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Meet Tom Pratt

By Teresa Rochester

Tom Pratt has cheated death twice.

The first time he was five. A large wave crashed down on Pratt as he played with his family on the shore of Cabrillo Beach, dragging him out to sea. Unable to swim, Pratt was quickly pulled under water by a churning riptide, only to be pulled to safety by his older brother when lifeguards failed to intervene.

The second time he was 15. A promising student athlete, Pratt was stricken with shingles on his face, which quickly spread to his brain and rendered him comatose. Pratt pulled out of the coma, but the illness' effects were lasting. Pratt lost feeling in his face, his athletic career was over, the scars on his face became fodder for classroom jokes and he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.

It's the near death experiences, Pratt said, that have led him to what he is today: The newly elected president of the Board of Education.

"I'm basically an average person who wants to do the right thing. That's how I see myself," said Pratt as he sat on a sofa in the sunny Wilshire-Montana Neighborhood apartment filled with African American and American Indian art where he lives with his wife Jackie and son Chris, 11.

"I really care about people. I learned all this from my own experience because I was hurt so badly. I was the caretaker of the family. I didn't want to see anyone hurt or left out. That's what got me involved in education. I want to see every child succeed."

In an uncontested vote by acclamation, Pratt, who is serving his first term, was elected president of the Board of Education last Thursday. He had previously served as vice president. Two-term board member and one-time board president, Julia Brownley was approved by acclamation as vice president.

A self-employed fine art insurance broker, Pratt is a virtual unknown outside the Santa Monica-Malibu education world. Of the seven-member board, Pratt, is the quiet one.

It's a reputation he admits has been his biggest source of criticism during his two years in office. It's not necessarily accurate either and likely will change as Pratt steers the board, with three new members, through a year that will bring a sea change to the district.

"As a leader, he is going to be a great board president," said friend and former board president Margaret Quinones, who was sworn in Wednesday as a member of the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees.

"Tom is a very strong person but in a very quiet way," Quinones said. "People misunderstand his silence. He's very approachable, he's a good listener and he really thinks things through."

Earlier this month during a tense hearing before the City Council on the controversial topic of water fluoridation, Pratt, then the board's vice president, stepped to the speaker's podium to present the Board of Education's stance of the issue. "Na, na, na, na, na," he teased. "I'm sure happy I'm not sitting up there."

"My son and wife will tell you I'm the silliest person they know," said Pratt, a former television news writer.

As board president, Pratt hopes more people will get to know his sense of humor, but he doesn't apologize for being quiet on the dais. "If my mouth is open I'm not learning," Pratt said.

Despite his sense of humor and a taste for casual Hawaiian-print shirts and blue jeans, Pratt hopes to reintroduce formality to the board. His goal is to foster a culture of respect and decorum that will be inviting to parents and a step towards earning their trust.

Tom, stepdaughter Ericka Smith, wife Jackie and son Chris

Pratt's goals for the board don't stop there.

He picks up a yellow "Post It" note from the pink sandstone living room table he made and reads off the four things he wants to improve during his one-year stint as president: Communication, commendations, community and consensus.

To increase communication Pratt wants to make an appointment twice a month with school principals and have a lunch with students to hear their concerns. With the board's support, Pratt also wants to make sure that a board member attends every PTA meeting.

"We need to support the parents with parental classes or even classes that teach them how to help them [students] study," Pratt said, adding that money for those projects would come from private partnerships.

He also wants to help abolish the discrepancies in fundraising between the wealthier and poorer district schools. "I would like to see equity as far as fundraising, like adopt-a-school," he said, adding that he already has started reaching out to the business community and the Chamber of Commerce.

One work-intensive item on Pratt's to do list is the formation of three board subcommittees charged with crafting a long and short-term vision for the board, the search for a new superintendent, and curriculum.

Pratt also wants to see the City of Malibu take part in the Liaison Committee, which is made up of representatives from the school district, SMC and the City of Santa Monica. "I hear they feel like they're in the dark," he said.

"I think he [Pratt] understands the broad issues of education very well," said Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom, who campaigned with Pratt in 1998. "He doesn't have an agenda that goes beyond what our core values are and that makes him a good consensus builder."

Pratt placed fourth in the 1998 election behind three incumbents, ending up 512 votes behind the third place finisher in the race for four open seats. It was a respectable showing for a candidate who had lived in Santa Monica for just two years.

The Pratts moved to Santa Monica from Burbank after their home suffered extensive damage in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and they decided to make a clean start. After an unpleasant experience with a local private school, the Pratt's decided to enroll Chris in Roosevelt Elementary School and quickly found themselves involved with the school's PTA.

At their first PTA meeting, school Principal Jerold Harris spoke of the importance of literacy and parent involvement, prompting Pratt to do his own research on the topics. What he found propelled him into action. Pratt coached Little League and soccer, a sport he knew nothing about, and, along with Jackie, became involved with the school's African American Support Group.

"We wanted to be a real network of support for children of color," said Pratt. "We really got the mind set and the word out that we were here to support the kids and make them the majority not the minority."

Pratt wrote grants to raise money for the group, which took kids on trips to Allensworth, the first black settlement in California, brought in prominent African American leaders on career day and held Kwanzaa celebrations for the city.

It wasn't long before he was tapped by friends to consider running for school board. "I always wanted to run for the school board," said Pratt, who graduated from California State University Northridge with a degree in theater. "I was asked to run. I didn't know if I was ready yet. I was only here for two years."

But with his family's blessing and 48 hours to spare, Pratt entered the race, gathering signatures with the help of Quinones, writing his candidate statement and barely making the City's filing deadline.

Then he hit the campaign trail, speaking to anyone everywhere he went.

"I was in everybody's face. That was the only way because no one knew me," said Pratt, whose campaign workers consisted of his wife, stepdaughter Erika, 28, and friends. "I really wanted this. I really wanted to be a part of the board."

Pratt's campaign received a major boost when he garnered the endorsement of the City's powerful tenant's rights group Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, which he credits as instrumental to his success. The group provided its candidate slates with workers and printed and delivered campaign pieces.

As the new leader of the board, Pratt will be kept busy. In January, contracts with the district's teachers will be ratified, the search for a new superintendent and assistant superintendent of fiscal and business services will continue and there are three new board members who need to learn the ropes.

"You have to look at it from a positive standpoint," he said. "This is probably the most dynamic, exciting time to be on the board. I'm excited about it."

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