German cultural groups for Saturday classes.

Inelastic Dollars

When San Marino's current schools budget is corrected for inflation, the city does not have significantly less to spend per student than it did a decade ago. But that money no longer goes as far for several reasons.

More of the budget goes for teacher salaries, however modest, than a decade ago. And fixed costs such as utility bills decline more slowly than enrollment, Brown points out.

The biggest change in the district's fiscal picture is its increasing reliance on local giving.

In 1975-76, when the district had a budget of $4,692,978 for 3,320 students, it received less than $5,000 from local sources other than taxes. Its current $9.2-million budget includes gifts of more than $415,000.

According to Brown, the district has been able to keep high standards despite dwindling resources only because San Marino residents are willing to provide what the public coffers do not.

'Can-Do Community'

"It's a can-do community," said Brown. "They want their children to get the very best and will do essentially whatever they have to to make sure that they get it."

Donating money is one of those things.

In the past private donations have paid for such big-ticket items as the high school's $100,000 stadium complex.

This June, less than a week after the narrow defeat of the second school-tax measure, supporters held an impromptu picnic on the high school lawn. About 300 people brought blankets and sandwiches to the casual affair.

"We only supplied ants," Selma Sax said.

The picnickers left behind more than $45,000 for the school district, including $9,000 from the city's increasingly influential Chinese Club. Some parents calculated the amount of their gift by multiplying the number of children they have by $145.

Direct Donations

According to Brown, 3% to 4% of the district's budget now comes directly from the community, including about $300,000 collected annually by the Schools Foundation. Intended to provide the district with enrichment money, the foundation now must help pay for staples, director Lois Matthews said. Since it was organized in 1980, the foundation has raised $1.45 million.

Money is not the only thing San Marino's people give the schools.

Recent gifts have included computers, a garageful of office supplies and a Volvo station wagon.

Some contributions never show up on the district budget, school officials said.

Last year more than 75,000 hours were donated through the parent-teacher associations at the district's high school, junior high and two elementary schools, more than 27 hours for each child in the system.

Volunteer Help

The district's curriculum center, where teachers can have teaching aids made to order, was created and run by a volunteer. Volunteers also staff the libraries daily and supervise a computerized college-search service for students in the high school.

A group of San Marino residents whose PTA days were behind them formed a boosters' organization of their own called PTAffiliates, which operates the city's profit-making summer school program. The summer program raises about $20,000 a year for the district.

Volunteers have begun painting Huntington Junior High School and adjacent Valentine Elementary School, just as more than 300 volunteers painted the high school in 1984.

Suzanne Crowell, an active supporter of the schools although her two sons are grown, organized the city's first school paint-in with Lois Matthews.

Quality of Life

Crowell, who is also a member of the City Council, cites the quality of family life that she and her stock-broker husband found in the city as a major reason for her activism.

"San Marino did a lot for us, and we can do something back for it," she said.

The refurbishing project changed the exterior of the high school from a drab khaki to Navajo white, a shade Crowell and Matthews discovered while driving around San Marino, scrutinizing the color schemes of houses.

The project saved the district an estimated $120,000.

Crowell recalled that her own home needed painting at the time. "I wouldn't think of doing that myself," she said. "We had a professional do it."

Noblesse Oblige

Time and money to lavish on their schools may be viewed as just another of the privileges San Marino residents enjoy. But the volunteers, the majority of them women, are unrepentant.

"We're really not white gloves and veiled hats," said Matthews, who has been stung by the characterization of San Marino volunteers as suburban Lady Bountifuls.

"Yes, there are rich people doing it," Selma Sax said of city volunteerism. "But the key words are 'doing it.' They're doing it, not having it done. They're not saying, 'I'll send the handyman over.' "

According to Crowell, the 6 1/2 weekends spent painting the high school became a social occasion, as such projects often do in the small city. Gourmet meals were donated for the painters, and Crowell commandeered a jukebox and filled it with '50s records.

"The kids couldn't stand the tunes, but we played 'Earth Angel,' 'Lollipop' and all that great stuff," Crowell recalled.

Local schools may be supported so lavishly because they are a social focus for the entire city, not just the children, according to Brown and others.

"San Marino has no video arcades, no pool halls, no theaters, no Captain Whiz Bang," Brown said playfully. "The City Club, Rotary and the schools are the community's activities. What else is there to do in town? Tony's Pizza gets real crowded after the first 50 people arrive."

Grown-ups as well as teen-agers in San Marino strike up friendships in the stands while cheering for the football Titans, named for a mountain in the European republic for which the city is named.

