It started as a routine agenda item as the Santa Monica-Malibu Board of Education prepared to hear from district advisory committee representatives about their goals for the school year.

But it quickly turned into a prolonged philosophical debate as school board members discussed the role the committees should play in shaping policy for the school district.

What sparked the conversation at the school board’s first September meeting was a presentation by Alan Kapen, who stood before the governing body to share the goals of the district’s child development committee.

Kapen mentioned that the committee was hoping to craft a five-year plan for neighborhood preschools on all elementary campuses in SMMUSD, a proposal that seemed to catch school board members off guard.

“I don’t know realistically what it means for you to take that on as a charge,” said board president Laurie Lieberman, the board liaison for Kapen’s committee. “I’m concerned … I don’t mean this to be critical. I just wonder what’s really viable for our DAC to do.”

The district currently has advisory committees on child development, as well as English language learners, health and safety, intercultural equity, special education, and visual and performing arts. The groups typically meet monthly to discuss ongoing issues and provide insight for board members and administrators. Each committee has board representation and a staff liaison.

The board reviews committee goals annually.

“It is not the intention that advisory committees become policy-making bodies or that they manage or direct staff,” board policy reads. “Committees are advisory in nature only; that is, they inform, suggest, and recommend to the Board of Education.”

Board member Ralph Mechur said the work of the committees should be aligned with what the board and district are doing. The child development group’s work on a preschool plan, for example, should follow guidance from Superintendent Sandra Lyon, he said.

“We’re looking at charges or objectives being brought to us by our DACs and then we’re in a position to green-light or red-light and without having done the substantive work of mapping [objectives],” board member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein said. “We’ve got to commit ourselves to a retreat where we sit down and say, ‘OK, what do we need from this DAC and that DAC?'”

Maria Leon-Vazquez, who has participated on several district advisory committees, said the groups should be allowed to move forward with their plans for 2015-2016. She said it’s up to the board and staff representatives to keep the committees on task.

“It feels like the committees are moving further than what’s happening on staff or what the district is doing,” she said. “As liaisons, we have to make sure we keep abreast of what’s going on, and if they’re straying from what the district is doing we have to bring them back.”

Lieberman said it’s not always clear how the advisory committees are supposed to function.

“There’s a lack of clarity overall about how the parts fit together,” she said. “The ones that work the best function, in a way, as a support system for the staff person, which is not what they were created for. I don’t have a solution for all of this, but if they work with their staff then there’s more likely to be alignment.”

Tahvildaran-Jesswein said the committees should aim to work within the parameters of PERCS, a district acronym for overarching themes with which Kapen was not familiar: professional learning communities; equity and access; response to instruction and intervention; Common Core state standards; and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“We have to move forward in a definitive way as a board … where we’re having a conversation about what [we want to see] from our DACs,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein said.

Members of other advisory committees were planning to present to the board Thursday, but those dialogues were put on hold. Arts committee member Zina Josephs, for one, was not pleased.

“This is extremely frustrating,” she said.

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