SMMUSD candidates draw on disparate backgrounds

Few major policy differences divide the candidates, but each has a unique background and different skills.

By Susan Reines/Special to The Malibu Times

It seems to have boiled down to a race of credentials for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education candidates. As few major policy differences have surfaced between the four, who are running for three seats, the candidates have drawn upon their disparate backgrounds to distinguish themselves.

The candidates have agreed that top priorities are improving special education, which now falls short of government standards, and closing the achievement gap that separates wealthier and white from poorer and minority students. In The Malibu Times questionnaires and at a recent candidate forum, they emphasized how their backgrounds influenced them-and voiced their views on Malibu representation.

Jose Escarce

As chair the past year, Escarce oversaw jumps in the poorest students’ test scores and the beginnings of a special education overhaul.

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“[Education] has played a crucial role in my own life and I believe it represents the best hope for people to achieve their potential as productive and socially conscious citizens,” he said, adding that his work as a professor and health care expert has “nurtured my open-mindedness, analytic skills, and ability and willingness to listen to others and build consensus.”

Escarce voted to support the Malibu secession initiative led by parents who say they need local control over education, but he has rejected the notion that Malibuites have little control.

At a Sept. 29 candidate forum, he said that because Malibu is small and far from Santa Monica, “it is inevitable that Malibu parents believe they are not being heard … I hope parents realize that we do, in fact, go out of our way to represent everybody.”

Endorsements include: Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers’ Association, Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS), and Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights.

Ana M. Jara

Jara, a single mother of four daughters from Santa Monica’s poorest neighborhood, has been involved in the district for 20 years, including co-chairing the Race and Discipline Task Force. Equality has been a dominant theme in her campaign.

“I see the needs of our youth and watch them not being met,” she said. “The issues continue to be the same-race, social economic inequalities, inequities and, although the district has taken action on hard issues and made strides to close the achievement gap, it is still a major concern of mine.”

Jara said she would respond to recent complaints of racial discrimination by posting a liaison at each school to monitor consistency of discipline.

Asked at the candidate forum how she would ensure that Malibu voices are heard, Jara said she would use her listening skills to improve communication with all district parents.

Endorsements include: Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, Santa Monica Democratic Club, and HERE Local 11.

Maria Leon-Vazquez

Former chair Leon-Vazquez has focused her campaign on inclusion.

“The approach needed for this district is one that will be inclusive of all children, and one that will meet the needs of the students it serves,” she said. “I have demonstrated those views and convictions in the last four years.”

Leon-Vazquez said she is eager to help others use education as an equalizer. She spoke of inclusion when voting in favor of the Equity Fund that distributes a portion of school gifts through the district and against signing a petition to support the process of Malibu separation.

She said her passion for inclusion comes from her upbringing. “I was raised in a working class, union family which emphasized education as a means of getting ahead economically,” she said.

In answer to the candidate forum question about how she would represent Malibu, Leon-Vazquez said her value of inclusion had always led her to represent every student, but she suggested more meetings could take place in Malibu. She voted against supporting a Malibu secession from the district.

Endorsements include: Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers’ Association, CEPS, and Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights.

Kathy Wisnicki

Wisnicki, who will be the board’s only Malibu member, if elected, emphasized her lengthy experience volunteering for Parent Teacher Associations, school district funding campaigns and the Financial Oversight Committee.

“With my doctorate in education and my position on the district’s Financial Oversight Committee, I have the unique skills necessary to comprehend, prioritize and implement the detailed SMMUSD working budget and evaluate effective programming for all students,” she said.

Like the other candidates, Wisnicki has acknowledged that the public had little opportunity to comment on last year’s budget, and she said she would work to present the budget in a comprehensible way and hold televised workshops.

Asked about Malibu representation at the candidate forum, Wisnicki said she would work to improve communication with all parents. “One of the problems I’ve heard over and over again is that the board needs to communicate more and better with the community it serves,” she said. She has not taken a stand on the MUST initiative and has said that as long as the schools are one district she will work to improve the district.

Endorsements include: Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers’ Association, CEPS, and Malibu City Council.

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

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