Grad Night Gala

The high school is also the setting for the community's ultimate volunteer effort--a spectacular all-night party and pageant called Grad Night that the city's adults have concocted for each graduating class for a quarter of a century.

Many of the couples who move to the city for the schools stay long after their children have outgrown them. San Marino is a place where "For Sale" signs are almost as rare as street people. According to a recent school district survey, only 28% of the residents now have youngsters of school age.

Aware that the mature majority would make or break the school-assessment measures, their backers emphasized the role quality public schools play in maximizing property values. Everyone has a vested interested in public education, they argued, not just those with school-age youngsters.

"Our good schools are insurance for our real estate," said Suzanne Crowell, who co-chaired Citizens for San Marino Schools during the first parcel-tax fight.

Larry Doan, a real estate broker in San Marino, agrees. Access to the San Marino school district enhances the value of a house by 10% to 15%, according to Doan. That's the premium people pay to buy in the few blocks of San Gabriel and Pasadena just east of San Marino that belong to the San Marino school district.

Although 64% of the voters thought the schools worth supporting on the spring ballot, a significant minority did not. San Marino resident Ben Austin, who led the opposition, believes the local schools are spoiled, not underfunded.

"The state of California supplies $2,900 for each student, and I think that's a very generous amount to spend for schools," Austin said. "I think it's adequate in San Marino as well as elsewhere except where there are special problems."

Austin, who describes himself as a retired inventor, said he thinks the district budget is still too fat in the area of staff benefits such as pensions.

He is not anti-education, he said, but he believes that Americans must begin practicing fiscal restraint at every level if the country is to survive. "I don't know of a better place to start than my own community," he said.

Austin is considerably less entranced with the San Marino schools than many of his fellow residents. He is appalled, for instance, that only a few dozen high school students take Latin, basic to a quality education in his view.

"The only reason we look good," he said, "is because some of the others are so bad."

Austin said that his not having children in the schools has nothing to do with his opposition to a local education tax. His opposition is matter of principle, he said.

"They think they're conservative Republicans," he said of his pro-tax neighbors, "until it comes down to their own special interests. Then they're flaming liberals!"

Austin said of the schools, "I don't object to them getting the money. I object to them making it compulsory. We've got to start cutting back. It's as simple as that."

Although school boosters say there were grandparents stuffing envelopes for passage of the school tax, many supporters believe that older San Marino residents, particularly those on fixed incomes, were largely responsible for scuttling the assessment.

Austin, too, believes that the older people in the city were his principal supporters.

Some observers said privately that they fear that a few San Marino people--not many, but enough to lose the election--did not support the measures because almost 32% of the children in the district are now Asian.

Widows' Piques

"In the old San Marino," one resident said, "our widows knew there was always someone in the neighborhood to look after them." Some of today's seniors never imagined their neighbors would differ from them in anything but age and feel estranged from a San Marino that is no longer ethnically homogeneous, the observer speculated.

As avid as San Marino's education boosters have been, volunteerism is taking its toll.

Even in San Marino, Brown and others pointed out, the pool of potential room mothers and weekday chauffeurs has shrunk as more and more women go to work.

And while it may be fun to paint the occasional school, Crowell said, "further along down the line people are going to become very tired of all this physical labor."

Although rebounding is the San Marino way, volunteers are beginning to talk about burn-out.

Wearing Thin

"In order to maintain our quality we're doing some things that are wearing our people thin, not just the staff but the community, too," Brown said recently.

Teachers, whose salaries Brown described as "abysmally low," say that the school's pinched budget is demoralizing.

Maureen De Armond, a special-education teacher, is the head negotiator for the district's teachers association, which has been negotiating for higher wages since July.

Given the district's financial situation, she said, teachers approach the ongoing salary talks "with a feeling of hopelessness."

'Target Mediocre'

"We had a theme last year for our negotiations: 'Target Mediocre,' " De Armond said. "Our goal wasn't to reach the top of the pay scale but just to reach the average for Los Angeles County."

The median salary for experienced teachers in San Marino is $33,420, fourth lowest in the county. Similarly qualified teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District average $35,684 a year.

Poor pay does not keep well-qualified teachers from seeking and retaining jobs in the city. Schools like San Marino's, in which the worst behavior problem is said to be ethnic rivalry over who's going to get into Stanford, are not easy to find.

