The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

The School Board Election

By Frank Gruber

For the past two years the actions of the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District have been the subject of more controversy -- and more emotion -- than those of the City of Santa Monica.

Beginning in November 2006 with the dispute over the prospective impact of a new contract with the teachers union and the refusal of then Chief Financial Officer Winston Braham to certify it, and his resulting resignation, problems at the district snowballed.

By the spring of 2007 the School Board was embattled on two fronts -- controversy over a confidentiality clause in Mr. Braham's contract settlement agreement and controversy over confidentiality agreements that the District required in settlement agreements with parents of special needs students.

This all became even more complicated because, in the course of the City Council's deliberations on the City's budget in spring 2007, the Braham dispute and special education became the reasons the council decided to hold back $530,000 of funding for the District.

Neither the school board nor the superintendent, Dianne Talarico, were able to give the council or the community much in the way of grounds for confidence that they could handle either situation.

Then last May the arrest of a teacher charged with sexually abusing children at Lincoln Middle School further embroiled the school board and the District's administration in controversy.

Also in May the administration was rocked by two major resignations -- that of Tim Walker, who, as the administrator in charge of the special education program, had been the lightning rod for criticism by special ed parents, and that of Ms. Talarico.

Over the course of these controversies, and before them, I've written a number of columns about the operations of the board and the District, and although I don't want to diminish the complexity of the issues, over the course of writing these columns I came to the conclusion that it's nothing short of astounding how a district with such good schools can have such chronic governance problems at the board and senior staff level.

Based on all this controversy, one might expect that in communities as politically engaged as Santa Monica and Malibu there would be an organized slate of candidates to replace board members who are up for reelection. But that is not the case.

As I discussed in a column in August ("WHAT I SAY: Spelling SMRR," August 18, 2008), the two incumbents who are running for reelection for regular terms -- Maria Leon-Vazquez and José Escarce -- received the endorsement of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (Mr. Escarce by special action of the SMRR Steering Committee). SMRR also endorsed a new candidate, Ben Allen, for the only open seat, and Board Member Ralph Mechur to complete a term. (Mr. Mechur is being reelected without opposition.)

These endorsements prompted the best known challenger, Judith Meister, to drop out of the race, leaving only four candidates running for the three open seats -- the two incumbents, Mr. Allen, and one independent, Chris Bley, a young man who is a teacher with a background, through his family, in special education.

As readers may recall from past elections, I don't make endorsements in elections for local offices; the reason is that as the only regular opinion columnist for The Lookout, both the editor and I agree that this would be unfair when personalities are involved. Instead, I try to analyze the candidates and the race.

It would seem that the two incumbents, Ms. Leon-Vazquez and Mr. Escarce, have different challenges in the election, primarily because of the special education controversy. Ms. Leon-Vazquez was one of the two school board members -- the other was Oscar de la Torre -- who communicated the most empathy for the special education parents. It was significant that at the SMRR convention, she had little if any opposition from the special education parents who were there.

Mr. Escarce will undoubtedly lose votes because -- as he admitted -- it took him awhile to understand the problems that the special education parents were having with the settlement system instigated by Tim Walker. By his account, however, and as confirmed to me by several special education parents I spoke to, his attitudes underwent a major change after the board received the Lou Barber report evaluating the District's special ed program.

Notwithstanding his problems with some special ed parents, Mr. Escarce remains a strong candidate. Although the board may be unpopular among some parents and other residents, both incumbents are popular among many school activist parents.

While I have written before that I wish the candidates exercised some volunteer term limiting -- I don't see why anyone thinks that he or she needs to be on the board for more than two terms -- both incumbents are thoughtful and knowledgeable people. I hope that if they are reelected they will try to do something about the passive quality of the board vis-à-vis the school administration. They both need to view their roles as not only policy makers, but also politicians -- in the best sense of the word.

I met with both of the challengers, and they both impressed me. Both Mr. Allen and Mr. Bley are young men without families of their own who are nonetheless interested in education. Notwithstanding the expectations a man of my years may have, neither of them in anyway could be considered a "callow youth."

Mr. Allen is a recent law school graduate who was student body president when he attended Santa Monica High School. When he was in law school at Berkeley he wrote his senior paper on the history of school financing in California, focusing on the Serrano case that mandated equal funding throughout the state, and was the student member on the University of California Board of Regents.

What impressed me most about Mr. Allen, however, at least in terms of his resume, was that for the past two years, again while he was in law school, he commuted to Santa Monica to be a member of the District's Financial Oversight Committee, and last spring he joined the citizens committee overseeing expenditures of Santa Monica College's bond money. So Mr. Allen is young, but he's shown evidence of a serious interest in the running of a school district.

As for Mr. Bley, he was also a graduate of SaMo, in 1991. After graduating from college, he was in the Peace Corps, and when he returned he became involved in politics, as a coordinator of volunteers for the Democratic National Committee in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

Along the way, he became a teacher and currently teaches high school government and history at the Brentwood School.

As mentioned above, Mr. Bley's mother, Nancy Bley, is the Academic Coordinator at Park Century School, a school for learning disabled children, and Mr. Bley told me that one reason he chose to run for the school board this year was that he believed he had the empathy and knowledge required to deal with the District's special education crisis.

As I said, I am disappointed that so few candidates are running for the school board this year. Having said that, however, all four candidates are capable and thoughtful individuals.

Clearly, without the SMRR endorsement, Mr. Bley faces an uphill battle, notwithstanding whatever anti-incumbent sentiments are out there. In recent years, non-SMRR endorsed candidates won seats on the board only when SMRR did not endorse candidates for the full number of contested seats.

For the most part, local politics is a team sport. The advantages of organizational support or other collective action are manifest, especially when it comes to getting a message out. Perhaps Mr. Bley will win, but clearly he could have increased his chances by becoming involved with a local education group before running.

But then the onus is also on the groups. If people are complaining about the board, then it's up to them to organize and run against it.

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