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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

School Board Candidates Respond to Questions about Major District Issues

• Part Two:  Three Incumbents Focus on Needs

BY KRISTINA KELL

Six candidates are running for three seats on the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District board of education on the November ballot. The Malibu Surfside News asked the six: Seth Jacobson, Karen Farrer, Craig Foster, Ben Allen, Jose Escarce, and Maria Leon-Vazquez, to respond to questions about current district concerns.
Part One of a two-part series ran in last week’s issue of The News. This week’s article features responses from the three Santa Monica incumbents, Ben Allen, Jose Escarce, and Maria Leon-Vazquez.

José Escarce
Q: Describe your personal experience and involvement with public schools that qualifies you as a SMMUSD school board member. 
A: I have served on the school board since 2000. Throughout my years on the board, including my recent tenure as board president, I have focused on fostering academic excellence and equality of opportunity for all our students in Malibu and Santa Monica. Over the last few years, I have focused as well on steering our district through California’s budget crisis while ensuring that we continued to make strong gains in achievement. I am seeking another term on the board of education in order to provide the vision, experience, and continuity in board leadership that we need at this crucial moment for public education in California.
Q: What will be your top objectives if elected to the SMMUSD school board?
A: I am proud to say that my time on the board has been one of consistent improvement in our district. Academic achievement is rising for all student groups, and growing numbers of students are taking the rigorous courses that make them eligible for admission to four-year colleges and universities. The Malibu schools, in particular, are among the top in the state. Our music and arts programs are the envy of the state, and every year more students participate in them. Our students shine in academic, artistic, and athletic competitions. However, there is more work to do, and I remain committed to helping all children reach their potential. If re-elected, my priorities will be: improving  instruction and maintaining academic and arts programs while balancing the budget in difficult economic times; promoting  teachers’ professional development to ensure that all our students develop their creativity and critical-thinking skills; making our schools welcoming places for all students and parents; and strengthening  our honors and intervention programs.
Q: Do you have any specific changes you want to make in school district policies, finances, growth, programs, curriculum, staffing, and/or parental involvement?
A: Our board monitors and discusses annually numerous programs including intervention programs, the Advanced Placement program, mathematics instruction and achievement, and so on, with the goal of promoting continuous improvement. However, three initiatives stand out as areas that require particular attention at this time. First, it is essential that we implement district wide fund raising in a way that ensures that the new policy delivers on its potential to raise more resources and to use the resources more effectively to promote student learning in all our schools. Second, we will need to track and support the district’s efforts to implement a response to intervention approach for identifying students who are struggling academically early in their school careers. Finally, I am eager to support the superintendent’s efforts to enhance collaboration in our district as a way to improve achievement for all students.
Q: Describe the strategies you would champion to improve meaningful communication, foster successful partnerships with public school families bringing parent voices to the decision-making table.  Do you think the current board has positively achieved this? 
A: Our board and district offer numerous ways for parents to communicate meaningfully with the board and administration at all levels. At the level of the board and district administration, parents and community members play key roles in district advisory committees. Parents and community members routinely address the board during board meetings, and they have countless informal conversations with board members as well. The board ensures that parents participate in important working committees of the district (e.g., the Superintendent’s Advisory Group), and parents always take part in interview panels for school principal candidates. The recent processes for choosing new principals for Malibu High School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School are good examples. On numerous occasions, suggestions or requests from parents have been the catalyst for review and modification of key district policies (e.g., homework policy, substance abuse policy, sexual harassment policy). At the school level, parents make their voices heard through parents’ groups and by participating on site councils. Our principals also are expected to keep their doors open to parents. A high level of parent involvement is one of the features that distinguishes our school district.
