Three Malibu Challengers Seeking School Board Seats Stress Need for Change
• Unification of a Separate Local District and Potential Streamlining of Administration Are Among Issues
BY KRISTINA KELL
As a historic Presidential debate raged last Thursday night in Colorado, in Malibu another debate was taking place simultaneously on the local level. The sparse turnout at the latter may have been directly related to this mutual timing.
The six candidates for the SMMUSD school board civilly duked it out at Malibu City Hall at a debate sponsored by the Santa Monica League of Women's Voters and the Santa Monica, Malibu PTA Council in partnership with the City of Malibu.
The incumbent candidates, Ben Allen, Jose Escarce and Maria Leon Vazquez were poised and proficient, having decades of combined administrative school board experience between them.
The challengers, Craig Foster, Karen Farrer and Seth Jacobson, brought their working understanding of the district, stemming from their hands-on experience, fresh ideas and an air-of-inclusiveness to the table to make for an informative exchange of ideas, yet a different vision for the future of the SMMUSD.
The running theme emanating from the challengers was one in which the status quo is not working and, despite good intentions of the current district leaders, the SMMUSD lacks fiscal responsibility, inclusion, transparency, innovation, accountability and academic excellence for each and every student especially minorities.
Administration cuts were a hot topic and Foster cited comparable school districts in California as models of how the SMMUSD could be structured to cut costs. While the incumbents stated that those examples were not analogous to SMMUSD, Farrer insisted that these districts should be compared to SMMUSD, which run at about one-half the operating cost of the current district. In light of an over $4 million SMMUSD operating deficit, investigation would be prudent.
Jacobson referred to his 25-years of business experience, claiming he could balance the budget. Jacobson additionally asserted that significant cuts and improvements could be made where there is waste and inefficiency at the administrative level, in co-operation with the unions and without negatively affecting teachers and children. Jacobson claimed that this could be done in two years—a gibe at incumbents Escarce and Leon Vazquez who each have served a 12-year stint on the current school board.
Conversely, incumbents relied on their record as SMMUSD school board members to insist that SMMUSD is in good standing and is a model of academic excellence. Escarce cited increased critical thinking as a goal for the students, and Allen agreed that creative thinkers and innovations along with a focus on technology, art and music were important objectives.
Leon Vazquez cited higher test scores as a district success, yet Foster, a certified teacher with a master's degree in education, shocked the crowd in attendance with some deplorable statistics indicating what he described as a long-term problem: only 6% of current SMMUSD African American high school boys are proficient at the state math level, only 14% of African American current SMMUSD high school girls are math proficient, SMMUSD Latina high school girls math scores are only at 23% proficient, and SMMUSD Latino boys math scores are at 25% proficient.
Allen noted the achievement gap and stated that the long-term goal was to increase financing and funding to enhance the academic standards and close the achievement gap. Jacobson cited a leadership gap instead of an achievement gap, and the challenger's argument was that current members have had at least a decade to achieve this goal and have failed.
The three challengers collectively claimed that they could achieve what the current board has failed to do with an overhaul of the administration, a professional edit of the current budget and programs that focus to more effectively close the achievement gap.
Foster continued to asserted the long-term failed approach to the school district over the last 12 years has been to raise as much money as possible and then to focus on individual programs, resulting in a huge budget deficit, administration mismanagement and numerous measures Y, EE, S, AA BB, R, RR, Y, YY, and ES— all of which have failed to yield enough money for the current school board. However, the candidates did agree on the need for additional funding supported by the passing of State Propositions 30 and 38.
In reference to a long term district goal, Leon Vazquez stated that the district must continue to work collaboratively, she was disheartened by community negativity, but preferred "to reflect back on the good time we had that one summer" when the Save Our Schools program moved the community as one inclusive district. Yet, the 2010-SOS program was not compulsory and strictly a volunteer effort by community members in both cities.
The issue of collaboration between Malibu and Santa Monica remained a sore subject as most Malibu community members note they are not currently considered in important school board decisions directly affecting them and are slated to be compelled involuntarily to relinquish their school donations to the Santa Monica Education Fund.
Farrer echoed the lack of Malibu representation topic, "We have a distant, both philosophically and geographically, administration and school board." She noted that board members attended Santa Monica High School's Back-to-School Night and were thanked by student representatives, while none of the board members attended Malibu High's similar event.
With regard to the restoration of funding, Escarce was asked what is the very first program that should receive restoration, Escarce, replied, "One of the problems with restoration of funding in a prolonged period of relentless budget cuts there are a lot of things that first go wanting and a lot of people that work in our district who have not, for example, received a raise." Answering the same question, Leon Vazquez stated that she would use restored funding for the district for No Child Left Behind programs and she would fund English learner reading first.
Some of the evening's more controversial statements came from Leon Vazquez in response to a question about the creation of an independent Malibu Unified School District. It elicited an audible response from spectators when she declared, "There really haven't been any factual arguments made within Malibu to say we have been unfair." One audience member stated afterwards that Leon Vazquez simply "cannot grasp the concept of a autonomous community like Malibu wanting to oversee its own schools and its own children."
Leon Vazquez also surprised those in attendance with the position that she would not support the unification—even before viewing the independent evaluation report commissioned by Santa Monica School Board and AMPS (Advocate for Malibu public Schools) which has yet to be released. The remainder of the candidates, including incumbents Escarce and Allen support the unification of a Malibu school district pending the independent report, if financially viable for both districts.
Foster reiterated his position that both cities would gain millions in additional school funds if separation were to occur. The independent report is scheduled to be released shortly.