The Malibu Times sent a questionnaire to eight candidates running for four seats on the Board of Education for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. They were given the same time frame to respond and were limited to 150 words per answer. The first profile was printed on Sept. 2, and a new one will appear in the newspaper each week through Oct. 21. To access previous profiles online, go to www.malibutimes.com. Click “Archives” on the top right. Choose “Advanced Search Options.” Select Sept. 1 as the start date and type “Meet the Board of Education candidates” in the search box.
Name: Oscar de la Torre
Birth date: Sept. 18, 1971
What is your education and employment history?
As the first person in my family to graduate from high school and enter a four-year university, I know the doors of opportunity open with access to excellent public schools. I am running for re-election to the Santa Monica-Malibu USD Board of Education to ensure that future generations have the same opportunities.
While serving as student body president at Santa Monica High in 1990 I decided to commit my life to public service. I completed my M.A. degree in 1998 and returned to work as a counselor at Samohi. I have a personal commitment to serving the community, especially the students of SMMUSD. In 2002 I founded a youth center that has served hundreds of students. I am the only candidate in this election with first hand knowledge of the workings of our school district from the perspective of a former student, counselor and school board member.
How did you become involved in school issues? What has your involvement included?
I am an experienced public school advocate with eight years of proven leadership on the SMMUSD Board of Education. From 2007-08 I served as President of the Board of Education. From 1998 to 2000 I worked as a counselor at Santa Monica High. In 2002 I served as Co-chair of the Student Discipline Task Force and Co-Chair of the district’s Strategic Planning Committee. Also, as founder of the Pico Youth & Family Center, I continue to provide after-school support services to students. In addition, I served on the Financial Oversight Committee, Health and Safety, and Special Education District Advisory Committees. I believe that the community has had the opportunity to see that I am a leader that is committed to supporting our youth and to ensuring that every student in our district reaches his/her highest potential.
There is a feeling by many in Malibu that this city is an afterthought for school district officials. Why does this sentiment exist? What can be done to change this feeling?
I can say with all honesty that the students of Malibu are not an afterthought to me personally or my colleagues who serve on the Board of Education. Although the physical separation of our school district does not lend itself to building a cohesive community, we always strive to be responsive. We have voted positively to invest in various capital improvement projects and most recently we voted to restore counselors and staff to Malibu High School after parents requested these put backs. After the last wildfire, I visited Webster Elementary School and saw first hand the risk Malibu residents face. I agree with residents who want to protect Malibu’s small town charm and its natural beauty from overdevelopment. I will continue to work to ensure that our District staff is responsive to the concerns that Malibu parents and residents have expressed.
How have you tried to interface with Malibu residents, including education and city leaders? What have you accomplished?
As a father, I take pleasure in spending time with my family in Malibu and enjoying the beauty of Malibu’s natural surroundings. I take my son Oscar Jr. to visit Malibu Bluffs Park and we both enjoy talking to the parents and children at the playground. My wife Maria and I consider Moonshadows and Malibu Seafood as two of our favorite destinations. I frequently attend school related meetings in Malibu such as the state of our school event and BB meetings to determine future site improvements of our schools in Malibu. When issues arise, I have met with city leaders to address residents’ concerns. I have a lot of respect for Malibu’s Mayor Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner and I am in the process of meeting with him to build a partnership to support Malibu students. I have accomplished district-wide recycling efforts, public school funding initiatives and reforms in special education.
Other than Board meetings, how many times have you been in Malibu in the past year? With whom have you met? What have you learned?
Malibu Middle School counselor Liz Cowgill has invited me on various occasions to speak to students. I am proud of Dr. Mark Kelly and the staff at Malibu High for their commitment to all students. I have taken the time to meet one on one with students at Malibu High. I never deny the opportunity to use my experience to serve youth, regardless if I am in SM or Malibu. I see the students of our district as one. I have been to BB Oversight meetings at Webster Elementary School to discuss ways to invest funds to improve student drop off and safety. I have met with Laura Rosenthal, Kathy Wisnicki and Mike Sidley to discuss the future of our partnership to strengthen public schools in Malibu. I understand that Malibu residents care deeply about enhancing and protecting the City’s natural environment and small town charm.
