An internal election at the most recent Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education meeting on Dec. 16 has installed Maria Leon-Vazquez — the district’s longest-serving representative — to her third term as president. Leon-Vazquez was first elected to the school board in 2000; she was re-elected for her sixth term on the board in 2020.

Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, now in his second term on the board, was elected to sit as board vice president. Tahvildaran-Jesswein previously served as president in 2018 and again in 2019.

Leon-Vazquez takes over from outgoing SMMUSD President Jon Kean, who served as President in 2020 and 2021, and Vice President Laurie Lieberman, who has served as either president or vice president in seven of the past 10 years.

“It was a rough year — a very, very rough year, and it continues,” Leon-Vazquez reflected in comments toward outgoing president Kean. “But, you know, for all intents and purposes, you led the charge. You and Laurie both led the charge. And I appreciate that, despite, like I said, the hard times we had to go through. But thank you. There’s a lot of work that goes [on] behind [the scenes] in terms of getting ready for these meetings and putting everything in line for us to get ready for these meetings and all these other committee meetings. So, thank you both. I think you’ve done a great job and you’re still part of the board, so we’re all going to be working together. My dear, dear, thank you, sir, for all the hard work that you’ve done. And also, I hope you’ll be able to sleep better after this.”

Kean praised Lieberman.

“I want to thank you for your moral clarity [and] your high level of ethics,” Kean said of his vice president. “You are — those who know you know that you are beyond reproach, which is why it’s interesting that people who don’t know you may make aspersions. But I just want to say, I can’t imagine having a better partner for these two years.”

He also addressed divisiveness in the Santa Monica school community, which he said has grown over the years he sat as president.

“The past two years have led to a division in our community, a lack of trust among segments. We know that it is a smaller group of our population, of our community, that harbors these feelings,” Kean said. “I truly hope that as Laurie and I move into other chairs … that hopefully the members of this community that support the direction of this district and support learning and opportunities for all students in this district will come together and once again champion the work of this district moving forward—as opposed to trying to burn it down, they will build it up and support the new leadership and support this board. And if me not holding this gavel is a step in the right direction, I am all for it.”

District staff

At the same meeting, the SMMUSD Board revealed it had given Superintendent Ben Drati a unanimous satisfactory evaluation during a closed-door hearing the previous week. The board voted to renew Drati’s contract, which was set to expire in June 2022, for an additional three years.

Drati’s new contract runs through June 30, 2025, and offers an annual base salary of $265,000, with a built-in minimum 3 percent annual raise, meaning Drati will make at least $272,950 for the 2023-24 school year and $281,138 for the 2024-25 school year, as long as he earns a satisfactory performance evaluation from the board each year.

Drati was first hired by the district in 2016.

City Council

City Council will not be selecting a new mayor and mayor pro tempore to serve in 2022, with current Mayor Sue Himmelrich and Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan retaining their titles into the new year. In December 2020, both Himmelrich and McCowan broke with precedent and declined nominations for one-year terms.

Himmelrich said she would only accept a two-year term, citing her personal need for a longer term to justify scaling back her legal work and a community need for continuity in leadership during the pandemic.