DOWNTOWN — Change may be a popular buzz word for candidates in elections around the country this year, but can it work in Santa Monica?

After all, the effects of the recession here have left services largely intact, and even the school district, which has suffered because of the state budget crisis, is weathering the storm better than most, thanks to reserve funds and plentiful local donors.

There’s also the hard-to-ignore fact that student achievement is high and continues to get better.

School board candidate Chris Bley, though, is betting that voters are fed up and ready for some (somewhat) radical change.

A private school teacher in Brentwood who narrowly missed winning a seat on the school board last election, Bley has, perhaps more than any other challenger, made the need for a new direction the theme of his campaign.

He wants tougher oversight of the budget and would vote to hire a new development director at the front office who would be in charge of raising millions of dollars per year through donations and corporate partnerships.

“We’ve got Sony, MTV — nobody can explain to me why those groups have not wanted to help education,” he said this week. “I don’t deny we’re a good school district. We are, but that doesn’t excuse the misallocation of funds or a budget that’s not prioritized in the classroom or a lack of revenue generation.”

Not enough of the administrative budget has been trimmed, he said, at a time when scores of teachers are receiving pink slips — a charge incumbents have dismissed as baseless, noting reductions in the number of administrators over several years.

So far, his aggressive stand against the status quo has failed to gain traction with mainstream school advocacy groups.

A member of the group LEED, which has endorsed two newcomers for the school board but didn’t consider supporting Bley, told the Daily Press this week Bley is too aggressive and hasn’t expressed a policy vision for improving the district.

“He’s playing to a Tea Party, Republican audience, and this is not a Tea Party, Republican electorate,” the person said. (To put that characterization in perspective, it should be noted that Bley has been an organizer for the national Democratic Party and is supporting Measures Y and YY, which would increase the local sales tax by a half percent.)

LEED is instead backing challengers Laurie Lieberman and Patrick Cady — candidates the group says will bring to the board new voices along with nuanced understandings of the system.

But it’s yet to be seen whether Bley’s message will resonate with the average voter.

So far, he’s shown some fundraising prowess, bringing in $25,000 as of Oct. 1, second only to fellow challenger Nimish Patel, although the majority of that came in the form of a $15,000 contribution from his cousin, Richard Winter, a New York financier. (“He believes wholeheartedly in the changes I’m trying to make,” Bley explained).

A small group of supporters that includes some current and former students in the meantime is helping spread his message, hitting between 500 to 1,000 houses on weekends, he said.

It’s an outreach strategy that showed strength in 2008, when Bley, a special education teacher, rallied around parent anger toward the SMMUSD’s special ed program and received 21,240 votes, just behind third-place finisher Jose Escarce, who won a school board seat with 22,107 votes.

Heading into the final weeks of the 2010 campaign, Bley is showing no sign of letting up.

He said he didn’t receive support from groups like the Democratic Club of Santa Monica because he’s an outsider “who believes in saying things that need to be said and aren’t always popular.”

He likes his chances, even without a coalition of education activists behind him.

“Real change,” he said, is what his supporters want, and “it’s the current group of people [on the school board] that have helped to get us into this budgetary mess.”

nickt@www.smdp.com

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