Things You Care About
Thank you for taking a moment to consider some of the issues that are near and dear to me.
Our SMMUSD School Board is facing a whole host of issues – some that have lingered for many years, and some that COVID and technological evolution have brought to our kids’ lives.
While the following issues are not the only ones we must tackle, they represent, to my mind, the most urgent and important issues at this time.
CLASS SIZE & THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP
Smaller class size is the quickest and best proven way to help all of our children succeed, especially kids in high-risk and traditionally lower-scoring groups. I will take money from failing programs to hire more qualified teachers, and raise the starting teacher salary to make SMMUSD a more attractive and competitive option for educators .
While our current school board has for many years aimed to tackle the ‘achievement gap’, we have seen very little change in those measures. In 2015, a study was commissioned, and in 2016 a report was published called “The Current State of the Equity and Opportunities to Learn in the Santa Monica-Malbu Unified School District: Findings and Recommendations." (AKA the Noguera report.). A team put together by Mr. Pedro Noguera, PhD sat in on classes, interviewed students and staff, and ultimately came to some important conclusions about how to change the achievement gap and why so little progress had been made. Those conclusions can be summed up as lack of “buy-in” from the teachers and students, a lack of continued engagement from School Board members at school sites, and a lack of engagement from administrators and principals in classrooms. It further suggested that teachers suffered from lack of collegial community amongst each other and continued to have new programs and leadership thrown at them to such an extent that they gave up and didn’t “buy-in”.
In the six years since its release, very little has been done to address the issues presented in the report. In many ways, things continue to chug along with board members devising newer and flashier programs, thrusting them on teachers, and measures staying much the same. If the Noguera report is to be believed, we must make some cultural and structural changes in order to close the achievement gap and encourage all of our kids – especially the most at risk – to succeed.
One of the ideas that was put forth in the report was reduced class sizes. Smaller class sizes are one of the best proven means to lowering the achievement gap and would require no teacher buy-in out of the gate. It would also show teachers that we are serious about tackling the ongoing issue, and serious about supporting them. We currently have classes that sometimes reach into the mid 30’s. This means that each student gets less personal attention, and our teachers are overstretched.
WHAT WILL I DO?
As an elected board member, I will work tirelessly to hire more qualified teachers and reduce those numbers, with a goal of having elementary students in 20-22 kids per class and high school students in classrooms with no more than 24 students.
I will also work to regain the trust of the teachers. We will do this by making clear plans and securing their buy-in before implementing those plans. Additionally, we will encourage all principals to spend time in their classrooms. And I, as a board member, will spend time at each school in the district to ensure I am engaging personally and on the ground.
(Included but not limited to bonds, construction, site maintenance and financial transparency)
Santa Monica and Malibu have the 2nd highest per-pupil budget in LA county. We have raised nearly $1 billion in bonds, yet our student outcomes are mediocre and we have aging facilities, including John Muir Elementary which is currently closed due to mold. I will zero out the budget, add back in the programs that are working, and jettison those that aren’t. I will make sure all construction budgets are clear and can be accurately audited (which they currently aren’t.) I will ensure that our bond spending benefits all of our schools, not just one.
Santa Monica and Malibu residents have shown time and again their generosity and willingness to approve bonds for the renovation of our aging schools, as well as support for Measure R, which has provided millions to help bolster our budgets. This is a beautiful thing but comes with an enormous responsibility to effectively manage these large sums, and transparently account for the spending. SMMUSD has run a deficit 4 of the last 7 years, often dipping into reserves to meet annual expenditures. The only reason we are not currently in serious financial trouble is the once-in-a-generation real estate boom from COVID that has increased our tax base substantially. If we continue to operate this way (short of more money falling from the sky), we risk bond credit downgrades, which would cost taxpayers and our schools in higher bond payments. Additionally, this unsustainable management model will run our reserves dry.
So where is the money going? We’re spending close to $960 million on capital improvement projects, with another $590 million in planned projects. The district just purchased a $21 million office building so it can rent its old office building out. In other words, we didn’t need to buy the building. We bought it as an asset. SMMUSD is practically a real estate development corporation at this point. Beyond the fact that we are a public education system and not a development company, it’s worth noting that the current construction – amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars in new buildings – is primarily at SAMOHI. Meanwhile, our other schools have temporary classrooms, issues with pest control and HVAC, and of course there’s John Muir and SMASH, which were shut down due to mold. This signals a complete and total lack of both foresight and reasonable prioritization of capital improvement funds.
The other more important factor is that we are a basic aid school, which means we do not get state dollars in relation to the number of kids in the district. This is important because when you factor in the other income streams, it sets up a system where SMMUSD gets roughly 40% more money than the vast majority of other school districts. So then, one would expect that with our financial abundance and exceptional teachers, we would be near the top of state and national systems, right? The truth is that according to US News and World Report, SAMOHI is 108th in the state and 829th in the nation. Malibu High ranks even worse at 176th in California and 1,170th in the nation. Those reports are not a gold standard by any means, but they suggest that we are not top of the field, especially considering the vast resources we have. This suggests, among other things, that we are not efficiently managing our expenditures, nor properly using our funds to support our teachers and students.
WHAT WILL I DO?
As a member of the school board, I will recommend and fight to “zero the budget.” In other words, start at zero and re-add programs and expenses to truly consider how each program and expense helps our schools. I believe this will bring to light several failed programs that continue to get funding, and allow us to make money available for more teachers and programs that educators and students alike will embrace.
