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School Board Slate Eyes Major Shake-Up

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By Jorge Casuso

September 1, 2022 -- For what may be the first time in at least two decades, an organized slate of four challengers from Santa Monica and Malibu will try to gain control of the School Board.

Named A Brighter Future (ABF), the four-member slate is composed of Santa Monica residents Angela DiGaetano, Esther Hickman and Miles Warner, and Malibu resident Stacy Rouse.

The challengers claim the current Board -- which has seen only one incumbent lose an election in the past 10 years -- is disconnected from the daily goings-on at the schools and resistant to change.

Comprised predominantly of parents with children enrolled in District schools, the slate is attempting to wrest control from a seven-member Board with only one member whose children are enrolled.

"We wanted to have parents who are in touch," said slate co-organizer Kat Blandino. "We need a School Board that prioritizes the education of students, which is ridiculous to have to say for a school board."

According to a news release announcing the slate, ABF's other priorities are "to spend our tax dollars where they are most needed, lead with transparency and accountability and equitably allocate resources among all our neighborhood schools and students."

"At a critical time in our children’s education, the current school board’s lack of focus on academic outcomes and student well-being is negatively impacting the future of our students and schools," the announcement reads.

To gain control of the Board, the slate will have to unseat two incumbents -- Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein and Laurie Lieberman -- and defeat the only other challenger, Alicia Mignano, not on the slate.

That's because incumbents Keith Coleman and Craig Foster have decided not to seek reelection.

Coleman has withdrawn from the race and resigned from the Board but will still appear on the November 8 ballot after missing the deadline to withdraw ("EXTRA -- Coleman Resigns from School Board," August 31, 2022).

Foster, the only Malibu resident on the Board, is backing slate member Stacy Rouse, former president of the Malibu Schools Leadership Council (MSLC) ("Foster Not to Seek Re-Election to School Board," August 8, 2022).

Rouse is the only member of the slate with no children enrolled in District schools after her youngest child recently graduated from Malibu High School.

Lieberman, who is seeking her fourth four-year term and served three consecutive years as president, and Tahvildaran-Jesswein who is seeking a third term and is serving his second year as vice president, no longer have children in the District.

The two incumbents have a clear fundraising advantage, having raised a combined total of nearly $40,000 between Januarry 1 and June 30, compared to members of the slate, who did not file campaign finance disclosure statements.

They also are expected to receive the backing of Santa Monica's major political and education groups -- Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR), Santa Monica Forward and Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS).

They also are endorsed by heavy political hitters, including Congressmember Ted Lieu, State Senator Ben Allen, Assemblymember Richard Bloom and County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

The last incumbent who lost an election was Ralph Mechur in 2014. The previous election in 2016 was canceled due to a lack of opposition.

"They don't have to run but just walk back to their seats," said Maria Loya, one of the slate's organizers. "This is the first time they face an organized opposition."

While a slate of three Malibu-based reform candidates was defeated when it challenged the incumbents in 2012, Loya believes this time will be different.

The ABF slate, a grassroots effort created by parents from both cities, could score a major upset in November similar to the one that saw the ouster of three City Council incumbents in 2020, Loya said.

"We're going up against a political machine that has controlled Santa Monica politics for more than 40 years," she said. "But it can be done, and it was done in 2020."

Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated the the last time a School Board incumbent failed to be reelected was 2018. It was Ralph Mechur in 2014.

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