SMMUSD board seeks to fill empty seat Jan. 15

Applications for an empty seat on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education are submitted, the interested candidates were by a subcommittee on Jan. 5, and their eligibility determined after press time.

The seat was vacated by Ben Allen, who was elected to the California State Senate on Nov. 4. Allen then resigned his position on the SMMUSD board, starting a 60-day clock to fill the hole on the board.

The six members currently on the board will vote for Allen’s replacement on Jan. 15 in a public meeting.
Board member Craig Foster of Malibu said he’s looking for a candidate that has the interest of the Santa Monica and Malibu students in mind.

“Clearly, I’m going to be looking for somebody who shares that vision that we need to make every decision focused on what’s best for the kids,” Foster said.

A total of 11 candidates submitted applications for the open school board seat. Three of those candidates — Patty Finer, Ralph Macher and Dhun May — ran for the school board in the November general election, but lost.

Foster said electing one of those three candidates would be “problematic.”

“If the school board is acting on the behalf of the people…I think it would be a big mistake to go against the wishes of the voters and put somebody on who had a chance to be elected and didn’t get elected.”

Finer is putting her hat in the ring for the seat again because she feels she has a place on the board, and was not discouraged by what Foster said.

“Craig’s entitled to his position,” Finer said. “I would like to be on the board, I’d like to try to fix the problem. That’s why I decided to run. If it’s not what the board wants, they’ll make their decision.”

Finer already sits on the Visual and Performing Arts Advisory Board for the school district, a position she said she would keep regardless of the results of her candidacy for the open seat on the board.

Among the issues Finer believes are important to the SMMUSD are possible polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in both city’s schools. PCB is a chemical which has been shown to cause a variety of adverse health effects including cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Finer believes the PCB issue is not on the radar of the school board.

“What the board doesn’t want is me there because they know I’m going to look at that issue and I know we have to address it and they don’t want to,” Finer said. “That could be a problem.”

Another candidate in the running for the open school board seat is Jake Wachtel, a teacher and former tennis coach from Santa Monica who co-founded THREADS, a nonprofit organization that donates clothing to families in need.

Wachtel said he was the only cross-district candidate, and feels his experience in education and media would be valuable to the board.

“What I bring to the school board is an ability to understand budgets, understand the classroom and understand policy,” Wachtel said. “All three of those things are very critical to be an effective board member and something that is very needed at this time.”

The public meeting on Jan. 15 will subject the 11 candidates to questions by each of the six board members.

“On the one hand, it’s great that we have all that transparency, it’s great that we have so many people applying,” Foster said. “On the other, these people have a lot of guts to submit themselves to this level of public scrutiny. It’s a brave thing that each of them are doing.”

Foster said the appointment will likely be made that night or soon thereafter.

The main issue facing the school board is the notion of separating Santa Monica and Malibu into their own independent districts, Foster said. The issue has been a point of contention for the past four years.

“I think the best thing that the school district can do to help Malibu schools would be to continue the process that’s in place to put together the thorough understanding of what the two districts would look like independently and…move forward to create those two independent school districts,” Foster said.

Foster is president of the Advocates for Malibu Public Schools, an organization that is working on separating the two school districts.

Finer said she would support separating the districts, but only if it was economically feasible.

“You need to make sure if Malibu wants to be its own school district, it’s strong enough to stand on its own two feet,” Finer said. “I don’t think the numbers are there.”

If the board members do not agree on a candidate during the meeting, they would be forced to try again in a few days, Foster said. If no one is selected after the second vote, a special election would then occur, which Foster said would cost anywhere between $200,000 to $1 million.

“My first choice would be to let the voters decide this,” Foster said. “But it’s really expensive to do that. And that’s money we’re taking directly out of the students’ education.”