College, school board candidates face off on finance, equity

Incumbents touted their achievements during the first face-to-face candidate forums while challengers for the school and college boards said there were still rifts at the college and disenfranchised students at the schools.

By Susan Reines/Special to The Malibu Times

At candidate forums given by the League of Women Voters last Wednesday, college board challengers painted a picture of mismanagement and strained relations at Santa Monica College, contrasting a rosier view offered by the incumbent, and school board candidates discussed the lingering achievement gap.

The forum for Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education candidates seemed to reveal few major differences between the four candidates, who are running for three seats, as all four focused on revamping special education and closing the achievement gap that generally separates poorer and minority students from white and wealthier students.

Incumbents Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vazquez said the gap had shrunk, noting that students from poorer families improved on standardized tests last year, but both said more could be done.

Escarce said the board could do better engaging struggling students’ families, and Leon-Vazquez said teachers could receive more training to assure that “they are trained well and that they understand the needs of students.”

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Challenger Kathy Wisnicki, the only Malibu candidate, focused on identifying struggling students early, saying the board needed to “provide teachers with the tools necessary” to identify and help them.

Similarly, challenger Ana Maria Jara said working with preschools to identify students with special needs was “probably the most important” way to close the gap.

The candidates did divide when asked about Malibu parents’ concerns that they hold little control in the district, an issue that has sparked a parent-led drive to form a separate Malibu district. The incumbents rejected the concerns but the challengers suggested bolstering communication.

Escarce said he believed it was inevitable that Malibu parents felt underrepresented because Malibu is small and far from Santa Monica. But he added, “We do, in fact, go out of our way to listen to and represent everybody.” Leon-Vazquez agreed.

Wisnicki and Jara answered the question with suggestions for how the board could better communicate with all parents.

College Board contest

The Community College Board of Trustees’ decision to eliminate eight vocational programs during last year’s budget crisis dominated the forum for the seven candidates running for three College Board seats. The six challengers proposed plans to restore the programs and what they said was shaken confidence in SMC’s leadership, while the incumbent said the college was already recovering.

Challenger Doug Willis, an economist at UCLA, said he believed the board had relied on incorrect budget figures when it decided in May 2003 to cut the automotive, architecture and other vocational programs. He said SMC actually ended up with surpluses.

“They needed transparency, they needed a financial system they could depend on so they’d have had the correct figures,” he said, suggesting he could use his economics expertise to improve financial management.

Charles Donaldson, longtime SMC professor, said the board had to spend more prudently to restore the community’s confidence. “It should get a dollar’s worth for every dollar spent,” he said, citing as an example of mismanagement the board’s current proposal to build a $25 million theater when courses have been cut.

Other challengers focused on the board’s decision to stand by SMC President Piedad Robertson after 86 percent of the faculty said they lacked faith in her during a vote of no confidence last year.

“We need to restore civility at the college,” challenger Robert Greenstein Rader said. Rader, a law professor at Pepperdine University, said SMC needed “independent trustees that are perceived as being fair and beholden to no one.”

Challenger Susan Aminoff said her background negotiating health benefits in the Los Angeles Community College system would prepare her for healing rifts at SMC. “Consensus is not something that I sort of believe in; it’s what I do,” she said.

The incumbent candidate, Chair Margaret Quinones, described the situation at SMC differently than the challengers did, suggesting the board had navigated a difficult situation.

“Our budget had to be cut 25 percent and we had to make some hard decisions,” Quinones said. She said the college had been removed from the watch list of schools in financial trouble and had begun restoring the eliminated automotive program.

Quinones said she did not support the vote of no confidence.

The only challenger who agreed was Tonja McCoy, who would be the first Malibu trustee in more than a decade if elected. “I know it’s very hard when you have to make cuts and people are not happy,” she said. McCoy has advocated restoring the programs, though, suggesting the college fundraise or partner with businesses to fund them.

Measure S, the $135 million bond measure for renovations and property acquisition-likely including land in Malibu-surfaced only briefly, when economist Suzanne Trimbath spoke against it.

“The district’s bond proposal does nothing to address the serious financial crisis it faces,” Trimbath said. She said the board had not defined how the money would be spent or how a bond for land and facilities was appropriate when programs had been cut.

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

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