Eight in SMMUSD race for four seats

Only one candidate comes from Malibu.

By Jonathan Friedman / The Malibu Times

Amid a looming financial crisis, three incumbents and five challengers will compete this fall for four seats on the Board of Education for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. The deadline to enter the race was last week Wednesday. Patrick Cady, a former Santa Monica High School teacher and track coach, is the lone Malibu resident in the competition.

This campaign comes during a troubling time for the SMMUSD. The state government’s fiscal problems have trickled down to the district because Sacramento is the SMMUSD’s greatest funding source. The reduction in revenue and lack of alternative funding options, including the failure of a recent parcel tax proposal, forced the Board of Education to cut more than $7 million for the 2010-11 school year, including the elimination of more than 60 teacher and other staff positions. The board has since rescinded some of those cuts and will soon make further changes following a two-month fundraising campaign that garnered more than $1.5 million. A proposed Santa Monica city tax that could bring money to the district offers further hope. But even with these optimistic happenings, the financial crisis is still alive, and the district could be forced to make further cuts for the 2011-12 school year unless changes are made.

The candidates are incumbents Oscar de la Torre, Barry Snell and Ralph Mechur, as well as challengers Cady, Laurie Lieberman, Chris Bley, Jake Wachtel and Nimish Patel.

De la Torre, 38, was elected in 2002 and 2006. He heads the Pico Youth & Family Center in Santa Monica, an anti-violence facility that offers programs to youth. A vocal critic of the district and the City of Santa Monica regarding racial and equity issues, de la Torre has been in the news lately because of a four-month investigation by the Santa Monica Police Department that accused him of child endangerment due to his handling of an after-school fight between two teens. The District Attorney’s Office declined to charge de la Torre and the City of Santa Monica has since hired an independent county panel to review the investigation, including an alleged political motivation.

Snell, 55, was elected in 2006. He currently serves as board president. Snell works as an accountant in Culver City. Earlier this month, he was one of two candidates to receive an endorsement from Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, or SMRR, the powerful political group’s convention.

The other SMRR endorsement went to Lieberman, 57. Mechur, 60, and de la Torre received votes of support by the SMRR Steering Committee following the convention. This designation means they will appear in campaign materials, but cannot claim SMRR endorsements in their personal campaigns.

Mechur was appointed to the board in 2007 to replace Emily Bloomfield, who moved to another city. The architect ran unopposed in 2008 to complete her term. This is his first competitive election.

Lieberman is a former deputy city attorney for Santa Monica. She is still a member of the California bar and the Web site lists her as a member of the Santa Monica law firm of her husband Chris Harding, who is also an education activist. But she lists her occupation on the ballot as an “education community leader.”

Cady, 63, is the first Malibu resident to run for a seat since 2004. That year, Kathy Wisnicki was elected to the board. She declined to run again in 2008, and Malibu has been without a board member since that time. This has deepened the feeling for some in this city that Malibu does not receive equal consideration from the district leadership. Cady told The Malibu Times last month that he brings an interesting perspective to the board because of his background as a Malibu resident and Santa Monica teacher.

“We all live together in this beach community. I feel that we owe it to each other to support each other,” he said.

Bley, 36, is a private high school history and government teacher. He ran in 2008, finishing a close fourth in the election for three seats.

Patel, 41, is a former CPA and current lawyer. He is a member of the SMMUSD’s Financial Oversight Committee. His involvement in the SMMUSD began about two years ago when he joined the site governance council for his daughters’ school.

Wachtel, 38, is a television producer. According to his campaign statement, he previously was a teacher in Japan.

An election will also take place in November for four seats on the Board of Trustees for the Santa Monica College District. The four incumbents are running unopposed.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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