Envisioning a possible future in which both Proposition 30 and 38 did not pass, all six candidates agreed that increasing revenues and cutting costs was the clear path ahead for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
The candidates—incumbents Ben Allen, Jose Escarce and Maria Leon Vazquez and Malibu challengers Craig Foster, Karen Farrer and Seth Jacobson—met for the first debate of the election Wednesday at Malibu City Hall. The forum was sponsored by the Santa Monica League of Women's Voters and the Santa Monica Malibu PTA Council in partnership with the City of Malibu.
The first question of the night centered on Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30 and activist Molly Munger's Proposition 38. If both tax initiatives do not pass, the school district could face up to $10 million in additional cuts next year, according to the district.
Beyond the general agreement on the need for revenue increases and spending cuts, the candidates vying for three spots on the board of education differed slightly on their stance on where to target cost cutting.
The Malibu candidates, who said they stand for reform in the district, all agreed cost cutting should be directed at the administrative level.
"We have seen other districts that operate at half the cost. I think that is a shame," Farrer said.
Jacobson said the board would have to show some leadership.
"Also look at ways to cut within the administrative cost of the district, not on the back of teachers and not on the backs of children," Jacobson said.
Foster said the district should look for inspiration in other successful school districts. He said he would want direct the superintendent to find ways to "cut away from the classrooms," and begin a program "evaluating where we are strong and weak in evaluating the achievement of all students."
Allen said he would convene an emergency task force of district leaders and key community groups to come up with solutions.
"We’d have to both make additional cuts. There’s a series of programs we’d have to look at. We’d have to look at revenue increases. It’s going to be a tough road ahead," Allen said.
Leon Vazquez said finding cuts will be difficult.
"We’re already at a bare bones budget in this district," she said, adding that bringing the city of Santa Monica and Malibu into the discussion will be critical to moving forward.
Escarce praised the board for already making deep cuts.
"This board has done a terrific job of maintaining our programs," he said, challenging the Malibu's candidates position to look at models in other districts.
In another round of questions, the moderator asked candidates about their position on the possible separation of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
Leon-Vazquez was the lone voice of opposition to unification, a legal term used by education officials for the process to create new school districts.
"There really hasn’t been any factual arguments made within Malibu that we have been unfair and the children of Malibu have not fared well," Leon-Vazquez said, spurring some comments of outrage from the Malibu audience.
Foster, Farrer and Jacobson all supported unification, citing analysis from the district and an independent consultant.
“Anybody who doesn’t think we are entirely different communities who need to be left to local control hasn’t been paying attention,” Foster said.
Farrer lambasted Santa Monica board members, except for Allen, for not coming out to Malibu on a regular basis.
"The present staff and board of education does not have the time and the interest to come out here," Farrer said.
Allen, who said he wants to make sure all parties are on board for the complicated process, said he thinks the proposal makes sense, especially since Malibu has matured as a community and a city.
"We’re moving very close to where it makes sense for us to separate," Allen said.
Escarce also said he is willing to support unification if the facts show it is viable for both communities.
"This is a complicated process and unfortunately, for better or worse, it is a highly political process at the county and state level," Escarce said.
All candidates acknowledged that Malibu representation on the board is an issue.
Farrer said she would like there to be a guaranteed seat for Malibu and the various Santa Monica neighborhoods and demographic groups on the board, especially if unification does not move forward.
"I think it would bring a level of understanding to the board that has been missing for some time," Farrer said.
Leon Vazquez said she is in favor of moving toward a format that guarantees Malibu representation and better represents Santa Monica neighborhoods.
"I think that is a fair way in terms of the future that we are building collaboration and it is a lesson for all of our children to understand collaboration," Leon Vazquez said.
Allen said he wants to focus on how to work together.
"The political conversation may be about separation. We are a district of two communities and we continue to work together out of desire and need," Allen said.
Escarce said the board has continued to support three small elementary schools in Malibu.
"I understand the feelings of marginalization and disenfranchisement and lack of representation. Those are crucial and often they dominate and I understand why they dominate the conversation," Escarce said.
The next debate featuring all six candidates in Malibu will be sponsored by Malibu Rotary and Malibu Patch. The forum is set for Oct. 24 in Fireside Room of Pepperdine University.
The candidates addressed many other issues over the two-hour forum. Feel free to explore other issues SMMUSD faces in the comments.