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Politics Without Power

By Frank Gruber

October 25, 2010 --One of the rules for this column is that I do not endorse candidates running for the City Council or the School Board, but let’s face it -- it would be disingenuous for me to say that I am neutral about the candidates.

For example, anyone who read my column last week about the Tea Party rhetoric in this year’s City Council election probably can figure out that I am not supporting any of the candidates who oppose Measure Y. That already narrows my field to the five incumbents who are running (Gleam Davis, Robert Holbrook, Kevin McKeown, Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day), and challengers Ted Winterer and Jerry Rubin.

Nor would anybody who has been reading the column for any length of time expect that I would support candidates, such as Robert Kronovet or Jean McNeil Wyner, who believe we can solve the traffic problem by building thousands of parking spaces. (How spending tens of millions of dollars to do that accords with their Republican “small government” mantra is another reflection of a national political reality: the classic GOP syndrome of saying one thing when in opposition (“balance the budget!”), and doing the opposite when in power (take us wildly into debt).)

But I don’t expect that readers need my help deciding for whom to vote. The point of the column is to encourage discussion of local issues. I hope I have readers who disagree with me so much that they can read a column and say that by taking the opposite of my arguments they can articulate their reasons for voting for someone I would never vote for.

I have to say, however, that I do appreciate the no-endorsements rule when it comes to the School Board election. It’s a tough one to call. Which brings up a paradox of Santa Monica politics: how it is that the City Council and School Board races play out so differently.

City councils in California have a lot of power, since California law favors local governments, which are responsible for much of the day-to-day operations of government. Santa Monica is also a city that has an active civic life, with many residents taking part in government and civic affairs. One would expect that elections for the council would attract many serious and qualified candidates. Yet in council elections in Santa Monica, beyond the incumbents there are typically only one or two candidates that one can seriously imagine taking a seat on the dais.

When it comes to elections to the School Board the situation is the opposite. Under California and federal law school boards do not have much power. Most of their funding comes from the state, it’s difficult for them to levy taxes, and myriad state and federal regulations circumscribe any actions they can take.

This lack of power seems self-reinforcing. As opposed to the Santa Monica City Council, which typically takes a rigorous bordering on skeptical view of proposals that come from the administrative staff, the School Board rarely challenges the staff of the District.

Yet in each election the quality of the candidates for the School Board is high. This goes for the incumbents as well as the challengers. The former -- this year Oscar de la Torre, Barry Snell and Ralph Mechur are running for reelection – are knowledgeable, experienced and well motivated. They can argue that under the current board’s oversight, the District has seen increases in achievement and that it has handled the financial crisis better than most districts.

Nonetheless, the incumbents have attracted a group of capable challengers. Laurie Lieberman, Nimish Patel, Chris Bley, Patrick Cady and Jake Wachtel are all serious people with resumes connected with (either or both) education in general or the District in particular. (Since there is an open seat, at least one of them will win election to the board even if all the incumbents win reelection.)

Lest you believe that it is the electoral dominance of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) that discourages “serious” challengers to the City Council incumbents, SMRR has dominated School Board elections perhaps even more than it has dominated City Council elections.

Incumbents here usually win reelection to the School Board (especially incumbents, like all three of this year’s incumbents, who have endorsements from SMRR), but there is a general feeling this year -- perhaps reflecting the national mood -- that the incumbents are in trouble. The state’s ongoing financial crisis and its impact on the schools have created a negative aura around anyone involved with school governance.

Locally, there are also lingering bad feelings about special education and conflict the District had with the City Council two years ago, notwithstanding that under Superintendent Tim Cuneo the District has improved both administration of the special education program and communications with special education parents, and vastly improved relations with the City.

The unhappiness with the District was manifested last spring when the District was unable to persuade two-thirds of the voters to pass a new parcel tax. While it’s hard to fault the board when nearly two-thirds of voters did support the tax, the fact is that a lost election is a lost election.

I would argue that the dissatisfied feeling about the District and the School Board, to the extent that it exists, arises from the Board’s failure to communicate excitement about education to the broad public. In a situation where the board members don’t have much power, they have to replace power with leadership.

I attribute this failure to communicate to the difficulties the board has had with hiring superintendents of schools, beginning with John Deasy in 2001. Mr. Deasy himself was an excellent communicator, and an educator with vision, but he resigned before his contract was up to take a job at a bigger district. He never finished his work.

To replace Mr. Deasy, the School Board made the unfortunate hire of Dianne Talarico. She didn’t last long, and the board replaced her, first on a temporary basis, with Mr. Cuneo. Mr. Cuneo is a capable administrator, and he ultimately stayed on longer, but he was never seen as a long-term head for our schools, which is what we need, and he has now announced his retirement.

Since the School Board follows the lead of its superintendent more than the City Council follows the lead of its city manager, the most important decision the board makes is who to hire as superintendent. The board talks about hiring “world-class” educators, and conducting “national searches” to find them, but perhaps what the board should be looking for is a hardworking and sensible educator prepared to spend the next ten years of his or her life working to increase the excellence of the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District.

As I said, when it comes to the School Board election, I’m happy with the no-endorsement rule. Think of it as a privilege to be able to choose from a list of good candidates, but let’s hope that those who are elected recognize that their job is to communicate to the public who don’t have children in the schools as much as it is to oversee the schools themselves.

One more thing. It’s important to vote for the candidates you believe will do the best job, but more important for the schools than which School Board candidates get elected is that Measures Y and YY pass. Make sure you get to that part of the ballot and vote yes on Y and YY.

If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at .

If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email 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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