Superintendent Selection Heads List of Concerns at Candidate Forum
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
The five candidates running for seats on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board met on Monday in Santa Monica for their first public forum, which was sponsored by a new advocacy group called LEAD, Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability, Direction for Santa Monica-Malibu Public Schools, and CEPS, Community for Excellent Public Schools.
Incumbents Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vasquez are both seeking a third four-year term, Ralph Mechur, who was appointed two years ago to fill a vacancy, is running unopposed for a two-year term. Newcomers Ben Allen and Chris Bley, both Santa Monica natives and alumni of Samohi, are running for the first time. Kathy Wisnicki, the only Malibu resident on the board, decided not to run for reelection, leaving Malibu without a representative for the first time in decades.
Each candidate was given a minute for an opening statement, a minute to answer each question and a minute for a closing statement. The participants in the forum were polite and appeared relaxed. No mud was slung, no tempers lost. But there was also little disagreement and not much difference of opinion.
Priority issues for all of the candidates are the upcoming selection of a permanent superintendent, special education, the budget, addressing the so-called achievement gap and the issue of transparency. Malibu was only mentioned by newcomers Allen and Bley, who both advocated greater outreach and participation.
Allen was the only candidate to allude to tensions between the two communities. He suggested sending board members to PTA meetings at all district schools, including Malibu, and to events like Malibu High School football games, but neither he, nor any of the other candidates address the growing Malibu separatist movement that wants a Malibu school district that is not attached to Santa Monica.
Allen, a recent graduate of law school at Berkeley, has spent the past year serving as the University of California student regent.
Bley, the only district teacher running for the board, stated that he entered the election because of the special education issue. Bley said, “[The board] needs new faces, new way of thinking, and new community outreach.”
Incumbent Escarce, a professor of medicine at UCLA who has been a researcher at RAND, acknowledged that there have been problems, but that he has learned from his mistakes. He cited two areas of improvement for the board: improvement in leadership and transparency. “It is clear to me there hasn’t been satisfaction.”
Incumbent Leon-Vasquez also acknowledged that there have been problems. “We have to do a better job,” she said.
Ralph Mechur, who is running unopposed and is consequently not on the ballot, had no apologies to make. “We are in excellent shape, students are doing well,” he said.
The hiring of a new superintendent was the first issue the candidates addressed.
Allen stated that a potential superintendent should demonstrate educational leadership, manage relationships, and be skilled at politics. He said that an argument can be made for a closed process in the search, but that “we need an open process.”
Bley said the superintendent needs experience with finance and with a district the same size or larger, and should be “someone who enjoys kids and have more than just a broad vision.”
Escarce prefaced his remarks by saying that it is “an incredibly hard job. The core thing,” he said, is “an incredibly strong leader, conveying vision, honesty, transparency and relishing working in a diverse district.”
Leon-Vasquez stressed the importance of communicating with the community, and the need to find a candidate with the “longevity to stay for more than three or four years.”
All the candidates agreed that math and reading should be priorities. The closest thing to a disagreement during the forum occurred over the issue of beginning algebra in the eighth grade, a policy that recently came out of Sacramento.
Bley came out strongly in favor of eight-grade algebra, “algebra teaches logical thinking skills. We have some amazing students. We should continue to work for algebra.” Mechur appeared to agree, and stated that “We are ahead of other districts.”
Escarce, Leon-Vasquez and Allen found fault in the state recommendations. Escarce said, “Algebra in the eighth grade is a problem now,” adding that “equality of access did not equal equality of mastery.”
Leon-Vasquez expressed concern that “all it does is put more pressure on students. We need a foundation before we can do algebra in eighth grade.”
“The rules are overly ridged,” Allen said. “We haven’t got the foundation.”
All of the candidates endorse the upcoming Santa Monica College bond issue, Proposition AA, which is the third college bond issue in six years. Opponents of the bond charge that Santa Monica College still has unspent funds from the previous bonds, and warn that this bond, which, they say, will be used to recruit the students from outside of the Santa Monica-Malibu area, will hurt the school district's chances of raising future bond money.
The candidates disagreed with the claim that the bond could hurt future school district funding. All five were optimistic about future bond issues for the school district, despite the current economic crisis, and expressed enthusiasm for a proposed joint project with the Santa Monica Civic Center that is currently being discussed.
“The Community always supports bonds in Malibu and Santa Monica,” said Bley, “as long as we put forward projects that show sustainability.”
Leon-Vasquez stated that the board needs to make sure “we get a lot of our construction started [on Measure BB projects] within a year. We need to get going, have results, and move on to a second phase.”
“Facilities are a big concern,” Allen said, adding that on a recent visit to Samohi he observed areas of the campus hadn’t changed since he was a student. “They looked just the same as they did in the early ’90’s and they didn't look good back then.” Allen called the proposed Civic Center project “exciting,” and also praised the Measure BB plans for Malibu High School.
“We’re at a historic point rebuilding from Prop. 13,” Mechur said. He added that he was “looking forward to combining with the Civic Center into a public space.”
The candidates were also asked about out-of-district permits that allow a limited number of students, such as the children of city and school employees, to attend district schools. The permits have also been used to fill empty seats when class sizes shrink, a problem that the district has been facing recently. Most viewed the permits as a positive asset.
“It helps to create diversity,” Leon-Vasquez said.
“We’re fortunate to be able to tweak the numbers. It’s an advantage on budget day,” Allen said. Bley agreed that the permits are a tool for both diversity and budgeting. “It’s an advantage,” Bley said. Escarce warned that the practice can lead to overcrowding, which is what led to a district moratorium on the permits.
The forum ended with as much civility as it began. Mechur said he was “honored and humbled to serve,” and acknowledged that there were “a lot of issues to resolve.” Escarce called the opportunity to serve on the board “a remarkable responsibility,” Leon Vasquez said “I had no idea what I was getting into. I’ve learned a lot.”
Both of the new candidates expressed a desire to give back to the community. “I want to come back and help,” Bley said.
Allen concluded by saying, “I bring deep roots and a love of community, as well as a different generational perspective.”
Malibuites will get a chance to meet, question, and hear the candidates at a second forum on Monday, Oct. 6, at Malibu City Hall from 11 a.m.-noon. The regular school board meeting will also be taking place in Malibu next week, on Thursday, Oct. 2, at 5:30 p.m., at Malibu City Hall. The public is encouraged to attend.