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Frank Gruber

Spelling SMRR, and Reading It in On the Wall

By Frank Gruber

If last week's column was based on the unprecedented circumstance that Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) had endorsed only two candidates for City Council when four seats were being contested, then this week's ruminations are based on the at least highly unusual circumstance that the SMRR Steering Committee has given the organization's endorsement to a candidate, José Escarce, who is running for reelection to the school board and who did not receive an endorsement at the SMRR Congess. ("Escarce Wins Late SMRR Nod," August 11, 2008)

As a result, Judith Meister, a highly qualified candidate for the board, has dropped out of the race ("Mesiter Withdraws from School Board Race," August 14, 2008). This means that the three candidates endorsed by SMRR for the three full terms on the ballot will face opposition only from Chris Bley. Mr. Bley is a teacher, at the Brentwood School, but he is not well known in the community, and I doubt that he'll pose a threat to the SMRR candidates.

I've been writing columns for eight years, and they turn out to be recyclable. The third column I wrote, dated Nov. 9, 2000, right after the 2000 election ("WHAT I SAY -- SMRR and its Discontents"), included the following:

"SMRR dodged a bullet last year during the school district's budget crisis. By putting themselves in at least the rhetorical forefront of efforts to get more money from the City for the school district, SMRR leaders and council members were able to avoid blame, not only for the budget problems, but also for myriad other complaints that surfaced during the crisis, notwithstanding that they had elected most of the school board.

"Two years ago Nancy Greenstein crowed at the SMRR victory celebration that a school board candidate needed to know how to spell "SMRR" to be elected. This year, in the aftermath of the crisis, SMRR endorsed three candidates for the board, and all of them won. SMRR may have a harder time avoiding trouble this time if there is another budget crunch, or other problems with the district.

"SMRR is particularly susceptible to this kind of criticism because it has so much power. The vote that matters now in Santa Monica elections is not the one on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, but rather the vote of the SMRR Congress to endorse or not to endorse a candidate. Typically 125 or 150 people vote on candidates at the SMRR Congress. It is as if the national political parties still picked their candidates at conventions, rather than by primaries."

I should mention that when the column was published Nancy Greenstein, who was then co-chair of SMRR, took exception to my describing her statement as "crowing," since she didn't think that she was one to crow. I stand by the verb, but I'm willing to admit that the soft-spoken Ms. Greenstein, now a member of the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees, is one who would crow only figuratively.

I'll also stand by the point I made that the most important vote each year in Santa Monica occurs at the SMRR Congress. If you want your vote to count a thousand times more than that of any of us poor slobs in November, join SMRR and show up at the congress.

I was probably wrong about the political impact, though. Until I re-read my old column, I had forgotten about the school district's budget crisis of 1999, since there have been so many crises of one sort or another involving the district since then. But SMRR hasn't suffered.

I don't have any animus against Mr. Escarce, who is thoughtful and dedicated, but this late endorsement by the SMRR Steering Committee bothers me. It's impossible to separate it from the special education mess, as committee member and former SMRR everything Dennis Zane told The Lookout that a number of committee members believed that Mr. Escarce had been blocked from receiving the endorsement at the congress by a group of special education parents, and they wanted to rectify that.

One thing that's admirable about SMRR is that recognizing how important its endorsements are, it requires a candidate to receive a super-majority of 55 percent of the votes at the congress to obtain an endorsement; this is designed to make it more difficult for special interest groups to hijack the process. Mr. Escarce missed 55 percent by only one vote, and I'm sure there was a sentiment in the committee that that one vote should not prevent SMRR from endorsing a candidate whom it had endorsed in the past.

But this was a mistake and will only be interpreted as offensive by the special education parents.

As conscientious as Mr. Escarce can be, he has been one of the board members deaf (and tone-deaf) when it comes to comprehending (and relating to) the pain and anguish the district's special education policies have caused. He himself owned up to this at school board meeting. I'm not saying that he couldn't be part of a solution to the problem, but many special education parents don't think so.

They want change at the board level, as do many other residents who wonder why, among other things, the board can't find a superintendent who sticks around for more than a few years and actually solves some of the district's chronic problems -- which generally involve the quality of administration rather than the quality of education.

That may be what a lot of residents want, but what SMRR wants is not to be challenged. Mr. Escarce knew how to spell SMRR when he was elected to the board, and if he were to lose to a non-endorsed candidate, such as Ms. Meister, people might start to wonder if the chronic chaos at the high levels of the district might possibly be related to the board SMRR has chosen.

Presumably Ms. Meister knows how to spell SMRR, too, and that's why she also tried to obtain the organization's endorsement. She certainly knows how to read SMRR when it's handwritten (figuratively) in big letters on the wall, and I'm guessing she's smart enough to realize that if she ever wants the endorsement in the future it's best not to run against SMRR now.

SMRR's defensiveness is particularly hard to understand given that the two board members trusted most by the special education parents, Oscar de la Torre and Maria Leon-Vazquez, also knew how to spell SMRR when they were elected.

Getting back to Ms. Meister, it's worth considering the qualifications SMRR ignored when it endorsed Ms. Leon-Vazquez and Mr. Escarce for third terms and a young (but no doubt talented) man, Ben Allen, just out of law school.

The school district above all needs good relations with parents, in particular the special education parents and the parents of underprivileged children, and with the City of Santa Monica. Ms. Meister as a parent has been involved in the schools for years and most recently was for two years the president of the P.T.S.A. at Santa Monica High School. Before that she was P.T.S.A. president at John Adams Middle School, where most of the district's underprivileged students attend sixth through eighth grades. She has a child who has been in the special education program.

For eighteen years Ms. Meister worked for the City as a well-regarded manager. I suspect that she would be a more effective advocate to dispatch to a City Council meeting to explain the district's needs than any of the current board members.

I just had a son graduate after thirteen years in the system, and I know how good our schools are. I've defended the district (though not uncritically) in connection with both the special education and financial management controversies.

But it's an insult to the voters of Santa Monica and Malibu that after all the controversies of the past year involving the district, because of the SMRR Steering Committee's unusual action there will be little real chance for the voters to express themselves at the ballot box on how they want their school system to be governed, and whom they want to do the governing.

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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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