The following is an analysis of the race from the SMDP Editorial Board.
Santa Monica has excellent public schools. Samohi ranks in the top six percent of schools in the state, the district has balanced its budget for several years and is considered among the top 10 districts in the state for the quality of its teachers.
Santa Monica has not just good, but great schools and to argue otherwise shows either a willingness to lie or a woefully inept understanding of public education. Both are true to some degree of the groups loudly demanding change in the school district. What’s most interesting about this year’s race is that the actual candidates running do not echo the lies or some of the more extreme rhetoric. What’s even more interesting is that the “opposition” candidates don’t really overlap in many ways apart from a desire to “unseat the establishment.”
There’s always someone who wants to run for office when faced with a high-performing district and challengers are often unqualified either by temperament or ability. That’s not the case this year. Every candidate running for the SMMUSD Board is as qualified as the incumbents (or one of the other challengers) to hold the seat. None are running purely to boost their own egos and all of them have skills or experiences that can be of meaningful use to our public schools.
With only two incumbents running and four open seats, there will be new blood on the board.
There’s an easy shortcut for individuals who are justifiably happy with the current direction of the District. Vote for Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, Laurie Lieberman, Alicia Mignano and Stacy Rouse.
Tahvildaran-Jesswein and Lieberman are the two incumbents and of the five challengers, Mignano and Rouse are the most copacetic with the current board. Mignano has chosen not to criticize the current board and is instead adopting a message respectful of the current board while stating her desire to make improvements. Rouse is a Malibu resident and, while she has the backing of a community that is angry at the status quo, she is not an angry candidate. Rouse’s presence would preserve the Malibu voice being lost with the departure of Craig Foster and her personal approach appears highly collaborative. Rouse is the candidate with the most universal support and, as we look at the status of the race, we think she’s a lock for one of the four seats.
The other three challengers, Esther Hickman, Miles Warner and Angela DiGaetano, are campaigning angry. Their specific policy proposals do not overlap as much as you’d expect for a slate, but they all represent groups of residents who have complaints. Those are, by and large, not actually about academic outcomes but are still valid and meaningful to their respective constituencies.
Much like the Council race, the question for the opposition group is one of turnout. Are there enough people alienated from the current board to form a coalition of a thousand cuts?
You can’t spend years making decisions without eventually angering everyone. Not all at once, mind you, but every time you assign money to priority A, there’s less for priority B. Every book added to the library, teacher’s aid assigned to a classroom, equipment purchase, discontinued program or new service carries with it someone who wanted something else.
The hard feelings over those situations have grown over time, throughout COVID, and have been amplified by social media. Some on the current board have done little to attempt to heal and rebuild bridges, and that shows.
That need to feel represented is currently manifesting in questions of construction priorities and, to a lesser degree, student safety, mental health and the move to project-based learning. In recent years, it focused on COVID-related closures, masks and vaccine mandates. Prior to that, Malibu’s long gestating split, special education programs and historic preservation were concerns. A recent court decision against the District this week may bring special needs students back into the spotlight as the race winds up.
None of these issues are about student outcomes but they have all motivated different groups of parents to get involved. Many of those parents feel the Board didn’t listen to their concerns and they now distrust the establishment, regardless of graduation rates, programs or test scores.
Santa Monica’s political climate has long stifled voices outside its political machine and we may have reached a point where the attitude of some Board members has galvanized a coalition that isn’t motivated by academic discussions of academics. For those voters, they want to feel part of the process and the challengers claim to offer that sense of inclusion.
That process is being magnified by individuals and organizations that don’t care about students or public education. Individuals who have not been part of the city’s traditional City Council power structure also feel disconnected from local government and they believe there’s a way to cross-pollinate votes from the School Board to City Council. Those individuals don’t care about the policy ideas of candidates; they just want new people in the seats.
This brings us back to turnout. Santa Monica’s educational establishment including unions and powerful advocacy groups are backing the incumbents plus Mignano and Rouse. The slate of Rouse, Warner, DiGaetano and Hickman are receiving institutional support from a newly formed political action committee and Malibu.
We think traditional School Board voters are likely to back the establishment block, which means success for the challengers hinges on bringing across other voters. There’s not a lot on the ballot to motivate educational voters so it’s likely that whatever trend plays out in the Council race will influence the School Board results.
Voters have no choice but to put at least two new voices on the Board and if voters think that’s enough to shift the discussion, then the two incumbents are likely safe. Of the incumbents, Tahvildaran-Jesswein has done the most over time to address critics and he is likely the safest of the two. However, if voters think the Board needs a larger attitude adjustment, they have enough alternate choices to mount a clean sweep.