Guest Column: Response To Oscar de la Torre and Our Commitment To Social and Racial Justice

Jon Kean

As two school board members, we feel compelled to set the record straight about recent events.

Although he was sworn in as a member of the Santa Monica City Council on Dec. 8, 2020, Oscar de la Torre persists in falsely claiming that he is still a member of the school board. As part of his distorted reasoning, he also insists on denigrating the work of the board of education, deliberately fomenting discord rather than constructive engagement as our school community faces the dual challenges of educating students during a once-in-a-century pandemic and pursuing and achieving racial and social justice.

To summarize the law in California, Government Code Section 1099 states that an elected member of a governmental board cannot simultaneously hold two public offices that are incompatible. Offices are incompatible if there is a “significant clash of duties or loyalties between the offices.” In interpreting this state law, California attorney general opinions have unequivocally stated that the offices of council member and school board member in the same territory are incompatible offices. Government Code Section 1099 further provides that “When two public offices are incompatible, a public officer shall be deemed to have forfeited the first office upon acceding to the second.”  

The law is clear: Oscar de la Torre forfeited his school board seat on Dec. 8, upon taking the oath of office as a council member. De la Torre’s claims that he is still a school board member are legally frivolous. 

With respect to achieving racial and social justice, the school board, district staff and the larger school community remain unwavering in our commitment, informed by the 2016 report on equity in our schools prepared by Dr. Pedro Noguera. While council member de la Torre seemingly cannot come to terms with his departure from the school board, his leave-taking from the board will not in any way slow our progress nor divert the attention of the board, staff and families in SMMUSD who will continue to support and implement initiatives that address this challenge. Our commitment to equity, inclusion and social and racial justice requires constant attention, evaluation and vigilance over the short and long term. There is no overnight or simple fix to systemic injustice. But, as we continue to implement Noguera’s recommendations and build on the successful programs and innovative advances of the past five years, we cannot allow the political distractions that Noguera warned about to divert attention from our mission.  

On Jan. 14, 2021, the school board will be making an appointment to fill the school board vacancy that was created when council member de la Torre acceded to his new office. In filling the vacancy, we are committed to choosing a person who shares the school community’s commitment to social and racial justice and to closing the opportunity gap. We are fortunate to have a number of excellent applicants to fill the vacancy on the school board who share our community’s commitment to equity and whoever is appointed will undoubtedly bring additional ideas and insights to the board.  

The timing of the school board appointment is sensitive, as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequities in our schools. Along with public schools across the country, our district will need to proceed with a sense of urgency and a full seven-member board to address the learning loss left in the wake of COVID-19, which has intensified the inequalities of opportunity that already existed among our students. We will not allow ourselves to be distracted by de la Torre as he continues to seek the limelight by stoking grievance and division.