Although the school year isn’t new, the Santa Monica-Malibu Board of Education is taking the start of 2016 as an opportunity to reflect, review and revise.
During a special meeting at 4 p.m. Thursday at district headquarters, school board members and other district administrators will work with a facilitator “to discuss board and leadership team practices as well as effective governance procedures,” according to an SMMUSD report. The retreat is open to the public.
The gathering comes at a pivotal crossroads for the district, which is currently dealing with several major issues that could impact schools and students for years to come.
The school board last month approved guidelines for negotiations between Santa Monica and Malibu teams regarding a potential split of the district. Complicating the talks are numerous financial considerations, including millions of dollars in outstanding bond money, as well as an ongoing legal battle between the district and Malibu advocates over chemical testing and cleanup at Malibu schools.
SMMUSD is also adjusting to a recently implemented centralized fundraising system and taking on more responsibility in how it manages state funds through a Local Control and Accountability Plan.
In addition, the district is working with renowned educator and sociologist Pedro Noguera in an attempt to close academic achievement gaps that have persisted along racial lines.
The retreat also arrives as the school board considers restructuring its regular meetings. Last month, board members discussed staff recommendations for two different kinds of meetings.
One type would be more procedural and feature reports from staff, union and Parent Teacher Association leaders as well as budget items, consent items and a study session. Public comments would be heard in their current place in the meeting structure, after consent items, and additional time could be provided at the end of the meeting.
The other kind of meeting would be more substantive and focus on issues related to instruction, policy and district business. Members of the public would be allowed to comment at the end of those meetings.
“It’s inevitable that people are going to come and expect to be able to speak,” board member Jose Escarce said.
District staffers have been soliciting feedback from board members regarding the proposed changes and drafting meeting structures that the board is expected to approve this month. The board will evaluate the new formats toward the end of the school year, according to an SMMUSD report.
Questions about the process have resurfaced several times in the district since the start of the school year.
In September, a report to the board by a member of a district advisory committee sparked debate over the role of the volunteer panels in SMMUSD matters.
“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 at the time. “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?’”
In October, board member Oscar de la Torre asked for clarification on protocol for communicating with district contractors. He had previously recused himself on a vote for a payment to then-Mayor Kevin McKeown, a technology consultant for the district, after Santa Monica City Council voted to strip funding from his nonprofit Pico Youth and Family Center. McKeown recused himself from that vote after hearing that de la Torre had tried reaching him through district channels.