Three seats on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education are open. Incumbents Ben Allen, Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vazquez are hoping to be re-elected. Voters have a real chance to turn the district around this year
The SMMUSD is poorly and inefficiently managed. Most of our kids do get a good education, but not a great one. Social justice agendas, power politics, lack of imagination and cronyism have resulted in public schools that lag far behind their maximum potential and what our community deserves.
Our schools are always in crisis. There’s never enough money. And, because overall standardized test scores have risen statewide as well as locally, district improvements just “keep up with the Jones” and aren’t pulling ahead.
The latest revelation is the huge achievement gap at Santa Monica High School (Samohi). “Only 6 percent of male African-Americans are proficient in high school math,” according to the SMMUSD’s own 2012 Student Achievement Data report. African-American females achieved 14 percent proficiency.
Only 25 percent of Latino males and 23 percent of Latino females were proficient in math. Compare to 64 and 65 percent proficiency for Asian females and males and 50 and 53 percent for white females and males, respectively. So much for closing the gap.
Three-term board member Leon-Vazquez has been described as dead wood by those familiar with her work. Aside from social justice issues and claims she’s helped narrow the gap, she hasn’t accomplished much in 12 years — as evidenced by math proficiency scores for ethnic groups at Samohi.
Escarce is seeking a fourth term. Last year, he proposed allowing up to 300 more non-resident “permit” students to enroll in the district. Escarce claimed each permit student would generate approximately $5,000 annually in California Average Daily Attendance (ADA) subsidy which he called “pure profit” for the SMMUSD.
The problem is that the actual cost is closer to $10,000. State monies only pay half the annual cost of educating a student, here. The rest of us subsidize every student for a couple thousand dollars via parcel taxes and bond expense. Permit families don’t pay these costs, neither do thousands of student families in Santa Monica’s tax exempt, low-income housing.
Lastly, board Ben Allen (completing his first term) has been slow to produce new and innovative programs and to raise educational standards, trim waste and secure new revenue sources.
What’s missing and desperately needed is meaningful engagement in raising achievement: clear district-wide plans and goals, concise core methodologies for achieving them, alignment of resources to support planning and goals and methodologies to measure success.
I spent hours talking with Craig Foster and Karen Farrer from Malibu. I found them to be refreshingly honest, enthusiastic and highly qualified for seats on the school board.
Foster has children in the district, a master’s degree in education and works part-time as a substitute teacher at Malibu’s Webster Elementary School. He’s also a member of the district’s Financial Oversight Committee (FOC). Farrer has been a volunteer with the SMMUSD for 21 years and a Santa Monica/Malibu PTA Council board member for the past nine years. Her three children are SMMUSD products.
We discussed the district’s top-heavy administrative ranks and how resources are spent on non-essentials or wasted on ill-conceived programs. Foster says new, outside sources of funding need to be found — something board incumbents and SMMUSD administrators have shown little interest in.
Foster and Farrer believe that the district’s number one goal must be student achievement,
“Change is hard to come buy with the present situation,” Foster told me. “The simple fact of the matter is you hear from the district when it needs you. Whether about special education, district-wide fundraising, the equity tax, the Education Foundation, permits, site costs, or many, many more subjects — just don’t bother asking.”
Foster says there are still on-going problems with transparency complicated by political agendas.
He described how Malibu PTA presidents had requested information on the “equity fund” and permit students. Neither request received an acknowledgement, let alone a response from administrators.
“Policies, especially involving fundraising and donations alienate the district’s best supporters,” Farrer said. ”There’s no inclusion of Malibu in the process. Most of us are tired of hearing about ‘the high school.’ There are two major high schools: Samohi and Malibu High.”
There’s nobody from Malibu on the board. “Those associated with the district, including school supporters take Malibu for granted,” she added. “Remember, Malibu with 17 percent of the students contributes 28 percent of the district’s parcel tax revenues and 31 percent of bond revenues.”
Foster and Farrer have my vote because they’ll bring a vitally needed new energy to the board. They promise to hold the superintendent and key administrators accountable for raising student achievement across the board and closing the achievement gap without removing resources from our best students and top schools.
I believe they’re best qualified to reduce class sizes and I love their idea of an annual review of each school and holding principals accountable for improved learning. They’ll work with the teachers’ union to implement current best practices and proven educational innovations, And, they’ll help pay for these initiatives by cutting waste, reducing administrative bureaucracy and finding profitable, outside, independent revenue steams.
I’m reluctantly voting for Allen because, with the right people on the board, I’m confident he’ll step up his game and finally provide the leadership needed to improve the educational experience in the district.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.