Q: SMMUSD continues to grapple with painful budget decisions, what new ideas could you implement to alleviate some of these budget shortfalls?
 A: I support both Prop 30 and Prop 38 on the November ballot. If both measures fail, our school board will have no choice but to work with staff to plan for the drastic budget cuts that will be required by an additional loss of $457 per student in operating revenues. We have already made sizable reductions in response to previous budget cuts, and I fear that additional cuts will seriously compromise the education our students receive. The main option for raising operating revenues open to school boards in California is a parcel tax. However, I will also work with community leaders to determine whether alternative approaches are feasible, and I will continue to advocate for state-level solutions.
Q: What is your opinion of the current school district policies and continued funding towards students with special needs, i.e. mainstreaming behavioral problem students, English as a second language, students who face problems of poverty, family problems, etc.?
A: The promise of public education is that it can offer all students, irrespective of their circumstances, the opportunity to learn, thrive, and achieve their potential. Many students in our public schools face barriers to learning of various types. I strongly believe that the board has the obligation to offer programs that aim to help these students overcome the barriers they face and minimize the “opportunity gaps” that so often limit their futures. Consequently, I have always supported these programs and will continue to do so. Of course, it is also the board’s responsibility to ensure that our programs are effective in achieving their goals. That’s why we review our intervention programs every year.
Q: What is your opinion of recent school board’s vote to include The Board of Education’s 385 million dollar bond on November’s ballot?
A: I support the bond. School facilities in our district need modernizing and upgrading so that our students can learn in 21st century classrooms. In addition, the bond will provide funds for improving the technology infrastructure in all our schools in Malibu and Santa Monica, promoting and the meaningful use of technology in our classrooms. It is essential to understand that bond revenues can only be used to modernize and upgrade facilities; they cannot be used to hire staff.
Q: Please add anything else you might think pertinent.
A: On representing the needs and interests of students in Malibu and Santa Monica, I have always supported, and will continue to support, policies and resource allocations to ensure that schools in both Malibu and Santa Monica receive the resources they need to provide the best possible education to their students. For example, I support having three elementary schools in Malibu, in order to provide more choices and better geographic access for Malibu parents, even though these schools are quite small. Similarly, I have always supported the allocation of additional faculty to Malibu High School so that the school, despite its small enrollment of 700 students, can offer a wide range of Advanced Placement courses and electives to its students in order to make them competitive for college admission. I am extremely proud of the fact that, as a result of our board’s focus on equal access to rigorous courses for all students, Malibu High School is consistently ranked among the top high schools in the United States.
On the creation of separate school districts for Malibu and Santa Monica, I strongly support investigating the feasibility and implications of creating separate school districts in Malibu and Santa Monica. I will not take a position on separation until all the details are known. However, I would support separation if the analyses reveal that separate districts would be able to continue to provide an excellent education to their students and if the majority of residents preferred to have their own district. In the meantime, the board must continue to ensure that all our schools have the resources to offer the best possible education to their students.

