• Name: Ben Allen
• Occupation: School Board President/attorney/adjunct professor
• Neighborhood in which you live: Wilmont
• Own or rent: Own
• Education: Where did you attend and what degrees do you have? Harvard University (BA in History), Cambridge University (Masters in Latin American Studies), UC Berkeley (Law Degree: my research focused on the law and politics of California school finance)
• Why are you running for the school board and what do you want to accomplish if elected?
I care deeply about public education in general, and our school district in particular. My priorities are:
1. Setting high academic expectations and standards
2. Looking out for all students, finding ways to improve outcomes and opportunities for students from every background
3. Preserving the core programs that make our district great: from the arts and athletics to strong academic programs
4. Pushing for environmentally sustainable practices
5. The growth of a robust early childhood system for our community
6. Financial accountability, cost savings, and new revenues for our schools
7. Teacher empowerment, evaluation, support, accountability
• What do you believe is the role the school board should play?
The board must oversee the work of the superintendent, act as a public face for the district, listen to and incorporate the views of the community in the governing of the district. We need to be advocates for public education and our public schools, but we must also demand accountability from our school system and always push for excellence and the highest standards for all of our children.
• What was your favorite subject in grade school and why?
History. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories, personalities, and structures that helped to shape the world we live in today.
• Prop. 30, Prop. 38, or neither?
I’m voting for both.
• Everyone’s a critic, especially a parent when it comes to their child’s cafeteria. How would you rate the food served in Santa Monica-Malibu public schools?
District staff has been working hard to improve the offerings, have ended the sales of sugary sodas, have salad bar options in all of our schools and have been working to make sure that the ingredients that go into the food we serve are healthier. However, there’s still more that needs to be done.
• What’s your position on chocolate milk? The school board heard from parents who wanted it banned because of the sugar. The board decided to leave it on the menu and give parents the option of having their kids opt out. How did you vote (incumbents) or how would you have voted if on the dais?
I struggled with this decision but in the end of the day, decided to support the opt-out compromise. I am concerned about the health of our kids, but the chocolate milk that we serve is non-fat, and relatively low-sugar and low-calorie. Chocolate milk is a vitally important source of calcium for many American children, and the American Academy of Sciences strongly recommended against banning chocolate milk for that reason.
• What is the right amount of homework for students in middle school and high school?
The right amount of homework for students is the amount it takes for a kid to cement the lessons learned in class during the day and deepen his/her understanding of the concepts taught.
• If elected, what would you do to close the achievement gap? Does it come down to something as simple as more tutoring and after-school help, or something more significant, such as new, culturally-relevant curriculum?
I’ve been supportive of both of those types of programs, in addition to the continuation of a strong summer school program for kids who need the help, a robust early childhood education infrastructure for our community, expanding mentorship and intervention programs, professional development on achievement gap related issues, etc.
• Where do you stand on inter-district permits? How many should Santa Monica-Malibu Unified issue each year?
I think that it’s important that we keep a tight lid on inter-district permits, but permits can be a very useful tool in tweaking our numbers every year as enrollment goes up and down. We are paid by the state based on the number of students in the system, regardless of where they live, so the offering of permits can be useful in protecting our revenues for programs and teachers when in-district enrollment drops slightly.
I also feel that if we are going to offer inter-district permits to kids, families with tangible connections to the community should get priority — grandchildren of residents, alumni, district and city employees, etc.
• Some residents in both Santa Monica and Malibu have called for the break-up of the school district. Would you or would you not support such an effort if elected and why?
We are two different communities with distinct political cultures and ways of doing business, and it has proven hard for Malibu to feel well represented within the district power structure. If we can figure out a way to make it pencil out in a way that does not leave Santa Monica holding the bag, I think it might make a lot of sense.
Soccer, travel, news, national parks.
• If you could ride the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier with three people in history, who would they be and what would you want to talk about?
I would love to get the chance to chat with one of the nation’s founders to get a better sense of what they would think about their original vision for the U.S. and how it has developed; a biblical figure to get a better sense of life in that time, their sense of history and faith and the sweep of human history; and then for a dose of inspiration, a historical hero who defied the odds to fight for human dignity — King, Mandela, Churchill, Suu Kyi, las Casas, etc.
• What’s the right way to address the parking problems at Samohi?
More folks need to be carpooling, taking the bus, walking, and biking, and I hope that we can expand the frequency and service of bus offerings to the campus during peak times. I’m hopeful that the city of Santa Monica can help us out more with the subsidized use of their Civic Center parking lots for students and teachers.
• What are your plans to help make the school district more sustainable?
If Measure ES passes, it will be among the “greenest” bonds in the nation. We’re working on revamping our environmental curriculum and improving our procurement and use procedures from everything from cleaners to paper to furniture. We also need to be pursuing more energy efficiency measures that can save the district money while also helping the environment.
• Should the school board place another parcel tax on the ballot in 2014 if statewide tax measures fail to pass in November? If they fail, district officials are predicting cuts in the millions. What’s the best way to deal with the potential deficit?
Parcel taxes are very hard to pass. We are going to have to look in a lot of different directions for solutions, including cuts, new revenue opportunities with the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu, new fundraising, finding more efficiencies, etc. It is so important that we pass either Proposition 30 or 38.
• Districtwide fundraising is not without controversy. What are your thoughts on the decision to move to districtwide fundraising? Do you support the model or feel there’s one better?
I supported the policy along with the rest of the board, and we need to make sure that it’s successful. It’s not a perfect model, but it was reflective of a broad-based desire by the superintendent, board and PTA leadership that we find a way of ensuring that there are strong support programs at all of our schools regardless of means.
• What is the appropriate level of discipline for a student who is caught: bullying; with drugs or alcohol on campus; selling drugs; fighting; cheating; or vandalizing school property?
Like with anything, administrators need to look at the context of the student’s misbehavior, whether this is a first-time offense, and try to craft a disciplinary procedure that is rehabilitative. We are in the education business, and the hope always has to be that our disciplinary response makes a student think a little more next time before misbehaving. But we cannot tolerate behavior that seriously threatens campus safety.
• What role do you envision playing on the school board?
I hope to continue to be a listener, someone who is thoughtful, weighs the issues carefully, and makes good decisions that are in the best interest of all of our kids.
• How would you address concerns that there are racial and or gang tensions at Santa Monica High School?
We’re putting in place new programs that are addressing racial tensions, training our teachers and students on racial sensitivity issues, etc. We need to remain ever vigilant, and this involves close cooperation with SMPD, a thoughtful approach to our freshman seminar program, continuing support for programs at Samohi that are helping to address these kinds of concerns. A strong athletic program can be a particularly good way of bringing together young men and women from various backgrounds to work together and cooperate with each other.
• What are some things the school board could do to get the business community engaged in fundraising as well as working directly with students?
One great example of business engagement is the Spark Program that Maria Rodriguez and I brought to John Adams Middle School, which involves the creation of enriching work apprenticeships for students who get to go on-site to businesses around town to explore careers and expand their sense of their own possibilities in life. Many businesses are currently supporting our Education Foundation, and we hope that many more will!
• If elected, would you vote to close smaller schools and consolidate to save money?
There is more than meets the eye to what seems like a simple cost-saving act: shutting down a school doesn’t necessarily solve our budget problems because it can easily become a charter school that would take additional funds away from the district.