I come from a background in real estate management and threading the needle regarding budgets. I understand the importance of proper management, and why improper maintenance or poorly planned construction projects can result in bigger price tags than budgets allow for. It’s cheaper to go to the dentist for a small cavity than wait until it’s a root canal. SMMUSD will spend an estimated $20 million on the John Muir and SMASH mold remediation. That could’ve been new classrooms or better sports facilities.
I will hold management accountable! I will ensure that no member’s spouse or family member receives financial benefit from construction projects, and I will work to fire managers who show incompetence or a lack of willingness to meaningfully report expenses. Our taxpayers make this possible for our kids – not for the benefit of our school board.
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EVERY STUDENT IS EXCEPTIONAL
We have wildly varied spending on elective subjects. Some kids have access to arts and sports, and some don’t. Additionally, we have scrapped-programs that benefit especially talented kids, simply because our system doesn’t equitably support all kids' access to those programs. I believe we can change this fundamentally from an earlier age to create and maintain the elective programs that give kids a sense of purpose and identity and ultimately change their lives.
Part of what makes education a success is when students find the areas where they can shine. Sometimes that’s math, sometimes it’s photography, and sometimes it’s baseball. The point is we want to offer our students from different backgrounds and perspectives that opportunity to succeed, and a reason to come to school. I believe we are doing exactly the opposite in the name of equity and errant priorities. The starkest example of this is our continuation high school, Olympic High, where Principal Anthony Fuller resigned in protest earlier this year. He expressed a lack of support for his students, some of the neediest in the district.
“I now run the only secondary school in the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District that has no counselor on campus and no district-funded electives taught by a credentialed human being,” Fuller wrote. “If you know anything about my district, you would well be aware of the strengths of our visual and performing arts programs (VAPA). Unfortunately, the Board and Leadership have decided that Olympic students are not worth the expenditure.”
Mr. Fuller’s concerns are important, because they suggest that the kids who might need exposure to expression and the arts the most are not receiving it. Kids who might find a meaningful path in the world if given the opportunity are instead given the bare minimum. But this is not only seen at Olympic, we also see SAMOHI losing honors. This is done in the name of equity, but it means that kids who are exceptional in different academic areas are not pushed to succeed until AP classes become available to them. It also disadvantages all students applying to colleges where honors grades are weighted differently. We want our best student writers and engineers to be pushed, just as we want our best athletes to have the opportunity to achieve at a level commensurate with their abilities. We wouldn’t get rid of varsity and only have J.V. so all the kids could play, because we want kids who are exceptional to have a space to grow and be challenged. There are much better ways to improve access to honors for all students than by simply removing it.
WHAT WILL I DO?
As a member of the school board I will ensure that every student in the district has access to art and athletics, including Olympic High School. I will work with teachers at SAMOHI and the middle school pathways to encourage support for students who have traditionally felt unwelcome in honors classes.
Getting rid of honors English addresses the symptom, not the problem. I will work with our teachers to address the problem, including reducing class sizes. I will also seek better funding for sports programs, so our kids have everything they need to compete with their peers at other schools.
The earlier we can help kids learn, the better they do in school. That is well proven. I want to provide universal pre-kindergarten to all kids in Santa Monica and Malibu, so by the time they get to high school, they have had every opportunity to succeed.
We know that kids' reading levels by 3rd grade are an excellent predictor for their success in high school. Our schools are on ‘pathways’ that make it so each student is expected to enter each grade with specific stated abilities. When a child is behind, the onus falls on that teacher to not only catch them up, but also get them to where they need to be by the end of the year. We also know that the earlier we can start our kids in school, the better chance they have of successfully navigating the pathway to high school graduation. Right now, we offer transitional kindergarten (TK) to a number of kids who qualify. Qualifying means being born roughly two months after the September cut-off date for enrollment. So that means only a small percentage of our kids qualify, and even still TK is highly in demand. Pre-kindergarten (pre-K) would be open to kids born throughout the prior year as kindergarten qualification and would bring students in a year early. This would help all of our kids, but especially our high-risk students who would greatly benefit from an extra year in the most important period of childhood development. Universal pre-K is achievable and would be a game changer for our kids.
WHAT WILL I DO?
As a member of the school board, I will work to make this a reality. This means finding funding from federal and state grants, as well as working to create space in our budget and on our school sites. It can be done. There just needs to be a cohesive movement. I will work to make that happen.
HELPING KIDS WHO NEED IT
As someone who grew up in a high-risk background, and as a parent with a special needs child, I know how important advocacy and guidance is for success. I want to pair high-risk, high-needs and special needs students with advocates who will follow them from the time they’re identified until they graduate from high school. Continuity of advocacy and guidance, I believe, will make a huge difference, such that these kids won’t have to start from scratch at every new school in the pathway.
We have lots of kids who need extra help. I know this because I was one of them. I grew up with a single mother who was often absent, and I had learning disabilities. I would not have succeeded without the teachers at SAMO and JAMS stepping up to support me. Children with IEPs, unhoused kids, kids who come from challenged homes, kids who are high risk. These students often have to navigate our schools by themselves, with teachers and counselors occasionally stepping in to help, but ultimately without a formal, holistic, pathway-based plan for their success.
WHAT WILL I DO?
As a member of the school board, I will propose that we identify high-risk kids and set them up with peer-to-peer counselors. These counselors would follow our kids from the time we identify them until they graduate high school. There would be a continuity of mentorship, so that each child wouldn’t have to start anew at each stage of their development. They would have someone engaged and invested in their success long term.