Uncertainty Appears to Mark Start of School Board Race
• Barring Last-Minute Filings—May Be First Time in 20 Years There Is No Malibu Candidate
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
Six candidates, three of them incumbents, and none of them a Malibu resident, have pulled papers to run for three full-term seats and one partial (two-year) term on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board in the November election.
Incumbents Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vazquez are both seeking their third four-year term. Ralph Mechur, who was appointed to fill a vacated seat, is running to finish out that seat’s two-year term. Running against the three incumbents are Judith Meister, Chris Bley and Ben Allen.
As of Friday’s deadline, Kathy Wisnicki, the only Malibu resident on the seven-member board, did not pull papers to run for a second term. Because of this, the deadline for applicants has been extended until Wednesday, Aug. 13, after the Malibu Surfside News goes to press.
The powerful tenants’ rights organization Santa Monicans for Renters Rights recently endorsed incumbents Mechur and Leon-Vazquez, together with newcomer Ben Allen. They did not endorse the third incumbent, Escarce, who failed to get the required 55 percent by one vote.
Then, in a surprise turnaround, the 13-member SMRR steering committee, in a closed-door meeting on Saturday, made the unusual decision to overruled the membership and vote to endorse Escarce. There were reportedly no dissenting votes at the closed-door meeting, although several committee members opted to abstain.
Escarce, despite being backed by both the teachers union and SMRR leader Denny Zane, met stiff opposition from a group of parents of special education students who are concerned about the special education controversy that led to a review of the district’s program earlier this year, and culminated in the resignation of Assistant Superintendent Tim Walker amid a firestorm of controversy.
Judith Meister, a PTA leader, also failed to secure a SMRR endorsement. Instead, Allen, a Samohi alumnus and recent law school graduate received the third SMRR endorsement.
Meister, who has served on the district PTA council executive board since 2003 is a past president of both the Santa Monica High School and John Adams Middle School PTSA, and has worked for the City of Santa Monica for the past eight years in managerial positions ranging from beach and pier manager to asset manager. Meister has an MBA in management from UCLA and an MLS from the University of Rhode Island.
Meister told The News that she sees “a need for more open communication on the board.” She said that she plans to spend time in Malibu learning local concerns.
“I want to participate,” Meister said. “This board will have important decisions. We need to restore trust.”
Ben Allen is a Santa Monica native who graduated from Samohi. He has an MA in Latin American studies from Cambridge University and was in the 2008 law school graduating class at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall, where he served last year as UC Student Regent. He has worked as a communications director for Congressmember Jose Serrano (Dem-NY), and as Latin American program assistant with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
Chris Bley also grew up in Santa Monica and is a Samohi alumnus. Bley has a BA is history from the University of Colorado and currently teaches history and government in the neighboring community of Brentwood. An active participant in the Democratic party, he says that he has spent 12 years participating in campaign work. Bley has also served in the Peace Corps. He said in an interview with The News that he ‘jumped into the race” because of Special Education. “I was upset about how the IEPs (individual education plans) were settled,” he said. I want to keep Special Education in the spotlight.”
Incumbent Jose Escarce, who is seeking a third term on the school board, is a senior natural scientist at RAND, where he conducts research on health policy, including health economics, managed care, physician behavior, racial and ethnic disparities in medical care, and technological change in medicine. He also teaches at UCLA, and holds both a medical degree and a Ph.D.
Maria Leon-Vazquez, who is also seeking a third term on the school board, has been active as a community advocate in Santa Monica for 30 years. She has served as a board member for the Community Corporation, which is a provider of affordable housing in Santa Monica. She has also served on the board of Westside Legal Services, and has chaired the Santa Monica Commission on the Status of Women.
Ralph Mechur, an architect, was appointed mid-term to fill a vacancy on the board, He is running to complete the remaining two years of that term. According to Merchur’s web site, his architectural firm, established in 1992, focuses on affordable housing and social service projects.
Mechur has served for eight years on the Santa Monica Planning Commission, where he addressed the Third Street Promenade Specific Plan and the Santa Monica Pier Expansion Plan.
He has also been a member of the SMMUSD Financial Oversight Committee, and the president of the district’s Education Foundation, a nonprofit that raises funds for student programs.
With the extended deadline, additional candidates are anticipated to also throw their hats into the ring in what is expected by most school district observers to become a close and hotly debated election race.