• Name: Oscar de la Torre
• Age: 39
• Occupation: Founder/executive director of Pico Youth & Family Center and school board member
• Marital status/children: Married with two children
• Your neighborhood? How long have you lived there?: Lifelong resident of Santa Monica’s Pico Neighborhood
• Own or rent?: Own
• Public school or private?: Product of SMMUSD schools
• Do you believe the district should cut in half the number of permit students admitted each year? Should permit students be required to maintain a certain GPA to remain in Santa Monica-Malibu schools? Should there be a zero tolerance policy for permit students when it comes to fighting or other acts of violence?
I took part in shaping our school district’s current permit policy. Soon after I was elected we placed a moratorium on permits in the secondary schools and this reduced our interdistrict permit population by more than 1,296 students. We went from having 21 percent of our student population attending our schools on permit to the current 12 percent. Our overall student population has decreased from 12,842 in 2003-04 to the current enrollment of 11,470, mostly due to our effective moratorium on permits.
Students who are on permit must sign a contract and promise to maintain satisfactory grades and avoid major infractions. Our permit policy allows for site administrators to pull permits if students violate the terms of their contracts. I agree that all students should seek to mediate conflicts and de-escalate situations before they turn violent but this is learned behavior and more needs to be done to teach our students the power of non-violence and constructive conflict resolution.
• Should teacher evaluations be made public?
I have worked hard to ensure transparency and accountability are principles that guide our decision-making but we must ask what instrument will we use to evaluate teachers? Teacher effectiveness cannot be measured by test results alone. Teachers do more than simply teach standards. What about the teacher who counsels students in times of crisis? How do you measure that? I wouldn’t be where I am now if not for the exceptional teachers I had as a student of our district. We need to support our teachers, use test scores to help guide improvements and invest in their development.
• Given state funding insecurity and the failure of a recent parcel tax, what should be done to increase local funding for schools? Is a parcel tax the right approach? What other ways would you recommend to raise revenue for the district? Will you look to City Hall for more funding?
I am a public school advocate because education is a public safety issue and an economic issue. The school board has directed the FOC to propose various strategies to raise revenue. I support measure Y and YY and also finding creative fundraising strategies to alleviate the tax burden on our residents. Working in partnership with city officials we will find a local solution to our school district’s fiscal crisis. These are challenging times and during challenging times we need experienced leadership on the school board and that is why I am endorsed by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teacher’s Association and the Santa Monica Democratic Club.
• How much homework is too much for a student in middle school and high school?
Since being elected I have played a role in shaping our current homework policy. I listened to parents who argued that too much homework was infringing on family time. This led to policy revisions that need to be assessed regularly to ensure proper compliance.
•The district requires PTAs and other fundraising groups at individual school sites to contribute a certain percentage to an equity fund, which is then distributed to schools in poorer neighborhoods where parents do not raise as much money on their own. Do you believe this policy should continue? What percentage do you think is fair?
In my eight years of service on the school board I have been a consistent advocate for equity in how we budget scarce resources. I am a supporter of our current equity fund policy but the time has come to review the policy and assess if it is delivering on its promise. I am a product of Will Rogers Elementary, John Adams Middle School and Samohi where I saw first hand the impact poverty has on student success. The goal of the equity fund is to share resources where the need is greatest and I think most of us agree on this principle.
• What do you think is the appropriate class size for elementary, middle, and high school students?
While on the school board I have consistently voted to invest scarce resources in the classroom versus administrative overhead. If funding is available I would ensure class size is the following:
Elementary: 20 to 1
Middle: 22 to 1
High School: 25 to 1
• What role should the district play in ensuring there is more affordable, workforce housing for teachers/staff?
I served on the board of directors of Community Corp. of Santa Monica because I support affordable housing. I have raised this issue while on the school board. Imagine a community that strives to have teachers living where they work? We can reduce traffic and the commute time and instead have teachers compensated to stay after school to tutor students.
• In remodeling campuses, what should be the top priority?
Student health, comfort and safety should be the top priority district-wide but we need to invest the necessary resources to make Santa Monica High a premier institution.
• How do you propose closing the achievement gap?
In 2001 I co-chaired the districts’ Strategic Plan on Equity and Equality in Education. We developed a set of recommendations that have guided the district in its effort to provide an empowering learning experience for all students. While I was president of the school board in 2007-08 I urged staff to form a Students of Color Taskforce that produced a report with various recommendations to close the achievement gap. We have plenty of good ideas, what we lack is a passionate and effective leader that can sustain the work in this area and accountability. I will continue to be an advocate for all children so that every student can meet his or her potential.
• How can Santa Monica-Malibu remain competitive with private schools such as Crossroads, St. Monicas, Wildwood, New Roads, etc …?
We are competitive because we offer a large selection of advanced placement and honors courses. More than the academic offerings our schools provide, students attain real life experiences and interactions that prepare them for success in a global economy.
• What qualities make you a good candidate for school board?
I am a public school advocate with eight years of proven leadership on the school board. I served as president of the board in 2007-08 and have fought tirelessly to ensure accountability and transparency are values that guide the school district’s decision-making. While serving as student body president at Santa Monica High in 1990 I decided to commit my life to public service. I completed my master’s degree in 1998 and returned to work as a counselor at Samohi. In 2002 I founded a youth center that has served hundreds of students and has most recently led community organizing to achieve a city-wide plan for violence prevention. Students, parents and school district employees can count on my proven leadership. You can learn more about me at my website, www.vote4oscar.com.
• Administrator and teachers salaries are among the highest in the state, How will you keep these and other personnel costs under control?
We need to offer competitive salaries to administrators and teachers to attract and retain high quality educators. That being said, we must consistently monitor salaries to ensure that we are in line with our institutional goals. I would be proud to say that our teacher’s salaries are competitive as I believe we need to invest our resources in the classroom versus administrative overhead.
• What will you do about teachers’ union president, Harry Keiley’s “No show” job that costs the district a minimum $55,000 per year?
I believe in working collaboratively to accomplish institutional goals. SMMCTA is a key partner in our school district much like the PTSA. Harry’s leadership has contributed to us passing local funding measures that has saved our schools.
• If elected, what would you change about the food that is fed to our students?
I brought in health expert and nutritionist Michael Thurmond to implement a nutrition and fitness course at Olympic High free of charge. I am proud of the salad bar and school gardens that we implemented district-wide but I think we need to do more to provide healthier meal options for students. I would like to convene student focus groups to develop recommendations for improvement.