"We're so blessed not to have graffiti on the walls, not to have teachers' tires slashed, not to have teachers pushed around," one veteran San Marino teacher said. "When you have such neat parents, both Orientals and Caucasians, who send kids to school with such a great attitude, you just say to yourself, 'It's worth it.'

Work Expenses

"When you look at Pasadena, when you look at Alhambra, they have gangs, literally gangs. We're free of that. We're not free of cocaine, we're not free of alcohol but what community is?"

More than one teacher said the worst thing about teaching in San Marino is justifying her low salary and her growing out-of-pocket expenses to her family.

"My husband looks at me and says, 'I know you love your job, and that's important, but I'm subsidizing you,' " De Armond said.

Each year as school funds are patched together, the district asks itself, "What's next?"

Merger with a nearby district is not a popular option, Selma Sax and others say.

Land for Sale?

The district owns three properties that it could sell. Since San Marino has no empty lots, the schools' six acres of developable land are worth an estimated $3.75 million, according to Dena Graves, the district's assistant superintendent for business services.

But many school supporters think selling the land, some of which is used for citywide recreation, is a shortsighted way to raise money.

Stoneman, for example, produces a predictable income for the district each year and could be reopened as a school if the elementary-school population surges in the future.

As Sax said, "Once you sell the property it's gone. Secondly, the profits from the sale of school property can only be used for capital improvement under the Naylor Act, so that doesn't really solve the kinds of problems we have."

Dim Hopes

If selling land is widely seen as a last-ditch effort, Sax and others are not terribly hopeful that a parcel-tax measure will pass in the near future. Forty-seven such ballots have been conducted in California since the passage of Proposition 13. Only 10 have passed.

(In the Los Angeles area, only the Santa Monica-Malibu school district secured such an assessment. In Sax's analysis, Santa Monica-Malibu's measure passed because so many of the voters were renters who did not perceive the parcel tax as coming out of their pockets.)

Since the initiation of the lottery in 1985, 14 school-tax elections have been held. None has passed.

"There's a perception on the part of the public that the lottery has solved all the financial problems of education," Sax speculated. "That's untrue."

Hopeful Sign

One hopeful sign for the district is a leveling-off of enrollment after seven straight years of decline.

"We may bottom out this year," Brown said. He and others noted, however, that fiscal benefits from the turnabout will be delayed a year or two because of state budgetary formulas.

For the moment, San Marino residents say they will try even harder to support their schools.

Many conservative residents believe that those who can should voluntarily support their public schools. But they believe that the government must also contribute. Sax and others have lobbied for legislation that would give districts such as theirs a declining-enrollment adjustment, for example.

Legislation Needed

In Sax's view, legislation is the only long-term hope of solving the fiscal problems of a relatively poor district such as San Marino.

To make "equal equal," even for the rich, she would like to see all the state's education money divided evenly among its schoolchildren. She also would like to see more control of financial decision-making returned to the individual school district.

"In the long run everywhere, not just in San Marino, public education is the responsibility of the public," Sax said.

"And the word public is not to be defined as the parents of school-age children. The word public means everyone. If we're going to create a nation of leaders and doers we must demand and be able to pay for the education to create that leadership."


District Amount Beverly Hills $5,838 La Canada 3,643 Los Angeles 3,551 Palos Verdes 3,205 San Marino 3,114

* Data source: Los Angeles County Schools Office. 1985--'86 HIGH SCHOOL REPORT CARDS

District Number of CAP Score CAP Score % of Seniors Average Seniors Reading Math Who Took Verbal SAT SAT (1984-85) Beverly Hills 599 67.3 78.4 89.8 449 La Canada 346 71.3 77.5 71.6 454 Palos Verdes 452 73.9 82.2 81.3 473 Pasadena 437 57.4 63.3 26.8 404 Rolling Hills 436 72.1 83.3 74.6 462 San Marino 266 67.1 79.9 78.1 437

District Average % Students % Reporting 2 Math SAT Not Fluent or More Hours (1984-1985) in English Homework/ Weekday Beverly Hills 521 2.5 41.3 La Canada 487 0.9 24.5 Palos Verdes 544 1.9 46.4 Pasadena 438 4.8 27.7 Rolling Hills 544 2.0 45.7 San Marino 561 2.0 63.5

*Data source: California State Department of Education.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday September 25, 1986 Home Edition San Gabriel Valley Part 9 Page 4 Column 3 Zones Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction A chart accompanying a Sept. 18 Times story on financial problems of San Marino schools mistakenly indicated that the standardized test scores and other measures of school performance represented those for entire school districts. In fact, the figures referred only to the six high schools named.
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