Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District’s newest Board of Education members, Alicia Mignano and Stacy Rouse, have been in office for just over 100 days and recently sat down with the Daily Press to reflect on surprises, challenges and their priorities during these first few months.

Mignano and Rouse were both elected just weeks before Ben Drati announced he would be leaving the district after nearly seven years at the helm.

“I was surprised but I think it’s a great opportunity to be able to participate in finding someone,” Mignano said. “It’s a key position for everything that we do in the district so I’m excited to participate in the process and for our community members to participate.”

Rouse echoed this sentiment.

“I was really surprised when Dr. Drati left,” she said. “I did not see that coming.”

However, she is also embracing the opportunity to help find a new leader and has a clear image of the type of person she thinks would do well in the position.

“Really a community builder that continues to build on the community that we have, we’re not starting from zero, but someone who comes in and really sees all of the parts… and sees it through the lens of who our kids are and how they learn, ” she said.

Mignano has her own list of desired characteristics.

“Somebody with experience leading a district, our district is very diverse and has unique needs…and making sure that person is student centered and is able to build a vision and get people on board,” she said.

Mental health and student well-being is also top of mind for both board members.

“I think transitioning from the pandemic back to in person has been very difficult for our students, especially our middle school and high school students,” Mignano said. “And also an increase, unfortunately, of drug use.”

As a former PTA council member, she said she sees parent education efforts as a valuable way of addressing these issues by giving them knowledge, tools and resources to help support their kids.

Despite the challenges and hard work ahead, both Mignano and Stacy are proud of things SMMUSD has accomplished.

For Mignano, who was born in Mexico and attended public school in South Central Los Angeles as an English Language Learner (ELL) before moving to Portland for high school, supporting the district’s ELL students is close to her heart.

“I think that we have made a lot of progress for our English Language Learners and I’ve been a part of that work and I’m very proud that I have put in the time and worked with Maria [Leon-Vazquez] and Dr. [Jaqueline] Mora, with our community liaisons and our parents to advocate for our kids.”

Her son is a student at Edison Language Academy and she said bilingual education is incredibly valuable and something she is glad to see within the district.

“In the time that I went to school here in California, it was during ‘English only,’ people used to think that if you only focus on English, students would learn better and what was found through research is that that is not the case, that when we strengthen supports for the home language, when we have different support for our students, it makes a big difference.”

For Rouse, who has a background in conflict resolution and is the sole member of the board from Malibu, the ongoing conversations surrounding dividing SMMUSD and creating an independent Malibu school district, a process known as “unification,” is frequently on her mind.

Just before her election, the city of Malibu and SMMUSD agreed on a “conceptual framework” for what such a process would look like with a potential time frame for a new district to be formed as early as July 2024. In the meantime, Rouse hopes to strengthen connection and understanding between the two cities.

“I think the unique role I play is having a bridge, I do have relationships in both communities,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t always realize how many cross connections we have, so really bringing that to light and making the communities have a more nuanced perspective and knowledge of each other.”

Both board members expressed a deep appreciation for the role of public education in society.

“Public education is essential to developing critical thinkers and it’s part of democracy,” Mignano said. “It can be a really essential tool to change lives and improve lives.”

“Whether you have kids or not – school age or at all – or whether you participate in it or not, public school is for and by the public so everyone has a stake in it and whether you realize it or not, it impacts you.”

Grace Adams is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University where she studied Spanish and journalism. She holds a Master’s degree in investigative journalism from City, University of London. She has experience...