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Parents Organize to Reform School System

By Teresa Rochester

Growing up as the daughter of avid Texas activists, Lillie Schlessinger thought she'd had enough of politics - until she found herself suddenly fighting to change the school system.

"It's too important to turn a blind eye to it and say someone else will have to take care of it," Schlessinger said.

Lillie and her husband, Ron, are among the three dozen parents who joined the new Citizens for District Reform. The group was forged earlier this year in the hallways of the school district, as school board members wrestled over potential budget cuts in the wake of a financial crisis that has damaged the district's credibility.

Comprised of special education parents, music and fine art boosters, sports and physical education supporters and PTA members, the group is waging a battle against what its members consider a closed, unresponsive system. It is a battle whose outcome could be decided in the November race for three school board seats.

"It doesn't matter what your issue is. It doesn't matter what your DAC (District Advisory Council) is. You go through it, do your time… and you still don't feel people listen," John Petz told the parents assembled at the group's second meeting last month. Petz started the group with David Cole, a member of the PTA Council and president of the neighborhood organization Mid-City Neighbors.

Petz and Cole want the school board and district officials to listen and be more responsive to the community. They want the board to more closely supervise and manage district administrators. And to accomplish that, they argue, politics needs to be eliminated from school board elections and the board's face reshaped.

"Many who have volunteered over a period of many years have found they have been ignored. They're coming out now," Petz said after the meeting. "There exists an opportunity to bring about real change. The only people who don't seem to understand what's going on are the people in power. "

Changing the membership of the Board of Education in the November 8 race is at the forefront of the group's crusade. Currently, six of the seven board members were endorsed by Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the powerful grassroots organization which sets Santa Monica's political agenda and public policy. (Five of the seven city council members currently are SMRR-backed).

Cole and Petz hold SMRR responsible for the board's makeup. They argue that it is nearly impossible to win a seat on the school board without SMRR backing. A SMRR endorsement, they note, comes with a substantial war chest, making it difficult for independent candidates to compete on a level playing field. (SMRR does not give school board candidates money, but they include them on mailers along with city council candidates.)

"The only way to get elected to school board is to get an endorsement from a party," Cole said. "Politics don't or shouldn't play a role in the school board…There's nothing there for a political party…Take the money out of it [elections]. Take the endorsements out of it. It makes it stifling for anyone to run."

At the group's second meeting in late February, parents began exploring ways to change the election process and ultimately the culture of the school district and the board.

Breaking into huddles in the corners of MGM Plaza's Community Room, one group of parents discussed coming up with a slate of candidates who would run on a platform crafted by Citizens for School District Reform. The same group also discussed the possibility of working with SMRR to find candidates.

In another corner of the room, a handful of parents brainstormed ways to depoliticize the election process by doing away with endorsements and making the campaign trail affordable to everyone.

The group's ability to depoliticize school board elections has met with skepticism. Long-time SMRR member Patricia Hoffman questioned the group's ability to keep politics out of the race.

"Look at their actions," said Hoffman, a former board of education member who sits on SMRR's influential steering committee. "Their actions do not depoliticize the process… It's the same sort of thing [parent] Allen Paul Shatkin said, 'Elections are by definition political in nature.' I think its disingenuous for them to say it's not."

Hoffman was asked by organizers to leave the group's February meeting because they felt some parents may find her presence as an active SMRR member intimidating, hindering the free flow of ideas and criticisms. Hoffman stayed because the meeting was held in a space considered public.

"There are some parents who actually have fear," said Cole, who reasserted that the new group is not political. "For them to speak freely, they need to feel safe. So having a connection to the establishment is scary. We're not a political party. We're not looking to run anybody for City Council. There's no desire to upset SMRR."

Hoffman agrees that the school district and board needs to change.

"I'm interested in seeing improvement in the school district," Hoffman said. "The school district is very important. It is at a point that needs help… I would like to see a stronger school board. I don't think the criticisms are about individuals but of the composite. I do think that there are a lot of parents in particular that feel like they're not being heard. I would like to see the school board sit down with the individuals."

That night, Hoffman joined a third group of parents who discussed the district's application of the Brown Act, a state law that assures government bodies operate in public. Some parents alleged the district had routinely violated the law, a charge that district officials deny.

"There are so many Brown Act violations that go on in the district it's unbelievable," alleged one parent, who asked that her name not be used. "We need to know how to enforce it."

In the weeks following the meeting, organizers began an information campaign - e-mailing group members about important topics and meetings within the school district.

One e-mail provided recipients with the full text of the City Council's recommendation to approve a $2.1 million bailout grant to the beleaguered school district.

Another e-mail summarized a meeting of the Financial Task Force Advisory Council and listed points made by each of the task force members, who are charged with overseeing the Superintendent's hand-picked task force. The e-mail called for members to comment on a draft report released by the task force.

Started by a core group of parents who several years ago fought to keep schoolyards open and free of charge, Citizens for School District Reform is rapidly expanding its ranks, organizers said.

Cole estimates there are at least 100 e-mail addresses on the distribution list and the list, he said, is growing. He added that at least once a week he and Petz send out a request to members asking if they know anyone else who may like to get involved with the group.
Both Cole and Petz believe there is more potential for growth and neither was surprised by the turnout of approximately 40 at each meeting.

"There are probably a lot more people out there that we can tap into," Petz said. "People are actually starting to come forward and speaking out."

Lillie Schlessinger said that she and her husband Ron will continue to work with the group. Lillie, whose son attends Marine Park Infant and Child Care Development Center, said she was shocked to hear similar stories of frustration from parents who have been in the district for a long time. Marine Park parents recently lost a battle to keep the district from pulling out of its partnership with the city to run the daycare.

"That's really daunting [to know] my situation is not isolated. It's systemic," Schlessinger said. "It seems to be an issue that cuts across all politics in the city…I hope that by the time he enters kindergarten, there will be change."

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