Three Malibu school board candidates say they want to bring much needed reforms to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District to give everyone in the district a voice.
“The overarching message is that we are going to bring change to business as usual [at the district]. People will have a voice. Everybody will have a voice,” Malibu candidate Seth Jacobson said.
Craig Foster, Karen Farrer and Jacobson, all of Malibu, are vying to unseat incumbents Ben Allen, Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vazquez in the Nov. 6 election. (Monday is the last day to register to vote.) The candidates will meet up in the final debate before the election on Wednesday, Oct. 24 at Pepperdine University.
Malibu's lack of voice on the board of education has long been an issue of contention. The last Malibu resident to serve on the school board was Kathy Wisnicki, who chose not to seek reelection in 2008.
“What’s interesting is people are coming up to us from communities we wouldn’t expect to be sympathetic saying, ‘I think it is time for a change,’” Foster said.
The Malibu candidates say they are not just running to represent Malibu schools, and some in Santa Monica have noticed. Some members of the group, mainly Foster, have garnered support from a number of Santa Monica residents and education activists, including SMMUSD Financial Oversight Committee (FOC) Chair Carrie Wagner, former FOC Vice Chair Joan Chu, FOC members Shelly Slaugh and David Vukadinovich, Santa Monica residents Ann Hoover and Kim Moran, co-chair of the Parent Learning Resource Network. Both Vukadinovich and Chu noted they have only endorsed Foster.
“Getting our message out is the key. When people listen to us, they get it immediately. It’s not us against them. It’s about the kids. It’s about achievement. It’s about lower class sizes,” Jacobson said.
In the final weeks before the election, the candidates are focusing on reaching residents in Santa Monica and Malibu who are not parents and are not engaged with schools, according to Foster.
“There is a certain population in Santa Monica, we could be offering gold bars and they wouldn’t vote for us,” said Foster, who has a M.A.A. in Elementary Education, and is the parent of a fourth grade student in Malibu.
Foster said he believes some district actions have alienated voters in both communities over the years.
Farrer pointed to facility and technology needs that were identified from 10 years ago were put on the project list for Measure ES, a $385 million school bond measure.
“It showed to me a cavalier attitude of let’s just cut and paste,” Farrer said.
Foster said the board may have “gone to the well too often” with requests to voters to pass bonds in the past.
“A community is a living entity that thrives on trust and faith and when people believe in what’s happening, you can pass bonds. When you betray that trust, it rapidly unravels,” Foster said.
Farrer said she has noticed during the debates and other campaign events in Santa Monica that the Malibu slate has “a lot of supporters in Santa Monica.”
She said she's found some in Santa Monica feel as left out in the district as many in Malibu have over the past several years.
“We are running from a place of sensitivity, inclusion and collaboration. Anybody who has not felt included, many of those people have come and approached us. They have that solidarity with us,” Farrer said.
If elected, all three plan on engaging in a listening tour.
“We’re going to listen to anybody, everybody who has an organized voice in the community,” Foster said, adding that the identified needs will be used to develop a plan to increase educational success for every child in the district.
The trio's reforms include reducing the administrative bureaucracy, making student achievement the primary goal of the superintendent, closing the achievement gap between different demographic groups and initiating a school-by-school review and holding principals responsible for learning outcomes.
“If [the incumbents] lose this election that is an incredible indictment of how off track they have become,” Foster said.
Incumbent Ben Allen, who was elected in 2008, said he is running again because he recognizes that more work is needed to make sure the district is at its full potential.
"While most districts have slashed and burned nursing positions, counseling, the arts and music, PE, summer school, and libraries, we’ve protected those programs and kept class sizes far smaller than most California districts," Allen said. "So I’m proud of the work that has been done."
He said he has worked hard to make sure he has listened to all schools in the district, including in Malibu.
"I work really hard to be out there, going to meetings, sports events, and assemblies, talking to as many people as I can and taking folks’ opinions into account," Allen said. "... I work hard at being a bridge builder."
Incumbent Jose Escarce said the board has sought to improve communication with residents across the district, but that he has mainly seen "impressive and gratifying support from the voters."
"Our schools receive enormous support from our voters, including both parents and voters without children, which reflects the importance community members place on education, the regard they hold for our schools and the confidence they have in the school board," Escarce said. "Many voters know that our school board always places the needs of students first, and they vote accordingly when we put measures before them and explain the need."
Escarce also said he believes the school board is on track, even in the wake of funding cuts.
"Our schools have improved tremendously since I joined the board, and they are better now than ever before. Academic achievement has risen in all schools and all student groups, and we have raised the level of academic rigor, strengthened our music and arts programs, and reduced overcrowding in our schools by modifying our permit policy," Escarce said.
He said he believes the current board made financially responsible budget cuts.
"There is no question that we have more work to do to create schools that enable all students to achieve their potential. If I am re-elected, my main focus will continue to be providing an excellent education to all students and taking the necessary steps to continue to close the achievement gap," he said.
Maria Leon-Vazquez did not respond to interview requests in time for publication.
A final debate featuring the candidates is set for Wednesday, Oct. 24 at Pepperdine University in Malibu. The forum will be moderated by Malibu Patch Editor Jessica Davis and sponsored by Malibu Rotary. The community is encouraged to send questions they have for the candidates by Tuesday to firstname.lastname@example.org.