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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

SMMUSD Board Candidates Respond to Questions about Key Concerns District Faces

• Part One:  Trio Campaigns as Slate

BY KRISTINA KELL

Six candidates are running for three seats on the SMMUSD school board in the November election. The Malibu Surfside News asked the candidates—Seth Jacobson, Karen Farrer, Craig Foster, Ben Allen, Jose Escarce, and Maria Leon-Vazquez—to respond to questions that address the specific challenges now facing the SMMUSD and elicit the candidates positions on major education issues.
The News is publishing the answers to these questions in two parts. This week’s article spotlights responses from the three Malibu candidates—Seth Jacobson, Karen Farrer, and Craig Foster. Next week’s installment will include replies from the three Santa Monica incumbents—Ben Allen, Jose Escarce, and Maria Leon-Vazquez.
The Malibu candidates—Seth Jacobson, Karen Farrer and Craig Foster—opted to submit collective answers in keeping with their decision to run as a slate.
Q:    Describe your personal experience and involvement with public schools in the past five years that qualifies you as a SMMUSD school board member.
A: Each of us is deeply involved in our schools. All three of us are parents, totaling 40 years as district parents between us (Karen: 21 years, Seth: 15 years, Craig: 4 years).
Craig is a part time teacher in SMMUSD and has a master’s degree in education.
Seth and Karen are Shark Fund board members, Seth is chairperson. All three of us have been SMMUSD PTA officers. Karen has been PTA president at Webster and MHS. Craig is currently Webster’s PTA president. Each of us served on the Superintendent’s Advisory Group on District-wide Fundraising (SAG), and all three of us are leaders of Advocates for Malibu Public schools (AMPS).
Q:    What will be your objectives, if elected to the SMMUSD school board?
A:    If elected, we will have only one main focus: each and every student’s educational success. All aspects of the district will be aligned with that objective. Many of the district’s current underachievement stem from lack of focus.
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:    Yes. In support of student success: We will make student achievement the primary goal of the superintendent and hold her accountable for that achievement. We will reduce class size.
Also, we will close the achievement gap between different demographic groups. We will initiate a school-by-school review and hold principals responsible for learning outcomes. Furthermore, we will work with the teachers’ union to review current practices and rigorously implement current best practices and proven educational innovations and we will pay for these initiatives by reducing administrative bureaucracy and creating an independent Malibu school district.
In support of improved governance: we will broaden community involvement in district decision by organizing participation from underrepresented groups. We will create an atmosphere of transparency and cooperation within district headquarters. We will also move to a more distributed model of inclusion, creating more site-based control and more diverse and representative community input and we will make the district’s Financial Oversight Committee completely independent of school board control.
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: Perhaps the greatest failing of the current board is their lack of direct attention on the core issue of any district: student success. The best way to support student achievement is to focus on it directly, making it the centerpiece of every discussion and holding the district's education professional responsible for quantifiable improvements across a range of measures and across the entire student population.
The current school board has been very attentive to other matters which they believe support student achievement but unfortunately there is a culture of insider-ism and centralized, unilateral, stove-piped decision-making that undermines even those successes. We believe that a school district is a community and decisions need to be made in daylight with transparency of facts, process, and outcomes. All stakeholders need to be meaningfully included. Decisions which fail to address the needs of an anathema.
When elected we will end the practice of insider-ism and political responses to educational challenges. We will allow time for full deliberation and community inclusion. We will seek solutions that meet the needs of all members of the community and resist actions which lack widespread support. The current culture of neighborhood versus neighborhood was created by the board’s process. It can be ended by a more inclusive process.
Q:    SMMUSD continues to grapple with painful budget decisions, what new ideas could you implement to alleviate some of these budget shortfalls? 
A:    Two huge opportunities exist to make more money available for teaching. If SMMUSD’s administrative bureaucracy shrunk to that of Oak Park USD or Conejo Valley USD, this would free $5-7 million for student success. Creating an independent Malibu school district would free another $4 million spread across Malibu and Santa Monica to support our children. Also, fundraising from non-parent sources could and should be a major factor in district finances. Likewise, was the district to create a clear and popular vision of future plans, community support in all forms would be dramatically improved.
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:    Our sole priority is each and every student’s educational success. That includes students with special needs, ELL students, and every student. Each child is unique and deserves his or her needs to be met according the current best practices in education today. There is no question that the district’s efforts in these areas can be improved. We believe that the best way to do so is to hold the superintendent responsible for student success, all students’ success.
Q:    What is your opinion of recent school board’s vote to include the Board of Education’s $385 million bond on the November ballot? 
A:    The bond measure displays many all too familiar flaws. First, little warning or discussion took place prior to placing it on the ballot. Second, Malibu was almost entirely left out of what few discussions took place before the measure was proposed to the board. Third, no case has been made for the specific uses of this $385M bond other than the clear need at SAMOHI. Certainly, Webster does not need its three “relocatable classrooms” replaced for $6.4M so long as it has just 13 teachers and 23 classrooms. The scope of work for MHS has already been addressed under Measure BB. Finally, in excess of 31% of the funds under this bond measure will come from Malibu property owners, yet just 20 percent of the funds will be used for Malibu schools. That more than $40M will be transferred from Malibu property owners to Santa Monica schools has never been fully or directly addressed. This last issue is particularly hard to swallow given the lack of inclusion of Malibu in the discussions and the weak explanations we have received regarding the need and timing of this very large tax. A Santa Monica newspaper called this bond, “Greed, Not Need.” We continue to wait for a persuasive argument to be presented that could overcome the current overwhelming distaste in Malibu for a new Santa Monica driven school tax.
Q:    Is there anything else you would like to add? 
A:    We stand for accountability, innovation, and independence. On the board, we will insist that SMMUSD becomes the district it always should have been and the district that our communities deserve. We believe that every child deserves success. We believe that every parent deserves to have his or her voice heard.
On the superintendent’s responsibilities and the benefit of restructuring of board: The superintendent should be the executive responsible for implementing policies set by the school board. However, the school board should restrict its activities to setting policy and monitoring policy implementation. In doing this, the school board should bear in mind their own first protocol: “Keep teaching and learning as the primary focus of our work.” The administrative bureaucracy should be aggressively reduced. School board meetings should be focused and dramatically shortened and the school board should not be a paid position.

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