What is your opinion on the demand by some Malibu parents for the formation of a Malibu school district?
I believe every community deserves the right to have local control of their public schools. On the school board I have advocated for a review of the benefits and costs of forming a school district in Malibu. The process is cumbersome and it is difficult to determine the financial viability of an independent school district in Malibu. Until we can answer these difficult questions, I am committed to providing responsive and accessible representation to the residents of Malibu. I will continue to visit schools in Malibu and respond to constituent concerns. As a coalition builder, I will use my experience and leadership to strengthen our partnership for the benefit of the students we serve.
What is your opinion on the effort to make Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School a charter school?
I support the concept. This month I met with parent leaders from Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School to discuss the charter process and I am confident that the parents and staff can make this school a great success. I am very impressed with the level of passion and organization of the parents moving the charter process forward. I have always admired the hard work and dedication of the parents and staff at Point Dume. The level of fundraising is an indicator of the community’s commitment to the school. I fully support teaching students the importance of protecting mother earth and no elementary school in our district has a stronger focus on environmental sustainability than Point Dume.
Is the school district doing all it can to solve budget issues? Are there concepts that have not been tried?
I have personally been involved in various efforts to fund our public schools. I have walked precincts to pass parcel taxes and have negotiated a stable contribution to our schools from our City government. I have personally given to our district-wide fundraising campaign. I am a coalition builder and I see my role on the school board as an opportunity for me to give back to the schools that have given me so much. To be certain, these are difficult times and we have directed staff to develop a list of revenue enhancement options beyond what we have already implemented.
I will work in partnership with Santa Monica and Malibu City leaders to increase public school funding. We need to commit to finding strategies to alleviate the tax burden on residents by seeking creative funding options. During challenging times, our students deserve experienced leadership on the School Board.
What is your experience dealing with budgets? How about legislation?
I have been in public service for almost 20 years. My career in public service includes serving as student body president of Santa Monica High and CSU, Chico. At 38 years of age, I have served on the school board longer than any other incumbent running for reelection. I have provided leadership on the Board of Education for 8 years and from 2007-08 served as President of the Board. As a member of the district’s Financial Oversight Committee I solidified my knowledge of our district’s budget and financial condition. Furthermore, as Executive Director, I prepare the budget for the organization and while in graduate school, I worked in the Texas Legislature focusing on higher education policy. I have personally written school related policy and most recently played a role reviewing and approving all major policies of our school district.
How many people are in your immediate family, regardless of whether they live at home? Feel free to mention their names and ages.
I live in a two bedroom apartment in Santa Monica with my wife Maria and two wonderful children. Oscar Jr. is four years old and my new born son Fidel Esteban turned three months this August.
My parents are proud Americans and I come from a large family of eight brothers and sisters. Our parents inculcated a strong work ethic in us all. The majority of my seven brothers and sisters work in the health care industry. We all subscribe to a proud tradition of service to others.
What are your interests and hobbies not involving school issues?
The most important role in my life now is being a loving husband and father to two boys. I am committed to my children’s development and make time to supplement the education they receive in our public schools. I have committed my life to serving the youth of our community. I work full time as Founder/Executive Director of the Pico Youth & Family Center (PYFC). At the PYFC we offer various services that can be viewed by visiting: www.picoyouth.org.
Helping youth reach their potential is a lifelong passion. Engaging youth as part of the solution is an objective I always try to meet. Working with residents to protect our environment, we recently passed historic environmental protections through the City’s 20 year General Plan.
Music and the arts is also a passion. To expand music and the arts, I established the first public recording studio in Santa Monica for youth.