School Board Candidates Answer Malibu’s Questions

Candidates show the “grades” they would give the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District on its handling of the PCB cleanup at Malibu schools. Pictured, from left: Ann Maggio Thanawalla, “B”; Oscar de la Torre, “D”; Craig Foster, “A”; Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, “B/A”; Laurie Lieberman, “A.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 10, Malibu students, parents, community members and teachers attended a Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education candidates forum, featuring five candidates running for four available positions. The event was held at Point Dume Elementary School and hosted by the combined efforts of The Malibu Times and The Santa Monica Daily Press, in cooperation with the Santa Monica and Malibu High school newspaper staff and AMPS, Advocates for Malibu Public Schools. Four current board members are running for reelection: Malibu’s Craig Foster, and Santa Monica’s Oscar de la Torre, Laurie Lieberman, and Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein. There is one newcomer, Ann Maggio Thanawalla, who is also a resident of Santa Monica.

The debate sought to display candidates’ opinions on the most prevalent issues facing the school board—specifically here in Malibu—as well as questions on previously controversial decisions made by the school board. 

To open the evening, SaMo student Lea Yamashiro, a representative from Santa Monica High School newspaper The Samohi, inquired about what the candidates each felt is the largest challenge facing our district in coming years. Opening the discussion, Thanawalla began expressing her opinion that “any distraction that keeps us from educating our kids” is of the utmost importance. De la Torre advocated for the importance of getting students engaged in their studies, feeling that culturally relevant curriculum and shared passion from teachers would help increase student engagement. 

Foster emphasized the weight of preparing kids for college and career, while keeping them physically and emotionally safe. Meanwhile, Tahvildaran-Jesswein spoke about the importance of a smooth transition in the separation of Malibu and Santa Monica. Wrapping up the question, Lieberman highlighted that the achievement gap was the district’s largest challenge.

Posed by MHS’ The Current Editor-In-Chief Jack Hughes, the next question confronted the candidates about their previous efforts in advocating specifically for Malibu. Lieberman responded that she “has fought to find ways … for the Malibu voice to be heard, starting with … a separate Malibu facilities committee.” Tahvildaran-Jesswein simply replied that he “never thinks of the students as a separate Malibu and Santa Monica—that he advocates for all students.” Foster, the board’s only member who lives in Malibu, rattled off a list of recent achievements that included the first time that Malibu has its own bond where 100 percent of funds stay in Malibu. De la Torre stated that he stood by the Malibu community during the PCB crisis even though it could have threatened his political career, because doing what’s right is more important to him than being political.

Thanawalla stated that she has learned a lot from Malibu parents about advocacy, standing up for what is right and ways to protect the environment in regard to poison-free choices and toxin-free schools. She promised to always listen to the parents and represent their needs. 

In a lightning round, where the candidates were asked to “grade” the district (on an “A” through “F” scale) on certain issues, several Malibu-centric problems were brought to light. Candidates agreed that students’ mental health is an ongoing issue needing work, each giving the district a grade of “C,” except for Lieberman, who gave a “B/C.” On the topic of student activism and the district’s acceptance of it, a majority of the candidates admitted it needed improvement, giving SMMUSD a “C.” Current board members Tahvildaran-Jesswein and Lieberman both presented the grade of “A.” When asked to grade the district’s cleanup of PCBs at MHS, Thanawalla, De La Torre, Foster, Tahvildaran-Jesswein, and Lieberman responded “B,” “D,” “A,” “B/A,” and “A” respectively—Foster gave the district the highest grade among incumbent candidates. 

Information regarding a near disaster regarding SMMUSD buses not being able to operate when school started was a question posed by students attending this event. On the first day of school, Malibu came perilously close to having no buses to take students to and from school. A 2016 law required the district to install a piece of safety equipment before school started in 2018, which the district failed to do. This meant Malibu was almost bus-less for days or potentially weeks until the technology was in place. Procrastination on the issue nearly led to a SMMUSD disaster, but with a little help from a Malibu parent, it was solved at the last minute. Besides Foster, the board seemed unaware of how this issue was resolved. When Hughes asked what they could have done to prevent the issue, several candidates misinterpreted the question and began commenting on Santa Monica’s public bus systems. Foster, the first to catch the story behind the question, said, “The gears of this district tend to grind fairly coarse and not as efficiently and effectively as we are used to in other sectors.” Tahvildaran-Jesswein followed Foster, saying, “We thought another piece of legislation was coming on the heels of this” that would extend the date of compliance to this law. The current school board’s answers indicated they may not have been clued into the situation at all, a worrying prospect to some parents in the crowd, who began to stand and voice their opinions at the candidates. 

To wrap up the evening, each candidate gave a closing statement summarizing their ideals and asked those in attendance for their vote. 

A version of this story appeared in The Current.