MY WRITE — The “do nothing” Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education is way overdue for a shake-up. Thanks to dedicated teachers, most of our kids do get a good education – but not as good as it could be.
Years of cronyism, buck passing, social justice agendas, power politics and lack of imagination have resulted in schools that lag behind their potential. Our schools are always in crisis. The achievement gap is as wide as ever. Proficiency scores for the various racial groups still vary widely although Class of 2013 graduation rates have improved.
Because of the clubbiness of the school board incumbents, PTA cheerleaders and the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Right political cliques, there’s an established culture of “let’s get along” and “make nice” to each other. Problems are ignored, deferred or swept under the rug and nobody is held accountable when things go south.
The present board has ignored numerous serious issues. The toxic ground pollution problems at Malibu schools hasn’t been adequately addressed. It may be putting students and teachers at risk and is costing the district credibility.
The SMMUSD’s inept handling of two incidents involving athletic coaches at Santa Monica High School is inexcusable. In April, a well-publicized classroom scuffle between science teacher/wrestling coach Mark Black and an 18-year-old student allegedly selling marijuana in Santa Monica High School was completely mismanaged.
The board seemed oblivious to the mishandling of the incident and the resulting bad press.
A few months later, successful boys baseball coach Kurt Schwengel was fired and replaced by a “friend of a friend” with limited high-school level coaching experience who had bypassed the usual multi-step hiring process.
A “new” policy of requiring all Samohi coaches to be on the Samohi faculty (Schwengel teaches at Franklin Elementary School) seems to have been created only to justify the termination. Superintendent Sandra Lyon emailed me, “… the process engaged in was not in violation of any district personnel practice.”
This is cronyism at its worst. Samohi and its athletic programs have been sullied by cheap politics and mutual back-scratching. Alumni are unhappy and donors have left. So, what did the school board do? Zip.
The board is responsible for insuring that the SMMUSD is on solid financial footage.
The district’s new “one pot” policy has reduced donations at many individual school sites, but thanks to increases in contributions to the Educational Foundation and additional revenue from Sacramento, the district is in better financial shape than two years ago.
Nobody has bothered to explore the licensing of “Samohi Vikings” or “Malibu Sharks.” names and logos. “Hollister” make millions for Abercrombie and Fitch. The district’s relationship to the area’s unique and highly marketable surf and skate culture is fiscally unrealized. Meanwhile, the board can only float parcel tax measures – requiring taxpayers to make up for their lack of initiative.
The DoubleTree Hotel on Fourth Street in the Civic Center is on school property and pays rent to the SMMUSD. In May, a representative from Unite Here hospitality union pointed out to the board that in addition to a fixed rent, the tenant’s lease requires five percent of the hotel’s “profit” to be paid.
Since the lease was signed in 1987, the district’s tenant has annually claimed no percentage rent is owed because the hotel hasn’t been profitable. However, no back-up whatsoever for this claim has been provided.
It also appears that neither the board nor the district’s Chief Financial Officer has ever asked for an audit of the tenant’s books. It’s hard to imagine that with Santa Monica’s booming tourist industry – $344-million in hotel revenues in 2013 – the DoubleTree has never turned a profit.
Percentage rent revenues amounting to millions of dollars may have been lost, but we may never know. Predictably, my request last week for updates from top SMMUSD administrators on their tenant’s profit status received no response. Maybe all parties are still waiting to hear from the DoubleTree or they just don’t care.
Nobody on the present board, including the three incumbents, is doing their job. Not following up on a potentially important potential revenue source is gross negligence.
Seven candidates are running for four board seats. They are teacher Craig Foster; college admissions consultant Patty Finer, Santa Monica College professor Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein and teacher Dhun May plus incumbents Pico Youth Center Administrator Oscar de la Torre, architect Ralph Mechur and attorney Laurie Lieberman.
My top choice for the board is Craig Foster who is committed to an excellent academic experience for all students. He is also a member of the district’s Financial Oversight Committee.
There’s nobody from Malibu currently on the school board and Foster answers that need. He’ll bring a new vitality and commitment to our student’s education, demand positive results from top administrators and won’t tolerate cronyism, cover-ups and buck-passing.
If you eliminate the incumbents, that leaves Finer, May and Tahvildaran-Jesswein but they don’t impress me. It’s a difficult conundrum, so Foster gets my one and only vote.
SMC Board of Trustees
Santa Monicans will also be voting for four positions on the Santa Monica Community College District Board of Trustees.
SMC Professor Dennis C.W. Frisch, non-profit director Mara Loya and incumbent trustees SMC Professor Andrew W. Walzer, Nancy Greenstein, Louise Jaffe, and appointed trustee Barry Snell are also running.
I’m voting for Frisch, Walzer, Greenstein and Jaffe because they are the best qualified and have the right credentials, motivation and experience to properly oversee SMC.
Bill can be reached at email@example.com