DOWNTOWN A group that formed this summer in response to accountability and transparency issues in the school district threw its support behind two incumbents, all while warning voters about some of the concerns it has with the two candidates.
LEAD — Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability, Direction — recently announced its endorsement for the Board of Education race, backing newcomer Ben Allen for one of the three open seats. The group, whose organizing committee consists of about 16 parents, recommended voters choose incumbents Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vazquez, stressing that it is not endorsing the two candidates because of reservations over their time on the board.
No position was taken regarding Ralph Mechur — an incumbent who was the lone candidate running to fill the remaining two years of Emily Bloomfield’s term — because he will automatically be appointed.
“We felt that during the interview and conversation we had with them that they appeared to understand our concerns and agreed to redouble their efforts for the kind of leadership we’re looking for,” Debbie Mulvaney, one of the co-chairwomen of the organizing committee, said of the incumbents. “We felt we could move forward with recommending them.”
The concerns relate to two separate issues that hit the district in the past two years, the first of which involved financial accountability raised when former Chief Financial Officer Winston Braham resigned in 2006. That was followed by allegations of a culture of intimidation in the special education department, which district officials are currently working to repair.
Concerns about financial management and special education led to the formation of LEAD. The organization did not endorse Chris Bley, a Santa Monica High School graduate and teacher at the Brentwood School, feeling that while it appreciates his interest in serving, it feels he doesn’t have the knowledge to be an effective board member.
Bley said the lack of support was disappointing.
“I believe that Santa Monica and Malibu need change,” he said. “I believe I offer a fresh perspective.”
Escarce, who serves as the school board vice president, said considering the circumstances under which LEAD formed, he wasn’t surprised by the loss of an endorsement.
“But I’m certainly very gratified that they recommended that people vote for me and I think that conveys an underlying trust that the incumbents can do a better job with … the leadership that I think LEAD is looking for from the board,” Escarce said.
The eight-year board member said that the board is committed to addressing special education and improving the program. Leon-Vazquez did not return a request seeking comment and has a policy of not speaking to the press.
Mulvaney said while the group had concerns about some of the past issues, they were happy with the way in which the district was heading, starting with the appointment last summer of Tim Cuneo as the interim superintendent.
Cuneo replaced former Superintendent Dianne Talarico, who left at the beginning of the summer to serve in a similar capacity at the Burlingame School District, departing after less than two years on the job.
“Mr. Cuneo clearly has a different style of leadership, understands the issue we’re facing and isn’t afraid to tackle it in a much more proactive way,” Mulvaney said.
The group decided to endorse Allen, who served as a University of California regent, because of his experience in the district and familiarity with its issues. Allen currently serves on the district’s Financial Oversight Committee.
“He made an effort to reach out to the education community and familiarize with the issues that had faced the district and will face this district,” Mulvaney said.
She added that a fresh perspective could be good for the district. Allen agreed.
“We’ve got some good people on the board, but there is always room for a new perspective,” Allen said.