CITY HALL — The vice chair of the school district’s Financial Oversight Committee resigned from her post Tuesday over concerns that the Board of Education subverted the nomination process to quell dissent on a sometimes vocal committee.
In her letter of resignation, Joan Chu Reese expressed her anger and frustration that the board decided to look for candidates to replace three incumbents on the board for what she believed to be politically motivated reasons.
“I see a part of the board increasingly taking alarming steps to control members of the FOC whom they deem to be too active, outspoken or independent relative to the board’s own point of view,” Reese wrote.
In years past, three to four members of the committee interviewed potential candidates and recommended the best of those to the whole membership. Those candidates come to the board, which normally appoints them to the committee through a consent calendar vote.
That didn’t happen this year.
Almost three weeks before Reese resigned, the Board of Education authorized three of its members to interview people who had applied for the three open seats rather than automatically reappoint the incumbents that the FOC’s own nominating committee put forward.
Those incumbents included David Vukadinovich, Cynthia Torres and Reese.
That was an unusual move, and one that hasn’t been pursued for other advisory committees, school board member, Nimish Patel said.
There was a perception amongst members of the committee that the sudden resistance was in response to statements read by Torres on behalf of the FOC at the Nov. 17 board meeting asking the board to slow the pace on a policy shift toward districtwide fundraising, a controversial policy that switched the responsibility to raise money for programs from parent groups to the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation.
Other statements focusing on the effectiveness of the Education Foundation and its ability to fulfill its new role took fire as well, said Craig Foster, a member of the FOC.
Tom Larmore, a former member of the FOC, attended the March 1 board meeting to speak against the decision out of fear that refusing to reappoint the incumbents could send the wrong message to new members.
“If you convey to old members and new members that you’re not welcome if you express views contrary to some board members, people will think, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Larmore said.
People’s perceptions differ, said board member Jose Escarce, but the board had no intention of diminishing the FOC.
“The only thing I can say is that I don’t see it,” Escarce said. “We have the same discussions with the FOC we’ve always had.”
The Board of Education does have the authority to appoint members of the FOC, but the value of the committee comes from its aura of independence as it oversees the spending habits of the district.
Creating a subcommittee to take an active role in interviewing members for the FOC but no other advisory committee caused problems, Patel said.
“I don’t think we were sensitive to the perception we were creating. We’re not applying the same process to some of our other (advisory committees),” Patel said. “I think if we do it for only one DAC or one year … it sends out the wrong message.”
Patel served on the FOC between 2008 and 2010 before running for school board in 2010. Board President Ben Allen also served on the committee. Both were thanked in Reese’s resignation letter for their defense of the FOC’s nominees.
The board and the FOC have historically had a tense relationship. The FOC has been in existence since the time of former Superintendent Neil Schmidt. Its role expanded in the early 2000s when the City Council and Board of Education created the first joint use agreement which funneled approximately $6 million a year into the district in return for access to playing fields.
There is still room to fix the relationship between the board and the FOC, but only if each is allowed to fulfill their role as policy makers and oversight body, Reese said.
“I sincerely hope that the board can come to some resolution with the FOC that is consistent with the core purpose of the FOC as a body with the duty to provide independent financial oversight before permanent damage is done to both the FOC and to the reputation of the board itself,” Reese concluded.