Ben Allen
Q: Describe your personal experience and involvement with public schools that qualifies you as a SMMUSD school board member. 
A: I grew up in our community and attended SMMUSD schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. My sister-in-law teaches in the district, and my niece and nephew are students in the district.  My mom and dad are both educators. I taught in a West Oakland public school while I was a law student, and also served as the student member of the University of California’s Board of Regents, where much of my work focused on K-12 to UC pipeline issues. My main research paper at law school focused on the law and politics of school finance in California, and prior to my election, I served on SMMUSD’s Financial Oversight Committee. I teach education law and policy at UCLA Law School, and have served for the past four years as a member of the school board, currently as the board’s president.
 Q: What will be your top objectives, if elected to the SMMUSD school board?
A: Looking out for all students, finding ways to improve outcomes and opportunities for students from every background. Setting high academic expectations and standards. Preserving the core programs that make our district great: from the arts and athletics to strong academic programs. Pushing for environmentally sustainable practices. Addressing the needs of both Santa Monica and Malibu. Early childhood programming. Seeking out new revenues for the district.
Q: Do you have any specific changes you want to make in school district policies, finances, growth, programs, curriculum, staffing, and/or parental involvement?
A: Obviously, parental involvement is part of what makes our district so strong, but there is certainly room for improvement at all levels, especially at the middle school level, where we often see a significant drop in parental engagement.  I’d like to see us strengthen our environmental practices, and would like to see us be a lot more strategic in the way we think about early childhood programming. I am excited about an initiative that we’ve begun with our teachers’ union to revamp our teacher evaluation program, and I am hopeful that will bring some positive change to the district as well.
Q: Describe the strategies you would champion to improve meaningful communication, foster successful partnerships with public school families bringing parent voices to the decision-making table. Do you think the current board has positively achieved this? 
A: The state’s Brown Act delineates the rules for public comment and public engagement during the school board meetings, but I’ve always felt as though it is an imperfect process, and one that often leaves participants feeling dissatisfied. I think SMMUSD’s district advisory committees oftentimes provide a more meaningful forum for discussion and conversation among parents, board members and staff, focusing on various areas of great importance to the community. In addition, site councils at the various school campuses and the PTA (both at the campus and district levels) play an important role in bringing parent voices to the decision-making table. I think that the district should invest a little more in communication, and that board members and high level staff should try their hardest to make sure to get out to community, campus, and parent events and meetings.
It is often in the conversations during and after such meetings where key concerns are raised, issues discussed, important ideas bandied about that help board members better understand the community’s concerns, feelings, and interests. I know this because I have attend numerous Malibu High School basketball and football games, MHS and Webster PTA meetings, MHS awards and commencement-related events, fundraisers, fairs, and silent auctions, have regular meetings in Malibu, and have walked MHS with neighborhood groups. These meetings and experiences have made an enormous difference in helping me to be a more knowledgeable and informed board member. But I know that we can do more, and I hope to work with parents, board members, and other leaders to think through new ways that we can improve communication and increase representation, both in Malibu and across the district.
Q: SMMUSD continues to grapple with painful budget decisions, what new ideas could you implement to alleviate some of these budget shortfalls? 
A: Obviously, passing Proposition 30 is a major priority. It will bring in vitally needed funds to our schools. On the local level, we have been able to pass Measures Y and YY in Santa Monica, which are bringing in $6 million sales and use tax monies from sales in Santa Monica that are used to help schools throughout the district. We were able to negotiate a ten-year extension to the Joint Use Agreement between the City of Santa Monica and SMMUSD, which is now bringing in $8 million annually to the district’s coffers, with cost of living increases built in. We should look at growing our cooperation with the City of Malibu along similar lines. Some of the November bond monies could be used to alleviate some of the operational costs of the district. We are asking for a much more robust fundraising operation from our Education Foundation, and we also need to figure out new ways to engage our business community in bringing in funds to support programming in the district. I continue to be interested in branding, and looking for creative market-based solutions for revenues. We have made major cuts already, including by increasing class size, and I think we really need to hold the line on class size increases. We need to bring in the money that will allow us to remain financially solvent and keep our programs strong.
Q: What is your opinion of the current school district policies and continued funding towards students with special needs, i.e. mainstreaming behavioral problem students, English as a second language, students who face the problems of poverty, family problems, etc.? 
A: There are tremendous needs that exist within our student and family population, and the public schools have been tasked by state and federal law with addressing many of those needs. I think that the district works hard to balance these students’ needs with its responsibilities to the broader student community.  But we struggle to strike this balance properly, and one of the realities of this work in public education is that there is always so much more that can and should be done to help our students. Our challenge is taking our limited resources and putting them to the best use. I haven’t always agreed with the board’s every allocation, but I think that under the difficult financial circumstances, we have struck a reasonable balance in funding and support for our English language learners, impoverished students, and those with behavioral and family challenges.
Q: What is your opinion of recent school board’s vote to include The Board of Education’s 385 million dollar bond on November’s ballot?  A: It was a difficult decision, but it was the right one at the end of the day. There are tremendous infrastructural and maintenance needs in our century-old school district, and the bond will bring in money for needed safety improvements, technology upgrades, new classrooms, and addressing deferred maintenance needs. It will also bring in monies that will help us on the operational side of the ledger as well. The world continues to change, and our community deserves a modernized school district that is safe and clean. I hope that people support it!
