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School Board Recall Campaign Kicks Off

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By Jorge Casuso

August 11, 2021 -- The campaign to recall three Santa Monica-Malibu School Board members has begun circulating petitions after they were qualified by the Los Angeles County Registrar last Tuesday.

The petitions target School Board President Jon Kean, Vice President Laurie Lieberman and Board member Maria Leon Vazquez, who are all Santa Monica residents with more than four years on the seven-member board.

Board member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, who was targeted in a previous filing in March, is not among those being recalled.

Sponsors have 160 days to gather signatures from 15 percent of the registered voters in the District, which amounts to some 12,500 signatures.

According to the petitions, all three Board members "voted to lay off dozens of teachers" and directed administrators "to focus on purchasing a $21 million office building, construction projects, and fighting unwinnable lawsuits."

The petitions also allege the three Board members have failed "to oversee finances, allowing ever-increasing structural deficits and misuse of taxpayer funds, pushing SMMUSD to a bond ratings downgrade and the brink of bankruptcy."

In addition, the three petitions accuse the Board members of creating "a culture of retaliation to stifle the dissent of parents" and of violating the State's open meetings act "by conducting public business behind closed doors."

The Board members also "voted to end Head Start -- a successful preschool program for our most vulnerable children paid for by federal funds -- thus increasing district costs by $1.2 million annually," according to the three petitions.

The petitions also include individual grounds for recalling each of the Board members.

The petition to recall Kean -- who was elected to a second four-year term in November -- contends he violated California's Political Reform Act "by voting to pay himself from SMMSUD's general fund for expenses he incurred rather than recuse himself."

The petition against Lieberman -- who has served on the Board since 2010 -- contends she "authorized over $7 million in payments to lawyers to fight to keep students and teachers in classrooms contaminated with carcinogenic PCBs."

While the petition to recall Leon Vazquez -- who won a record sixth four-year term in November -- contends she violated the Political Reform Act by awarding SMMUSD contracts to her husband's political consulting clients.

The votes -- reported in the Los Angeles Times -- prompted a criminal investigation by the Los Angeles County District Attorney.

The petition also alleges that Leon-Vazquez "failed to address the needs of our English learners" as liaison for the District English Learner Advisory Committee.

The proponents listed on the petition are Jennifer Farr, Katrina Blandino, Nicholas Taranto, Nicole L. Kolhoff, Kevin Shenkman, Maria Loya, Houman David Hemmati, Rebecca N Russell, Melissa S. Holmes and Aren Roui Israel.

In their answer to the Petition for Recall, which are identical, the three Board members contend the petitions are "based on malicious lies and misinformation.

"We have excellent public schools in Santa Monica-Malibu. Don’t be fooled by those who choose to engage in petty politics during a pandemic at the expense of our students," the three Board members state.

The Board members contend that the School Board has "expanded and improved preschools," "implemented pre-K-12 social justice standards" and "nurtured our revered music and fine arts programs."

They also contend the Board has "modernized school facilities" and "fortified our financial reserves, balanced our budget, and improved our credit rating, saving taxpayers millions of dollars."

According to their answers to the petitions, the Board also "strengthened our students’ readiness for college and careers" and "promoted initiatives to engage all students, with urgent attention on closing the achievement gap."

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