For the first time in generations, voters — especially parents — have a real choice for school board. They can choose to continue decades of opaque, backroom bureaucracy by the same politically-connected operatives directly responsible for the sinking ship that is SMMUSD — or they can elect a new majority of district parents focused squarely on transparency, fiscal accountability, quality classroom instruction and responding to the needs of families rather than monied special interests.
Incumbents Laurie Lieberman and Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein are already frontrunners in fundraising — but not because of parents. Lieberman has served since 2010 and Tahvildaran-Jesswein since 2014, yet their support is conspicuously comprised of donations from fellow politicians who, like Lieberman and Tahvildaran-Jesswein, have no children in the district. They are further dogged by questions over whether they assisted fellow incumbent Keith Coleman — who has now dropped out of the race — in a cover-up of the apparent fact, now documented on video, that he does not live in the district.
Though current Board President Maria Leon-Vazquez is not up for re-election for another two years, she remains part of the same do-nothing, ethically compromised, politically-connected majority — elected in 2012 and then automatically re-seated in 2016 for lack of opposition. Like her compatriots and partners in incompetence, Leon-Vazquez has no children in the district.
Why are people with no skin in the game so intent on winning the game? Tahvildaran-Jesswein and Leon-Vazquez are both connected to SMC, which stands to reap a small fortune from its present arrangements with SMMUSD. Leon-Vazquez is also married to former SM Councilman and current Chair of the State Board of Equalization, Tony Vazquez. Lieberman, meanwhile, is married to powerful local land use attorney Chris Harding whose hands are so deeply embedded in so much of the city’s and district’s lucrative construction efforts that Lieberman is forced to regularly recuse herself on votes where the conflict of interest is too great to ignore.
What is the legacy of this politically-connected cabal? Deep learning loss (especially for special education students), a widening learning gap for disadvantaged students, widespread mental health problems, crisis-level disenrollment and a refusal to collect, much less disseminate, any data that might reveal meaningful disparities between communities, grades or schools. Construction projects are conceived without community input and executed in defiance of community concerns. Major expenditures end up buried in the district’s consent calendar, denying the public any opportunity to scrutinize or debate spending priorities. Efforts to seek greater transparency on these matters invariably end up quashed as the district ignores virtually all Public Records Act requests, violating statutory deadlines with impunity. Since 2015, district enrollment has dropped 20%, many SAMOHI juniors and seniors have class sizes exceeding 35 students, district debt has swollen, and the overall number of teachers has plummeted while district bureaucracy has exploded.
More of all that is what special interest and political donations are intent on buying.
Fortunately, families have a choice this year. Angela DiGaetano, Esther Hickman, Miles Warner and Stacy Rouse are district parents who represent the change and accountability this district has never had — and desperately needs. And what we need are more teachers, smaller class sizes, fiscal accountability that insures money makes its way first and foremost to the classroom, administration that hears and responds to the concerns of parents, and special attention where needed for athletics, GATE and Honors programs, IEP and all of our infinitely unique and beautiful students who simply need to know that they and their families are loved and appreciated — and not just a number on some careerist bureaucrat’s dataset. It’s time to elect actual district parents — not politicians — and turn the ship around. It’s time for new blood. The incumbents have already had enough of ours.
Wade Major, Malibu