At the forum: Candidates face questions from Samohi student leaders. Courtesy photo

Students took the mic this week as hosts of a public forum with candidates running for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board in the upcoming November election.

The forum, held by the Samohi Parent Teacher Association (PTA) Executive Board and facilitated by three Samohi students on Tuesday night, featured all but one of the seven candidates vying for four spots on the board. Miles Warner was not present.

Those in attendance — first-time candidates Angela DiGaetano, Alicia Mignano, Esther Hickman and Stacy Rouse and incumbents Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein and Laurie Lieberman — found common ground and shared values in response to most of the students’ questions.

All of the candidates expressed concern and desire to take action in regard to the bathroom facilities at Samohi and other SMMUSD campuses, particularly all-gender bathrooms, which the students said were “in a state of disrepair” due to not being cleaned often enough, and frequently were not open or accessible. 

They also unanimously expressed a desire for more career and technical education opportunities for high schoolers, more green spaces on campuses, a financial literacy course at the high school level and some form of limitation on the amount of homework students receive. 

However, the issue of class size, which several candidates list as a key focus of their campaigns, proved more contentious. While all candidates agreed that smaller class size is beneficial to students, they differed in their ideas of how to best accomplish it. 

DiGaetano said she views the number of administrative positions in the District as part of the problem.

“I think the real issue here is that there has been a continuation of hiring of administration and not teachers, and if we had more teachers, we would have lower class sizes,” she said. “I would really like to take a look at the equity between where the budget is going in terms of admin versus teachers because everyone knows, [with] lower class sizes you work better and you learn better.” 

Lieberman, who has been on the board since 2010, disagreed. 

“We’ve actually cut administration over the last several years pretty much as far as we can cut it, so, I don’t think finding the money is necessarily a question of finding more administrators to cut,” she said.

Lieberman and Tahvildaran-Jesswein also both said teachers needed to be kept in mind and involved in decision-making.

“There are issues that have to be discussed which involve: Do we raise salaries for existing teachers or do we keep salaries static in order to add more teachers and reduce classes?” Lieberman said.  

Hickman noted that SMMUSD is one of the wealthiest districts in the region and said that smaller class sizes should be achievable through reprioritizing the budget, something she said she would do as a board member. Rouse, the only candidate from Malibu, said she would take a similar approach by re-working the budget.

“I think we should make that a bar to have lower class sizes in K-12 through our district and be willing to invest the money there and really put our budget on the table,” she said.

Election day is Nov. 8 and vote-by-mail ballots have already been sent. For more information on each of the candidates visit: smdp.com/tag/election-2022 

grace@smdp.com