Teachers Rally at Board Meeting, Demand Discussion of PCB Issue

On Thursday, Feb. 4, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education met at City Council Chambers in Malibu to go over a short agenda of items, most notably a study session item and enrollment projections report that indicated falling enrollment at Malibu and Santa Monica schools.

Following the study session, representatives from various committees and groups usually give communications. One of those on Thursday was Sarah Braff, president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association (SMMCTA) — the teachers’ union.

Braff was in tears.

“I have been attacked twice this evening — once by America Unites and once by some parents,” Braff told board members. 

“It’s very upsetting to be … told you’re evil, and that you’re a liar, and that you don’t care about teachers,” Braff, who has been SMMCTA president for five years, continued. “I care very much about teachers and students, and I have for the last 27 years.

“I do not believe that anyone on the board or anyone in the administrative office wants children and staff and parents to be in an unhealthy situation,” Braff said.

Over one dozen teachers and America Unites (AU) members had come to the meeting to voice their continuing frustration — and sometimes outright anger — over the handling of the polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) testing, remediation and cleanup at Malibu High (MHS), Malibu Middle and Juan Cabrillo Elementary (JCES) schools.

Julie Jones, a 17-year veteran teacher at MHS, disavowed AU involvement in the altercation.

“I am deeply bothered by the two people who verbally accosted our union president. That kind of behavior sets us back … and those voices do not speak for us,” Jones said. “It was not America Unites.”

What AU members and teachers did want to express was frustration over being “in the trenches” at schools where PCB levels have consistently been shown over Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) legal limits of 50 parts per million.

“These are your teachers, the everyday people in the trenches. They just want to teach, without the fear and anxiety of being in harm’s way,” retired JCES teacher Christine Rowland told the board. Rowland drew a comparison between the treatment of PCBs in Malibu to the treatment of drinking water in Flint, Michigan.

“Residents hold up bottles of brown, smelly water only to be told, ‘It’s OK, the EPA has its findings,’” Rowland said.

The EPA has said that air and dust testing, following surface cleaning, is sufficient to gauge whether PCBs will do harm. Essentially, if they are not in the air, they cannot cause cancer. It is believed that a regular cleaning schedule will keep teachers and students safe from dust buildup that could contain PCBs.

Another Malibu teacher, Katie Lapine, complained that the Best Management Practices of cleaning the classrooms of dust have not occurred in her classroom in nearly half a year.

“I can say with certainty that wet dusting has not happened in my room since August, and that was six months ago,” Lapine said.

This was cause for concern for Board Member Oscar De La Torre, who has been an outspoken supporter of AU for over a year.

“The allegations I’m hearing tonight that BMPs aren’t being followed — that’s really concerning to me, because that’s really the minimal approach,” De La Torre said.

He went on to say he could not guarantee the buildings are safe.

“I can’t say with 100 percent guarantee that the environment is safe,” De La Torre said. “I can’t guarantee that. We can’t say that with a straight face, especially seeing the data that has come out, the testing and so forth. I just want to let the teachers know that I stand with you.”

Other Board Members Maria Leon-Vazquez and Ralph Mechur tried to calm teachers by telling them they want to “move forward.”

The issues cannot be discussed further by Board Members until they are placed on a meeting agenda.

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