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The 2006 Election: College and School Boards

By Frank J. Gruber

It's a sign of how weird local politics can be, but the most surprising aspect about the election for the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees is that all six candidates are strong supporters of the College.

Shouldn't that be a given? Well, no, not when you consider how the College has been kicked around the last few years by the no-growth element of Santa Monica politics, who have objected to the institution's expansion.

One might think that if the Sunset Park neighbors who pushed the City Council to make life miserable for the College when it wanted access to its new Bundy Campus wanted to change the College's behavior, they might have run a candidate who would reflect their views on the Board.

But why run an anti-College candidate and lose -- because Santa Monica and Malibu voters love their College and vote overwhelmingly in favor of the bond issues that pay for its expansion -- when you can get City Council members to carry your water?

I guess the question answers itself.

There are six candidates running for four positions on the board, but one of them, Susanna Bracke, has hardly campaigned, which means that voters will essentially be deciding which one of five to vote off the island.

As with the City Council election, it's not an easy choice, as all five candidates have good qualities.

There is one incumbent running, Nancy Greenstein. Ms. Greenstein is a community political leader, having been co-chair of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights for many years. When she was elected I heard some rumblings that a "college board was no place for politics," but that attitude is naïve.

As it happens, Ms. Greenstein has been a strong supporter of the College and its mission, and she has managed her political relationships appropriately and they certainly have been helpful for the College in dealing with the City.

Two candidates, David Finkel and Louise Jaffe, are in some ways similar. Both have been active civic leaders and have the kind of resumes one expects candidates for a community college board to have.

Mr. Finkel was active in Santa Monicans for Renters Rights and was elected to the City Council in the 80's. He went on to become a Municipal and then Superior Court judge and served with distinction before retiring. He doesn't have any particular experience in education, but is certainly known as a wise head in the community.

Ms. Jaffe is perhaps best known in the community as the doyenne of "Lifelong Learning." No one has volunteered more time to education at all levels. Ms. Jaffe is known not only for her extensive knowledge about education, but also her extensive contacts with people of all political stripes.

The dramatic conflict in this election arises from the two other candidates, Tom Donner and Andrew Walzer. On the surface, it appears to be a conflict between management and labor. Mr. Donner has retired from his 30 years of working for the College, ultimately at the highest of positions, including acting President. Mr. Walzer is a professor at the College, and a member of the faculty union's executive board.

As reported in The Lookout, Mr. Donner has been the target of negative campaigning, apparently funded by the faculty union. Mr. Donner was the College's Chief Business Officer, and there was bitterness between the union and him when the College had to make budget cuts a few years ago.

In response to those cuts, the union has become actively involved with Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, and SMRR endorsed Mr. Walzer, notwithstanding that Mr. Donner probably has more knowledge about how the College operates than anyone alive.

Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS), however, endorsed Mr. Donner and did not endorse Mr. Walzer. Two CEPS members told me that the reason was that the CEPS members were concerned that Mr. Walzer would put the interests of faculty ahead of those of students and the College as a whole. (One wonders which candidate will receive Denny Zane's vote, inasmuch as Mr. Zane is a leader of both SMRR and CEPS.)

There are two ways to look at this -- either you like the idea of the union being involved with running the institution its members work for or you don't. No doubt having a union representative on the board will help protect the interests the faculty, which include not only economic issues, but also issues like academic freedom.

The counter arguments are that the Board of Trustees is no place for union representatives, not only because the Board and the union bargain against each other, but also because the faculty have their own institutional role in governing the College, and that faculty in the long run will best preserve their independence by not being part of the administration.

We will see what the voters do.

* * *

The race for the Santa Monica-Malibu School Board race has certain structural similarities to the College Board race, namely that there are six candidates for four seats, and one of the candidates -- Sidonie Smith -- seems not to be campaigning.

This time there are three incumbents, however, running for reelection.

Emily Bloomfield has generated the least controversy in that she is the only incumbent CEPS has endorsed, and she also received endorsements from SMRR and the Chamber of Commerce. It's not a surprise because she has been an intelligent and purposeful member of the board.

There is controversy, however, when you get to the two other incumbents, Oscar de la Torre and Shane McCloud.

Oscar de la Torre is an unusual and provocative person to have on a school board. Usually school board members are middle aged or older, parents of school age children, pillars of the community type. Mr. de la Torre, however, is an unabashed radical, who represents a particular constituency -- the disenfranchised, and often low-achieving, students in the district and their families.

It's a shame that Mr. de la Torre can sometimes show a lack of trust in those who he works with and abrasiveness when he's up against what he perceives as injustice. He can certainly project a holier-than-thou attitude. No doubt these are the personality factors that led to CEPS not endorsing him, since it seems to me that he and that organization share the same goals.

I'm not going to endorse Mr. de la Torre for any readers who don't like his views or his demeanor, but for those readers who believe that bringing the alienated students of this District in from the cold is the most important job facing the Board, not only for the sake of those students but also to improve the overall learning environment for the benefit of high-achievers as well, then Mr. de la Torre is essential.

Longtime readers of this column know that I don't believe school boards have much power, because they have very little control over revenue, but they are important as "bully pulpits" and they set the agenda for the administration. He may have faults, and those faults may disqualify him for some or many voters, but Mr. de la Torre represents voices that need to be heard in a language they understand.

Like Mr. de la Torre, Shane McCloud has been a divisive figure on the Board, although there are people who believe he has mellowed since his first year.

Although I don't believe anyone doubts his commitment to the public school system, Mr. McCloud is the most conservative member of the Board, both in terms of curriculum and financial policy. A teacher himself, he is ironically the least cooperative member in terms of the Board's relationship with the teachers union. It fits that while neither Mr. de la Torre nor Mr. McCloud received the nod from CEPS, SMRR endorsed Mr. de la Torre, while the Chamber of Commerce endorsed Mr. McCloud.

The new candidates are Kelly McMahon Pye and Barry Snell. They both received the trifecta of endorsements from CEPS, SMRR and the Chamber, and they are both well-spoken, experienced products of the PTA and the site governance "systems" that enable parents to have meaningful "buy-in" to school policies in the District.

I would be remiss not to mention that Mr. Snell has had trouble with the State Accountancy Board resulting from oversights he made in keeping his membership up-to-date. While troubling, these mistakes don't necessarily disqualify him from doing a good job as a member of the Board.

* * *

Tomorrow -- the local propositions.

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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