Two school sites within the Santa Monica and Malibu communities were given names last week with one naming process drumming up some controversy within the school board.

Point Dume’s consolidated campus and a district school site at 721 Ocean Park Boulevard (which houses Olympic High School, the district’s Adult Education program and more), were officially named at a May 30 Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District board meeting, with the sites being named Malibu Elementary and Michelle and Barack Obama Center for Inquiry and Exploration, respectively.  

While the Malibu Elementary naming process was lengthy and detailed, some felt the same steps weren’t adequately taken for the Michelle and Barack Obama Center for Inquiry and Exploration.

Isaac Burgess IV, Malibu’s Pathway Director (a position that reports to the superintendent, solely focused on the needs and concerns regarding Malibu schools), detailed the lengths he and his Naming Taskforce Committee took to come to a consensus on a school name.

Burgess said he and his committee first sought input from the school sites themselves then the broader Malibu community as to what the name for the new Malibu school’s name should be.

We have unique schools and communities merging with strong ties and beliefs there,” Burgess said. “They’re both great communities and we knew the importance of naming a new school and involving stakeholders.”

Burgess’s team sent out a survey tool via email to Malibu school district community members and, after receiving feedback and engaging with the community more, received about 300 variations for a school name.

The roughly 300 names were narrowed down to five — John and Amanda Balor Elementary, Westward, Malibu, Surfside and Ocean — and a weighted vote consisting of school staff and Malibu families was held via email to determine the new school name.

Malibu Elementary won with roughly 60% of the vote, with only perhaps two Malibu families not participating in the vote.

“We had pretty much everyone submit their vote,” Burgess said. “It was definitely a process but we wanted to get a consensus from all stakeholders.”

After Board approval for Malibu Elementary’s name, the conversation shifted to the proposed naming of  Michelle and Barack Obama Center for Inquiry and Exploration at the 721 Ocean Park Boulevard school site.

After the Board proposed the name at a May 16th school board meeting, staff directed the superintendent to ask the community for feedback on the name.

Board President Dr. Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein said staff received around 100 responses, mostly in support of the name.

Of the dissenting responses, he noted they were community members who either didn’t support the former president or felt the Obamas shouldn’t have the name as they lacked a local connection to the school district.

Tahvildaran-Jesswein noted that the board policy allows site naming to be made “for folks who have made major contributions to education at the national level.”

He stated that it wasn’t an individual being canonized, rather their ideals. Our convo on 16th we focused on politics of recognition and not canonize the individual but what they stood for.

“It’s about the inspiration, hope and joy of learning and education,” he said. “We all know the contributions Michelle has made to education and it’s important for us to include both. Naming matters. What this says to our community and to those persons we hope to bring a joy of learning to is that they are seen as important to this community.”

Boardmembers liked the name, but some did not like the process to choose the name.

Laurie Lieberman, who stressed she was supportive of the name choice, said the naming process should’ve hewn closer to Malibu’s.

“I’m not a stickler for all processes being the same, not all circumstances are the same, but I want us to learn from this,” she said.

“I would’ve preferred to engage more people. When people are apart of something, they want to celebrate it because it’s theirs, too. It didn’t just come from up high. We should respect that not everyone from our community shares every single political view or views we have.”

She noted that some who even supported the Obamas felt that the building shouldn’t be politicized and perhaps named after someone in Santa Monica of great historical significance.

Maria Leon-Vazquez echoed Lieberman’s thoughts, adding she felt many were left out of this conversation. Leon-Vazquez wasn’t in attendance at the May 16 board meeting where the item came up and said she was disappointed in her colleagues, saying there was no rush to name this location.

“There should’ve been a discussion about a process and having an invitation,” she said. “I see programs being put on Olympic High School, now with PBL (project-based learning) and capstone pieces, and having had a discussion with the community, this is their campus and they can’t even pick a name for their campus.”

Board member Craig Foster countered the pushback on the process, noting Malibu Elementary is a school and the 721 Ocean Park Boulevard site is a district facility housing a number of schools.

“Olympic is still Olympic,” Foster began. “This doesn’t take away from Olympic or OCLC. For a facility, it is appropriate that it’s more top down.  

“The name ‘Obama’ represented a changed future, everything about him and what he stood for and achieved. Combine Michelle’s work in education with his and all this makes me think this is a wonderful vision for this facility. Every child needs to see themselves in school and I think by naming this facility in this way, I hope we show every child they can see themselves, that we value them, that schools are more than dead presidents and founders.

“We want everyone in this district and town to know that we have a vision of inclusion and excellence and innovation. I think the Obama name embodies that completely.”

Jon Kean followed up, opining that the conversation started a discussion about important people in SaMo history, wondering if notable Santa Monicans and their history could be better integrated into district day-to-day operations or school curriculum.

“Not everyone needs their name on a school building but everybody needs to be remembered,” he said.

Public comment was enthusiastic from the two speakers present.

“We’ve had a lot of things happen in Santa Monica,” public speaker Erica Leslie said. “White supremacists, shootings, you name it. Tragedies. But of everything we can do, we need to do something for our children that inspires hope. That’s what Obama inspired.”

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