Board of Ed Candidates Meet for First Debate

The first in a series of debates took place Monday between a group of candidates vying for seats on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

Hosted by the Santa Monica Mid City Neighbors at the Santa Monica Main Library, topics were wide-ranging but candidates spent much of the 40-minute forum considering environmental issues in the Malibu schools.

Mid City President Andrew Hoyer asked two questions of each of the five candidates in attendance (one incumbent and four challengers) and allowed them two opportunities to speak about issues of their choice.

Of the four contested seats on the Board of Education, one is open; Boardmember Nimish Patel announced earlier this year that, after one term, he would not seek reelection, citing increased work responsibilities and a desire to spend more time with family.

Boardmember Oscar de la Torre, who is also the co-chair of the Pico Neighborhood Association and the executive director of the Pico Youth and Family Center, was the only incumbent present Monday night. Incumbents Laurie Lieberman and Ralph Mechur expressed regret that they could not make it to the forum, Hoyer said.

All four challengers were present.

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Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, an SMC professor and co-chair of the city’s largest political party Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR), highlighted his lifelong work in education. Tahvildaran-Jesswein, along with the three incumbents, received the coveted SMRR endorsement in August.

“There are too many kids who aren’t being seen,” he said. “Particularly at this high school, Santa Monica High School, we have two different schools. We have the schools where the kids are working hard and doing the APs and taking the tests and the practice exams and we have kids who are being lost in the back rows of these classrooms.”

Craig Foster, a Malibu schools advocate, supports separating Santa Monica and Malibu schools into two districts, an idea that seems to be gaining traction with district officials and members of the current board. 

On Monday, he didn’t harp on the issue of separation, or Malibu-specific issues in general, instead focusing on the broader issues facing the district. He lauded Vision for Student Success, a decentralized fundraising model that has received some resistance from Malibu parents, who see their donations being used at schools 20 miles away in Santa Monica.

Foster, bashing the state’s funding of schools, expressed a need to find creative ways to generate and efficiently spend revenues for the district. He did touch on the issue of toxins in the Malibu schools in his closing remarks.

“There hasn’t been anybody from Malibu on the school board elected since 2004, serving since 2008,” Foster said, “and so when something like the Malibu toxins comes up, I think it’s worth considering having a voice from that community on the school board.”

De la Torre framed himself as the current board member who listens to the voice of the people, particularly on the issues of toxins in the schools. He was asked what he would do about the high temperatures and lack of air conditioning in the schools. Edison Language Academy, which de la Torre’s son attends, was rebuilt with bond money. Architects said that new solar chimneys would keep the new classrooms cool without air conditioning, he said.

“I can tell you that with all the promise of technology, it was a complete failure,” he said. “Now, if you go to those classrooms you have fans. We’re going back to an old model of electricity and using fans to cool down those classrooms.”

With money from new bonds de la Torre said he would make sure that the same type of mistakes aren’t made.

Patty Finer, who previously practiced workers’ compensation law and now works as a consultant for students applying to college, was very focused on the issue of toxins in schools.

“Every now and then I get to see the board in action and I’ve been taking a look at what I’ve seen and thinking that I need to get up there and ask questions that I feel are not being asked,” she said.

Dhun May, a teacher and regular public commenter at board meetings, said she would push for positivity in the district through the use of character-building books, inspirational documentaries and moments of silence.  

This story originally appeared in the Santa Monica Daily Press.

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