MALIBU — The contest for three open spots on the Board of Education has become a tale of two geographic slates, and each will have an uphill battle to prove that they can adequately represent the interests of students in both Santa Monica and Malibu.
Three Santa Monica incumbents — Board President Ben Allen and board members Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vazquez — were endorsed as a slate by acclimation at the July 22 convention for Santa Monica’s most powerful political organization, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights.

Malibu school board candidates (left to right) Craig Foster, Karen Farrer and Seth Jacobson. (Photo courtesy Karen Farrer.)

Squaring off against them is the “reform slate” out of Malibu formed by district parents Seth Jacobson, Craig Foster and Karen Farrer, each backed by a wealth of experience in parent organizations and district committees.
It’s the first time in recent memory that Malibu residents have fielded such an aggressive number of candidates, something that reflects the concerns about representation in the Malibu education community and the desire of some to split from the district altogether, said Malibu City Councilmember Laura Rosenthal.
“I think the slate [is] three great people who would bring a much-needed breath of fresh air to our school board,” Rosenthal said.
Compared to the Malibu residents, the three Santa Monicans represent the old guard.
Allen is the greenest, with four years of experience on the board under his belt after winning the spot formerly held by Malibu resident Kathy Wisnicki when she chose not to run in 2008.
Escarce and Leon-Vazquez will each be running for their fourth terms on the board.
Although they were recognized as a slate by SMRR for endorsement purposes, each of the Santa Monica candidates is running their own campaign.
So far, people in Santa Monica seem to think that Malibu’s trio is a different story, an all-for-one and one-for-all attempt to take all three positions on the board wholesale.
That’s just not true, Foster said.
“It’s not intended to be ‘vote for all of us or don’t vote for any of us,’” he said. “It’s not to take away choice, it’s to give more choice.”
By voting for all three members of the self-proclaimed reform slate, residents will be able to realize an actual change on the board with three like-minded members working to court one of the other four to their side to achieve a majority vote.
“If you want to make a change on the school board in a way that really empowers that change, then vote for all three of us and we’ll make that change,” Foster said. “… We call ourselves the reform slate and we have a platform that puts the focus of the school district on the success of each and every child of that district.”
Exactly how like-minded they are has been part of the problem for some Santa Monica education advocates.
The three candidates turned in one questionnaire when they went out for the endorsement of Community for Excellent Public Schools, or CEPS.
CEPS led the charge for the Save Our Schools campaign and was instrumental in the passage of measures Y and YY, which created a half-cent sales tax in Santa Monica and split the funds between City Hall and the school district.
When CEPS announced its endorsements — including the three Board of Education incumbents — it specifically said that it couldn’t make a call on the Malibu slate because of a lack of information.
Jacobson, who did a joint interview with Foster for the CEPS steering committee, called shenanigans.
“The push back is that we’re running against incumbents and taking on the establishment,” Jacobson said. “When you do that, you have to expect to work and be surprised every step of the way.”
Santa Monicans also run into some confusion when it comes to the platform put forward by the Malibu slate.
Although many of the components sound universal — reducing class sizes, closing the achievement gap and ensuring accountability for student achievement — others are very Malibu-centric, like supporting the exit of Malibu from SMMUSD.
“Some people are confused: Are we advocates for Malibu separation, or running to be on the school board of the combined district?” Foster said, “and the answer is to the extent that we are elected to SMMUSD, our interest is to serve the SMMUSD.”
Current incumbents face that same mistrust from the other side of the Malibu-Santa Monica divide.
Allen, who has come out in favor of exploring a potential separation of the districts, said that he has worked hard to be present in the Malibu community, but recognizes the challenges of representation.
“I know and respect the candidates from Malibu, and hope to work with them regardless of what happens,” Allen said. “In the end of the day, I have to run my own campaign and make the case to the people of the community that I have worked hard to be a listener, a school board member who values and believes in collaboration, community, engagement and hard work.”
Voters will get to make their choice Nov. 6.

ashley@smdp.com