Laurie Lieberman: Lieberman is an attorney. Courtesy photo

All candidates were given an opportunity to provide written answers to a set of questions provided by SMDP and two sets of answers will be printed each day. Answers are also available online alongside additional information from each candidate. 

SMMUSD has failed to solve the water/mold issue at SMASH/Muir for 20 years, why should the district be trusted with more money for construction projects if existing work is of such poor quality?

This question misstates the issues at Muir/SMASH.  The buildings at Muir/SMASH were built in 1996, long before anyone currently serving on the Board or working for the district were involved.  Recently commissioned expert reports indicated that the problems are attributable to the original building design and continuing to make piecemeal repairs is an inadequate solution.  To ensure student and staff safety and maintain the quality of instruction, the difficult decision was made to temporarily relocate both schools while the district undertakes comprehensive repairs.  Much work remains to modernize our campuses and the SMMUSD staff and governing board are well equipped to continue revitalizing aging learning spaces across the district.

As negotiations regarding Malibu unification continue, what impact has this ongoing issue had on the district’s ability to meet its core function of educating students and what would you do to bring the matter to a close?

Unification discussions are ongoing and have very little impact on the district’s ability to meet its core function of educating students.  SMMUSD schools in both Santa Monica and Malibu receive consistently high rankings and parent satisfaction is high. Nevertheless, I am committed to trying to resolve unification through mediation, striving to develop a fair and equitable resolution that will ensure the Santa Monica portion of the district will continue to have revenues that enable it to grow, thrive, and innovate.  

What does 21st Century Learning look like in the classroom and what does SMMUSD need to do to implement it? 

SMMUSD must continue to support initiatives like project-based/inquiry-based/student-centered learning.  We must continue to support teachers as they work to ensure that students work on relevant issues in collaborative settings that encourage hands-on learning. Supporting innovative cross-curricular classes, internships, student portfolios and presentations that include more than mere graded papers or exams require modernization of classroom and outdoor spaces that accommodate contemporary learning and teaching and are healthy and safe as well.

Describe your specific ideas for addressing the decades-long achievement gap. 

The achievement/opportunity gap is a national phenomenon.  Schools have a significant role to play but cannot defeat this without other social and economic changes.  Guided by Dr. Noguera’s equity report and recommendations, SMMUSD is steadily making progress in this area.  I believe addressing the achievement gap includes:

• Creation of a welcoming climate for all students 

• Providing quality pre-schools and engaging and culturally relevant curriculum K-12

• Identifying vulnerable/at-risk/at-promise students early, ensuring appropriate resources beginning in elementary school

• Embedding social justice standards and different points of view into K-12 curriculum

• Offering American Cultures and Ethnic Studies courses and promoting diversity in hiring

• Meeting students where they are and ensuring appropriate interventions and tutoring

• Listening to suggestions from affected parents and students and involving them in solutions

• Ensuring that every student has at least one SMMUSD employee to whom they feel connected; providing informal or formalized mentorship 

How should SMMUSD pivot in addressing the post-COVID mental health struggles of students? 

As is the case nationally, SMMUSD faces a serious mental health crisis in the wake of Covid.  Although our district has services at every site,  we need to ramp up staffing and tap into additional resources to be able to provide the necessary preventive and crisis help for all students who are suffering from mental health challenges.  The Governor has adopted a new master plan for students’ mental health, promising significant monies for schools to increase counselors and other intervention/treatment resources. SMMUSD also plans to partner with the City of Santa Monica and the non-profit community to build a mental health plan that will best meet the needs of our students.    

What can SMMUSD do to provide meaningful ways to encourage community input into decisions that results in outcomes catering to the majority of student needs?

The district solicits parent input in different ways.  One of the most effective ways is to have site administrators seek the input of their families when the district contemplates significant initiatives or changes.  Other productive sources of parent input include districtwide survey data, emails and public comment at Board meetings, District Advisory Committees on which parents serve and represent the community, and the involvement of parents through PTA Council and individual PTAs.

If you were reimagining the SMMUSD budget from scratch, how would you change the allocation of the District’s considerable resources?

The district’s “considerable resources” should be allocated in a manner that furthers the district’s mission of “Extraordinary achievement for all students while simultaneously closing the achievement gap.”  However, one fixed reality in the budget is that over 85% of revenues are committed to staffing.  Salaries and benefits must remain competitive to support retention of staff.  Ideas like class size reduction require tradeoffs as there is a finite pot of money and policies that are proven to enhance learning must be prioritized.  Special education must remain adequately funded out of general fund revenues because it is underfunded by the state and federal governments.  

Given enrollment trends, how should SMMUSD evaluate its real estate options and balance those against raising taxes to fund improvements, programs and excellence?

Improvement and modernization of facilities is necessary regardless of enrollment.  There are many pressing needs in our district, including the replacement of “temporary” bungalows on elementary campuses and the creation of 21st century spaces that support learning and teaching.  Security, health and safety needs must receive ongoing attention.  Selling off properties to fund these improvements is a bad and unnecessary idea.  If any re-evaluation of planned projects reveals that there is district property available based on enrollment trends, SMMUSD should consider how to partner with other entities to address youth-serving programs or even look at the potential for building “workforce housing.”