One Newcomer and Four Incumbents Round Out School Board Candidates


Only one newcomer has thrown her hat into the ring alongside a full slate of four incumbents for this fall’s Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education race.

Santa Monica activist Ann Maggio Thanawalla received the number of signatures needed to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot in both Santa Monica and Malibu, alongside all four incumbents: Malibu’s Craig Foster and Santa Monicans Oscar de la Torre, Laurie Lieberman and Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein. De la Torre, Lieberman and Tahvildaran-Jesswein have all endorsed Foster, and Foster them, the Malibu candidate confirmed after the filing deadline earlier this month.

Foster remains the only candidate who hails from Malibu; when he was elected in 2014, he became the first representative elected to the board from the city, which makes up only about 15 percent of the total district population, since Kathy Wisnicki was elected to the school board in 2004. Wisnicki served one term on the board.


Each candidate provided a brief personal statement to The Malibu Times describing key accomplishments and campaign platforms. For many, issues such as educational equity, social justice, district financial management and a Malibu pathway to independence will take center stage for the 2018 election cycle. 

Oscar de la Torre

Oscar de la Torre, 47, has sat on the school board for 16 years, since he first won a seat on the board in 2002. Raised in Santa Monica, de la Torre was a 1990 graduate from Santa Monica High School, where he served as student body president his senior year. 

He now has a Master’s degree in public administration and is raising two children in the city.

“As a former counselor at Santa Monica High and youth center director I have a personal commitment to serving our students,” de la Torre wrote in his official personal statement provided to the City of Santa Monica and shared with The Malibu Times.

“Our students deserve experienced and honest leadership on the school board,” the statement also says. 

De la Torre listed his achievements as board president, including meeting academic performance targets, leading efforts to advance equity and working with Santa Monica College to enhance access to college courses.

Some of de la Torre’s goals for the coming term include ensuring district resources are invested in the classroom rather than “administrative overhead,” equipping cafeterias to provide freshly cooked meals for students and supporting music and arts programs.

Craig Foster

Malibu’s only representative on the school board, Craig Foster is running for re-election to his second term on the Santa Monica-based board. Foster, one of the founding members of Advocates for Malibu Public Schools [AMPS], has one child enrolled in SMMUSD schools.

Foster emphasized the successes Malibu education advocates have seen under his leadership on the board of education: “The last four years have been positive for the school district overall and, here in Malibu, we have seen huge progress!”

Some of those achievements include the hiring of new superintendent Ben Drati, who with the board has “worked to expand opportunities so that every child from Santa Monica to Malibu is better prepared for college and fulfilling employment.”

Foster also pointed out Malibu-specific achievements, citing the impending merger of Juan Cabrillo and Point Dume Marine Science schools, the separation of Malibu’s high school and middle school, allowing Malibu fundraising dollars to stay in Malibu and “we have also reached an agreement in principle to create an independent, locally controlled Malibu school district.”

Foster stressed that there was a lot of work still to be done.

Laurie Lieberman

“During my time on the school board, I have been a strong voice for excellence and equity, ensuring that all students throughout the district are safe and have access to state-of-the-art technology,” incumbent candidate Laurie Lieberman said in a statement shared with The Malibu Times.

Lieberman, first elected to the board in 2010, is running for her third term. Outside of her work on the board, she is an attorney and consultant living in Santa Monica. 

In her statement, Lieberman emphasized the work she had done that has, in her words, “helped Malibu get its fair share from the district,” including the creation of Malibu’s independent facilities advisory committee, bond measure and moving toward independence.

The candidate also listed goals she said she hoped to achieve in the coming school year: “strengthening college and career readiness; incorporating STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) while continuing to emphasize the humanities, arts and music; ensuring that students graduate with the ability to think critically and to collaborate; employing technology wisely to enhance student learning; and guaranteeing safe, healthy and sustainable schools.”

Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein

Santa Monica resident Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, a political science professor at Santa Monica College, is running for his second term on the board for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. Before winning election to the board in 2014, Tahvildaran-Jesswein co-chaired Santa Monica’s largest and perhaps most influential political party, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, for four years. He is currently school board president.

In a personal statement shared with The Malibu Times, Tahvildaran-Jesswein touted his accomplishments over the past four years, including “A new ethnic studies and american cultures graduation requirement; the establishment of district-wide social justice learning standards; and the expansion of interest-based learning opportunities throughout the district.” 

Tahvildaran-Jesswein, like Lieberman and Foster, also pointed to work creating some independence for Malibu.

“Tahvildaran-Jesswein knows our community, shares our values, and understands that an excellent education makes the world of difference for our kids,” his statement read. “His unique qualifications and demonstrated leadership warrant his reelection to the board of education.”

Ann Maggio Thanawalla

The only newcomer running for election to the SMMUSD Board of Education, Ann Maggio Thanawalla is the mother to one student currently enrolled in the district and has been a resident of Santa Monica for 19 years. In her candidate information, she lists her occupation as “school district mom,” though she also has experience as an account executive and advertising director for various publications.

Though she was not able to supply a headshot or biography by the time The Malibu Times went to print Tuesday, Thanawalla provided the personal statement she previously sent to the City of Santa Monica.

“I bring a broad range of skills and experience, as well as fresh perspective and dedication to the excellence and vitality for which education in SMMUSD is known,” Thanawalla wrote in her statement. She said she hoped to continue to advocate for the following issues if she were elected to the board:

  • Clean, environmentally safe, and secure schools
  • Healthy school lunches
  • Curriculum expansion
  • School community engagement
  • Development of critical thinking skills
  • Protection of student and parent data
  • Middle school sports teams
  • Fiscal responsibility

 Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated some endorsements and misspelled Ann Maggio Thanawalla’s name. It also stated Craig Foster was the first Malibu candidate elected to the SMMUSD Board of Education; Malibu’s Kathy Wisnicki was elected in 2004. The story has been updated to include correct information.