Students leave Franklin Elementary School on the first day of classes. (Daniel Archuleta

SMMUSD HDQTRS — With morning bells ringing in the start of the academic school year, parents in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School district look for ways to play an active role in their children’s education — be it at the dinner table helping with homework or on-site as a member of the PTA.

For both parents and community members, the local district offers a greater opportunity to take part in shaping the future of education through District Advisory Committees, or DACs.

The nine committees and their members are appointed by the Board of Education to focus on particular issues such as special education or English learners, to help board members make informed district-wide decisions.

As the board’s policy on DACs, adopted in 1994, states: “It is not the intention that advisory committees become policy-making bodies or that they manage or direct staff. Committees are advisory in nature only; that is, they inform, suggest, and recommend to the Board of Education.”

Despite committee chairs and members valuing their participation, in the last few years DACs have had a harder time getting applications in bulk to fill vacancies.

Recently 24 of 49 total DAC openings were filled showing a slight increase in applications only after due dates were moved from mid-school year to the summer.

While membership recruitment is ongoing throughout the year, interviews with DAC members and board members reveal certain factors and conditions prospective applicants should keep in mind.


Frustrating limitations


Debra Shepherd volunteered a significant amount of her time as the former chair of the Special Education DAC, averaging 20 hours a week with planning and reviewing studies. Most chairs and members of other committees reported contributing much fewer hours per week — about two hours, not including additional time for research and visiting schools.

Given the time she offered and the costs that went into funding a study she reviewed, Shepherd said she grew frustrated when members of the board did not follow through with a motion to establish a policy that would enforce respect and civility among staff and administrators, as recommended by the 2008 Independent Evaluation of Special Education Program by Lou Barber.

“People get fed up with providing their time and not have their concerns heard or have their recommendations followed,” Shepherd said.

She added that she often felt board members lacked understanding of the issues and concerns within the special education community, especially when board liaisons would either fail to show at committee meetings or failed to demonstrate attentiveness when present.

Ralph Mechur, one of the school board liaisons for the Special Education committee, said that while district staff reviewed and addressed all issues brought before them from this group, some argued that they didn’t go far enough.

Mechur added that there will be reports and comments that are presented to the board which may or may not be followed through depending on whether the board felt those were appropriate changes to make.

Nimish Patel, board liaison for Special Education among others, said that while DACs do provide important insights for the final votes, they must ultimately be limited to their advisory nature.

“We can’t give away the power of elected board members to appointed committee members,” Patel said.

Another concern Shepherd raised was that certain DACs would receive more support from the board if they covered issues for which board members already had a vested interest.

Zina Josephs, secretary for the Visual and Performing Arts committee, said that while financial constraints have been the main reason why recommendations may not be enacted for her DAC, support from individual board liaisons may help get their voices heard higher up.

Board member Ben Allen said that serving as a board liaison grants exposure to certain issues that inevitably may create more personal interest in the topic.

“It can’t help but influence the way you can think of the district and your role as a board member,” Allen said.

While Mechur affirmed that no one DAC has more prominence over another in the eyes of the board, Patel argued that certain DACs may receive more attention than others based on burning issues of the day.

Patel explained that if there is an incident involving race, the Intercultural Equity and Excellence DAC would have more opportunities to present their cases and recommendations since they would be the most knowledgeable on the subject.

Zakiya, a member of the intercultural DAC, noted that special interests would come up in meetings from other committee members who would take up most of the allotted time to discuss concerns specific to Santa Monica High School.

Vocal members can play a major role in determining how much attention they get from the board.

“The system is designed to be equal, but if you have certain members that advocate more, they get presented to the board more,” Patel said.

Patricia Nolan, chair of the Health and Safety DAC, said that since her committee covers more general topics, it has the benefit of neutrality more so than others that address subsets of communities.

While she can’t speak for others’ experiences, Nolan herself has not witnessed any personal biases from committee or board members.

“I would like to think that board members, as part of their judiciary responsibility, feel that they really have to consider everybody’s side,” Nolan said.


Lack of a Malibu voice


Where Nolan does see an issue is when it comes to Malibu representation.

While Malibu represents 17 percent of the student population within the district, committee membership from Malibu is far less.

“Malibu representation is weak at best,” Patel said.

While efforts to create a separate school district for Malibu are ramping up, SMMUSD has addressed the lack of a Malibu voice by having each DAC host two meetings in Malibu during the school year and specifically asking for a Malibu resident to fill in the recent vacancy on the Financial Oversight Committee.

However, Jan Maez, chief financial officer for the district, said that not many applications have come in for the oversight committee opening and they may have to open it up to Santa Monica residents.

Nolan, who lives in the portion of Topanga Canyon that is included in SMMUSD, said that even with meetings hosted in Malibu, the geographic distance and traffic dissuades members from Santa Monica to make the drive north.

She explained that while Malibu representation for leadership roles within the Health and Safety DAC has been strong, membership from that area is disappointing as most do not have her benefit of working in Santa Monica where she can easily make it to district headquarters in one commute.

Allen said that while a telecommunication system can be possible to entice Malibu residents to participate, the setting for the conversations still needs to be a public space and having members in a different location doesn’t offer a long-term solution.

“It’s a diminished experience. It could end up being a solitary experience,” Allen said.

Nolan, on the other hand, would still prefer a telecommunication system or at least would like to see some other effort to boost participation numbers.


Still a worthwhile endeavor


Despite her unsatisfactory experience as a DAC chair, Shepherd said that parents and community members interested in participating on a committee must insist to have the board put their best foot forward and make information provided by DACs a priority.

Zakiya, who promotes more parent involvement on DACs, said that parents owe it to themselves to make their voices heard in this advisory format.

“When you have a child, if you’re not a part of the conversation your child is not part of the conversation,” Zakiya said.

Nolan, whose DAC helped spark a successful project to have more nurses at school sites, said that she considers the DACs to be a good first step for anyone who wants to be involved in discussing the future of education.

Allen said that despite the limited nature of the committees and any other bumps along the way, participation is still crucial.

“At the end of the day the DACs are an important part of the decision-making process,” Allen said, “but not the only part.”

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