New board member comes from the source

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Ben Allen

Ben Allen, the only newcomer elected to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education in last month’s election, is bringing local experience, three degrees and a novel approach as the board’s youngest member to a time of financial crisis and what will be a challenging year ahead for the board.

Allen, 30, who obtained the highest number of votes in the election, said his experience on the Financial Oversight Committee and legal research at University of California-Berkeley law school, in addition to a year’s service on the UC Board of Regents, have helped him prepare for what he will face this coming year, which could be mid-year faculty and program cuts.

“This is such a difficult time and I think it should make us aware of how broken our state financing system is,” Allen said. “We’re fortunate to have a very supportive community here in Santa Monica-Malibu, which has provided additional funding to back-fill the cuts at the state level, so we’re not going to be taking the hits that some other districts will have to take.”

District Superintendent Tim Cuneo said district cuts could be from $2.2 million to $9.6 million in the next few years, based on estimates made at the state level, but exact numbers would be hard to gauge at this point in time. Cuneo said he had confidence Allen would be capable to help handle the upcoming financial struggles.

“Ben is not coming in cold; he is bringing a lot to us. He has a good understanding of the fiscal health of the district after participating on the Financial Oversight Committee,” Cuneo said. “We will have challenges, as all of those things that are issues this year are predicted to also be issues in the future.”

Allen’s win coincided with local resident Kathy Wisnicki’s decision not to run for reelection, leaving the board without a Malibu representative This could mean a greater push for creation of two separate school districts, an issue with local residents who feel the two cities are too different to be unified under the same district.

Allen called the possibility of separation a “complicated issue,” as staying in the district has financial incentive for Malibu, but political issues and identity may support a split.

“Santa Monica and Malibu are two distinct cities with different demographics, political cultures and power structures. Santa Monica will always be bigger than Malibu, and Malibu may always feel as though it’s the weaker partner in the relationship,” Allen said.

“I think folks in Malibu need to take a long, hard look at this issue and make the decision they feel is in the best interest of their kids and the community,” he added.

Allen said the issue is up to the people of Malibu and not the district, but as a board member, he hopes to make an effort to visit Malibu, attend meetings and engage residents about what issues are important, but said he encouraged Malibu residents who cared about the school district to run for a seat on the board in 2010.

Allen, who graduated from Berkeley law school in 2008, will also be working full time as an attorney with Bryan Cave, LLP while on the board. He also holds a B.A from Harvard University, magna cum laude, and a M.A. from Cambridge University. His education started, however, in the district he will now serve: Allen graduated from Santa Monica High School in 1996.

“With Ben joining the board, it will be the first time since I was elected that a product of our school district is serving as a board member,” Board President Oscar de la Torre said. “What makes it historic is that both Ben and I are former student body presidents at Santa Monica High School and that we still have the best interest of Malibu and Santa Monica in mind.”

Allen, whose parents were educators, said education has always been a passion of his and he is excited by the opportunity to deal with school finances, teacher recruitment and the teaching crisis in a district he went through as a student. Allen said he is coming to the board with a perspective of what SMMUSD students are going through.

“I have a closer proximity to the students and I think there will be real value in being relatively close to the student experience in addition to substantial work and policy making experience,” Allen said. “I think there is room on the board for someone of my profile.”

“[And] as a younger Californian, I’m really concerned about where the state is going and am excited about the opportunity to give back at a local level,” he added.

Elections for next year’s board president and vice president will take place on Dec. 11.