 Q: Please add anything else you might think pertinent. 
A: It has been an honor to serve this school system that raised me, and I am grateful to the community for giving me this opportunity. It hasn’t been easy work, but with the community’s support we have been able to get the extra support we needed to keep the school system strong. We have a lot of work to do, and with the state funding crisis, we need to be particularly vigilant. I am committed to strong, engaged, open communication, and have worked hard to reach out to the whole community.
Maria Leon-Vazquez
Q: Describe your personal experience and involvement with public schools that qualifies you as a SMMUSD school board member.
A: I have been an advocate for education since I was a student at Santa Monica College in 1974. For the last 38 years, I have been involved in many issues involving equity, high academic achievement, bridging the gap, affirmative action, bilingual education, and access for all students into higher education.
In 1989, I began my involvement in the district before my children were actually attending school. I was a room parent and involved in the bilingual program at Will Rogers from 1990-1996. I was a member of the Will Rogers School Congress from 1992-1996. I was one of the founding members of the Child Care Task Force when there were no bilingual preschool programs in the district, and my son was not serviced. I was one of three parent coordinators for the John Adams Middle School Science Magnet Program from 1996-1999.  From November 2000, I was elected to serve on the school board. 
I am and have been a member of PTA since 1990. Some of the leadership roles I have undertaken have been VP for fundraising, VP for community relations, and VP for political work. I have been involved with the passage of all the bond measures and parcel taxes by walking precincts, phone banking, and contributing monies. I was a member of the Prop ES Oversight Committee and of the Prop X Election Committee. As a PTA member, my involvement at Will Rogers Learning Community, John Adams Middle School, Santa Monica High School was in many capacities from fundraising to community affairs to mock elections; and most importantly, my passion to support the school district’s mission for academic excellence, while simultaneously bridging the gap, are just a few examples.
I also bring 40 years of community, civic, and political involvement in the city of Santa Monica to the school district. My leadership roles in community based organizations, such as Community Corporation of Santa Monica, Westside Legal Services, FAME-Santa Monica Economic Development Corporation, and Friends of Sunset Park; and my appointment to the Commission on the Status of Women serving a four-year term with two of those years as president.
Q: What will be your top objectives if elected to the SMMUSD school board?
A: Strive for academic excellence while simultaneously closing the achievement gap. Support our teachers and staff as we negotiate contracts that are favorable for all. Work collaboratively with the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu, SMC, PTA, CTA, SEIU and the SMMUSD community to find mutual points of support so that we can maintain our District fiscally sound. Modernize our school facilities to 21st century standards to meet our 21st century academic programs.
Q: Do you have any specific changes you want to make in school district policies, finances, growth, programs, curriculum, staffing, and/or parental involvement?
A: As board members, our work is to constantly review policies and make changes as circumstances change within our district. In particular, I will ask for a comprehensive review of our high school programs to make sure that SMMUSD is offering high academic programs, getting our students ready for college and keeping them competitive for admissions to college. 
Q: Describe the strategies you would champion to improve meaningful communication, foster successful partnerships with public school families bringing parent voices to the decision-making table. Do you think the current board has positively achieved this?
A; I would look into and promote the setting up of district advisory committees that were more pertinent to Malibu parents and students, make sure that meetings were equally held in both cities, i.e. board, DAC, task force, etc., and will promote some intramural games and activities between both cities for more interaction. Most board members are employed full-time and also work on the board full-time so the board has done the best it can do under the circumstances. However, there is always room for improvement.
Q: SMMUSD continues to grapple with painful budget decisions, what new ideas could you implement to alleviate some of these budget shortfalls?
A: Working collaboratively with all of the following stakeholders: students, teachers, staff, parents, institutional/government partners, community, and getting us all on the same page for districtwide fundraising and the expansion of out-of-district support. We all witnessed the SOS campaign and its success when we all were united as a district. I am personally seeking funding sources through our SMC Education Collaborative and the various grants that are available with collaborative efforts. I would support the SM/M Ed Foundation hiring of a fundraiser that will take the district’s vision and mission and raise money for the whole district.
Q: What is your opinion of the current school district policies and continued funding towards students with special needs, i.e. mainstreaming behavioral problem students, English as a second language, students who face the problems of poverty, family problems, etc.?
A: The academic needs of each student in our district must be met, whether special needs, ESL, poverty, GATE. The district mission sets the goal of high expectations for all students, and the policies and funding support the mission. 
Q: What is your opinion of the recent school board’s vote to include the board of education’s 385 million dollar bond on November’s ballot?
A: Our district infrastructure has to meet the same high level of expectation as our academic programs. The upkeep and maintenance of our old buildings was relinquished by the State of California and now it is dependent upon the district locally to upgrade, improve and keep up with the current state of the art in learning excellence. 
Q: Please add anything else you might think pertinent.
A: In the last 12 years as a board member elected by both Malibu and Santa Monica citizens, I have been transparent, accountable, and trustworthy. I have never wavered from my ethical beliefs and have always had a consistent voting record for all students in this district. I have truly represented and met the needs of all the students in this district to the best of my ability.

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