One of the most interesting and contentious contests this election is the race for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education with Kelly Pye retiring and board chair Barry Snell, Ralph Mechur and the always controversial Oscar de la Torre seeking re-election.

At the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Right annual congress in August, hisses were clearly audible when de la Torre got up to speak. He failed to garner an outright membership endorsement but was “backroom endorsed” by the SMRR Steering Committee a few days later along with Mechur who also fell short of enough member support for an outright endorsement.

de la Torre is quick to shoot from the lip, however parents of special education students tell me he’s been one of their most loyal supporters. But, inflammatory statements and actions are taking their toll.

Earlier this year, a video that showed de la Torre standing by while a couple of high school kids slugged it out in an alley behind his Pico Youth & Family Center warranted a local police investigation for child cruelty. No charges were filed. Nevertheless, the controversy surrounding whether he should have stepped in and stopped the fight right away instead of roughly a minute after it kicked off may have seriously hurt him.

Mechur was appointed to the board in 2007 to fill a seat vacated by Emily Bloomfield, who resigned. He ran unopposed in November of 2008 to complete her term and is now running for his own four-year seat.

Barry Snell, the current board chair, is a certified public accountant with a history of problems with the California Board of Accountancy dating from 2001 through 2004. He was originally placed on probation in 2001 for practicing public accountancy with an expired license and other infractions.

Snell then bounced a check paying the $2,500 fine and continued to practice accountancy without a license. Snell violated the terms of his probation and also failed to maintain an active license and failed to make scheduled cost reimbursement payments according to the accountancy board’s website www.dca.ca.gov/cba. Snell dismisses the charges as “a mistake” as do his supporters.

Despite Snell’s history, he’s received a number of key endorsements including SMRR’s membership, the Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS), Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability and Direction (LEAD), the Santa Monica Democratic Club, (“Little SMRR”) and others. While Snell’s accountancy record has been clean the last six years, I wouldn’t want him on the board of my $110 million company (if I had one) let alone the school board.

More than his “mistakes,” it’s his and the other two incumbents’ lack of a cohesive plan of action and willingness to rubber stamp administration requests on 128 agenda items 98 percent of the time (often with little or no discussion) that bother me. Their inability to accomplish much needed oversight or actively seek new ways to resolve the district’s ongoing financial issues is appalling and unacceptable.

According to the SMMUSD’s own projections, it’s facing a $4.4 million shortfall in the 2011-12 fiscal year and a $6.4 million shortfall in 2012-13 even if Measure Y (the half-cent sales tax increase) passes and $5 million of its revenue goes to the district. School supporters seem to think that all problems can be solved by either hitting up City Hall or by burdening district residents with one regressive tax scheme after another.

Board members along with SMRR, CEPS, LEAD, “Little SMRR” (SM Democratic Club) and other supporters blame all the problems on Sacramento. While state cuts to educational funding are a contributor to current problems, they still ignore the fact that every permit student costs the district nearly $3,000 — the difference in the roughly $10,000 it costs to educate a child here and the approximately $6,200 the district receives from the state.

High administrator salaries, accelerating administrative costs and the rest of the profligate spending are dismissed. They respond, “If you want the best, you’ve got to pay the best.” Don’t tell that to the residents of Bell. Content to keep their heads in the sand, school cheerleaders and so-called school support groups endorse do-nothing incumbents and the cycle continues like it has since 1998.

Why watch the purse strings when “Daddy Taxpayer” just keeps on anteing up? And those endorsements, aren’t they purely about politics? Maybe it’s why CEPS endorsed four candidates for three City Council seats. They want to be in good with whoever is elected. In the case of CEPS, it’s arguable that it’s actually harming education in the district

Unfortunately, until the voters and school supporters in Santa Monica and Malibu wake up to the fact that we’re all being hosed and serious changes are needed, including to the Board of Education, the school district will continue to flail around in a financial quagmire and risk the quality of our children’s education.

Next week: school board challengers, any hope?

Bill can be reached at mr.bilbau@aol.com.

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