After several cycles of relatively uncontested elections, there are now six challengers and two incumbents pursuing three School Board positions and competing for a range of potential endorsements.
So far Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, Community for Excellence in Public Schools, and the L.A. County Democratic Party have made their selections. The Santa Monica Malibu Classroom Teachers Association and the Santa Monica Democratic Club will announce their picks on Sep 16.
SMRR endorsed incumbents Jon Kean and Maria Leon-Vazquez as did LACDP, but while SMRR selected newcomer Jen Smith as their third pick LACDP opted for Keith Coleman. CEPS endorsed four candidates for three spots by selecting Kean, Vazquez, Smith, and Coleman.
So far the incumbents Jon Kean and Maria Vazquez have received a majority of the key endorsements, which reflects a historical trend where incumbents are more likely to receive endorsements and be reelected. However, this race differs from previous ones as there are several new challengers running partially in response to the frequent reelection of incumbents.
While some of the challengers are enthusiastically applying for endorsements, others feel their energy is better invested in alternative strategies.
“There was a range of opinions on how much consideration someone like me, who would be considered an outsider, would actually get and based on how time consuming it is, if applying for endorsements would be worth it,” said Jason Feldman, a first time candidate. “I decided that the members are all voters and speaking to anybody about the issues, what I care about, and why I am in the race seems like a positive thing.”
Feldman applied for the SMRR, SMMCTA, LACDP, SMDC, and CEPS endorsements, and while he has not received any of these endorsements yet, he did receive an endorsement from the Stonewall Democratic Club and 36 individuals.
“It was definitely a lot harder as an outsider. The incumbents have been in this game for a while and there is a certain way to maximize your chances,” said Feldman. “Some of these candidates have been on these committees, have held positions in these committees, so they are personally familiar with many of the members.”
Feldman is running on a joint slate of challengers, which also includes Esther Hickman and Steven Johnson. According to Johnson, their slate is allied with the City Council anti-incumbent slate which includes Oscar de la Torre, Christine Parra, Phil Brock, and Mario Fonda-Bonardi.
The School Board challengers seek to offer a coordinated alternative to the incumbents and are running on a platform of increased transparency, reigning in spending, and advocating for teachers.
Hickman and Johnson have been much less active in the endorsement application process than Feldman, but are both seeking endorsement from the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association.
“The only endorsement I particularly care about that I’m willing to work for right now is the teachers union,” said Johnson. “The layoffs this spring inspired me to run. No one was speaking out for the teachers at the board meetings.”
“I am participating in the process, but I’m not attached or necessarily going after endorsements,” said Hickman. “Right now it’s really about me being a parent; it’s really about our slate going after transparency and accountability and the administration and the board being public servants to the taxpayers and their families.”
Both Hickman and Johnson were latecomers to the race and said they were not included several of the earlier endorsement application processes.
Jen Smith is also a first time candidate, but unlike the slated group she is not running a campaign against incumbents and has received endorsements from five current School Board members. She has also been endorsed by three city council members, SMRR, and CEPs.
“The values of the organizations that endorse you show you who your candidate is,” said Smith. “I was definitely honored to get the SMRR endorsement, I have a lot of respect for the work they do in the community. I’ve been a renter in Santa Monica in a rent controlled apartment for 20 years.”
Smith is well known by the existing board, having twice served as PTA president and was endorsed by Kean and Vazquez.
Keith Coleman is also a first time candidate who is not aligned with the anti-incumbent group. However, his platform does emphasize bringing change and innovation to the board based on his background in education innovation, public policy, and technology.
“I’m not running a negative campaign because my focus is really more about finding solutions to the challenges that are facing the District,” said Coleman. “However, I do recognize that having lengthy time in an environment can often cause an individual to become less innovative as humans can become bound by habit.”
Coleman has received endorsements from CEPS, LACDP, School Board members Ralph Mechur and Craig Foster, and Councilwoman Kristin McCowan.
“I think that endorsements are overrated in the sense that they can miss the mark in people listening to and understanding who a person really is,” said Coleman. “I am thankful that these individuals have endorsed me, but I think what’s more important is people listening to and or reading the narrative that an individual brings forward.”
Kean, who is finishing his first term on the school board, acknowledges that experience and a proven track record are essential qualifications, but also believes that endorsements are powerful in this race.
“Endorsements are important, especially for a school board race where most of the voters do not have school age children, said Kean. “How do voters make up their minds when they don’t have a lot of knowledge about the school district? Usually it is friends telling them who they are voting for or it’s seeing endorsements from elected leaders or groups who they respect.”