Guest Column: Two Seats, One Position—Why I Haven’t Resigned From the SMMUSD Board of Education

Oscar de la Torre

I was first elected to the SMMUSD Board of Education in 2002 after a group of parents—”Mothers for Justice”—led a protest, demanding that the school board address its institutional racism. Their report, Institutionalized Racism in SMMUSD: Its Impact on Students of Color, documented how suspensions, and student discipline in general, was creating a school-to-prison pipeline for Latino and Black students. Being suspended myself a couple of times from John Adams Middle School, I knew first-hand how easy it was for school leaders to discard boys of color as “problemed kids.” I was urged by parents to run for a seat on the school board and, despite reservations, I ran and won.

In what was to be my last board meeting after 18 years of service, I was hopeful that instead of the accolades and board member speeches commonly given to retiring board members, I would be able to obtain public commitments from my colleagues on the board and Superintendent Drati for real progress on racial justice issues, but instead I was largely ignored and marginalized—just as I have been by those same people for the past several years. It was never my intention to force the issue by refusing to resign from the school board after being elected to the Santa Monica City Council, but SMMUSD’s board leadership and superintendent have left me no other option. 

Board President Jon Kean, who illegitimately muted my microphone last week, has opined that my refusal to resign is about me and my ego. He called it a “power grab” after he excluded me from the meeting and then re-appointed himself as president and his close ally Laurie Lieberman as vice president. My refusal to resign and the position I have taken is founded on the need to deliver positive change for students and communities who have historically been left behind in SMMUSD and how distance learning has exacerbated this achievement gap; if Kean had not muted my microphone, I could have explained that. In fact, based on their actions the past few years and after the last school board meeting where I was illegally shut out and they appointed themselves as leaders of SMMUSD, I cannot escape the conclusion that the SMMUSD board president (Jon Kean) and vice president (Laurie Lieberman), care more about spending our bond money than addressing the persistent achievement gap. While they pay lip service to “social justice standards,” they dilute authentic ethnic studies, shelve reports on SMMUSD’s track record on staff diversity and hiring and destroy Samohi’s meaningful history in the name of “progress.” On the other hand, I have seen the board leadership’s swift resolve in marshalling school district resources, consultants and staff to purchase buildings we don’t need, engage in ego driven legal adventures, and waste public dollars on consultants. I have also witnessed how they carry on their personal vendettas against our parents who are critical of their decisions. I have no faith that they will do anything substantive to remedy the systemic racism infecting SMMUSD or respect critical parent voices, unless they are compelled. 

Since successfully running for Samohi student body president 31 years ago because a group of white students told mes “no Mexican can win,” I have never run away from my responsibility to improve the social conditions of students who have been historically marginalized. I’m not about to start now.

My career on the school board started with a demand for racial justice and, after 18 years of service, it will end with a demand for racial justice, transparency and accountability. Nearly five years ago, Dr. Pedro Noguera reported that SMMUSD had failed its minority students by making little to no progress on closing the achievement gap. Noguera, like many SMMUSD parents and students before him, made tangible recommendations of what SMMUSD could, and should, do to improve minority students’ achievement, but the SMMUSD board majority, then led by Laurie Lieberman for three years in a row, has fallen short in implementing Noguera’s recommendations. 

I attempted, through private discussions with my colleagues on the school board and Drati, to promptly implement what they had stated publicly they support, and I have advocated for, in some cases for years; however, all of the following issues have yet to be agendized:

1) the implementation of an authentic, community-connected ethnic studies program at SMMUSD’s high schools and middle schools so that our students can see themselves in the curriculum by integrating our local history and local scholars, parents, and students organized in a standing advisory committee who can guide the creation and implementation of this curriculum;

2) an annual report on diversity (or lack thereof) in SMMUSD’s hiring, retention and promotion of all staff, including teachers, counselors, and administrators, and action to improve recruitment and diversity in hiring so that our students of color, especially our boys, have the role models they need;

3) the recognition of Cesar E. Chavez to ensure that the recent destruction of the only public art recognizing Mexican Americans at Samohi and possibly all SMMUSD does not also mean that our students’ history and their heroes become invisible and easily erased. I was present when Latina/o students met with Samohi Principal Dr. Shelton and a commitment was made to recognize Cesar E. Chavez and the ideals of peace and justice depicted in the now-destroyed mural; and

4) increase transparency, accountability and public engagement in all of the bond construction projects of SMMUSD facilities including the Samohi history building to study adaptive re-use options. In fact, SMMUSD should name the Samohi’s history building after Cesar E. Chavez in recognition of a 1990 student walk-out that started in Samohi’s history building and ended in front of the Loews Hotel where 300 students of all backgrounds met Cesar E. Chavez in a protest against harmful pesticides and for farm workers wellbeing.

Much has been made of whether the city council and school board are “incompatible offices,” but that misses the point. They may very well be incompatible, though there is no precedential legal authority one way or the other. Not long ago, everyone told Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio that she could not simultaneously serve on a school board and water board; she fought that in court and won. The exclusive process for determining whether public offices are incompatible is a procedure known as “quo warranto” that involves first the California attorney general and then the courts. Unless and until that process is completed, or I deliver a resignation letter, there is no vacancy on the school board, pursuant to Government Code section 1770. Just like a landlord who has not received the rent cannot lock out her tenant without getting a court judgment, neither can former Board President Jon Kean nor any member(s) of the school board, absent a court judgment, declare a vacancy or unilaterally exclude me from the office to which the voters elected me. 

I hope to be able to resign from the school board soon and am working on how to ensure that we meet the moment for tangible progressive change at SMMUSD in my absence from the board. We have an opportunity to genuinely address these issues and create a first-class school district that serves all students and respects all parents, teachers and staff, despite the misguided board leadership that is thwarting real parent and community engagement in our public schools with their abuse of power, privilege, and development-centered agenda. Stay tuned.