Santa Monica Lookout Opinion
Why I Support Fair Elections in SMMUSD

By Oscar de la Torre

Political representation is always a foundational question at the core of a genuine assessment of our democracy.

Which system of elections provides the best opportunity for historically marginalized communities to have a voice in our government is at the center of a legal and policy battle in Santa Monica Malibu USD that will be heard this Saturday February 10th at 9:30 a.m. at a meeting of the LA County on School District Organization in the new SMMUSD District Office on 4th Street.

This committee has the legal authority to implement a change in school district elections, and we strongly believe that a history of disparities in public school resources and educational outcomes is evidence enough to change the status quo.

As a child growing up in Santa Monica I knew that disparities existed within the city but also within the school system. Growing up in the Pico Neighborhood, I attended all southside schools including Will Rogers and John Adams Middle School (where my son Fidel currently serves as student body president).

I graduated from Santa Monica High in 1990 and had the honor of being elected student body president by my peers. I went from being a GATE “gifted student” in the 6th grade to being suspended three times in middle school.

I saw many in my community, including siblings, get pushed out of Samohi or end up at the continuation high school called Olympic High. Frankly, if it wasn’t for several dedicated teachers, coaches and counselors that took an interest in my academic success, I would have surely failed.

As a student I experienced the impact of systemic racism in southside schools with a lack proper equipment and supplies. Educational disparities between North Side and South Side schools are historic.

Despite years of parents and students protesting for change and district plans, the achievement gap relegating low income, Black and Latino students to an inferior position academically have not seen much improvement.

Without an adequate and consistent representative voice on the school board, communities historically marginalized can speak out but ultimately lack the power to effectuate the change that will deliver positive educational results for their students. Like many other places throughout the world, the wealthier North Side of Santa Monica has monopolized the power by having a majority of seats throughout the school districts existence.

After graduating with my MA from the University of Texas I returned to Santa Monica and I opened the Pico Youth & Family Center. Soon after we opened, we had Black, Latino, Asian and White mothers calling out SMMUSD for discriminatory practices in the application of suspensions.

A new parent group calling themselves Mothers for Justice was formed and they protested school board meetings and produced the report: Institutionalized Racism in SMMUSD: Its impact on Students of Color.

The report documented how Black and Latino boys were disproportionately being suspended as a form of discipline and it showed that students who are suspended have a higher drop out/push out rate. My decision to run for a school board seat in 2002 was in response to MFJ’s first protest at SMMUSD holding signs that read: Education, Not Incarceration and Suspend Racism, Not Students!

When I ran for school board in 2002 I raised $14,000 and won a 4th place position out of 4 seats open. Two elections later candidates were raising $98,000 to compete for a school board seat. Running for any seat throughout the entire school district is much more expensive than running for a seat within a defined trustee-area.

This is another reason why many of us support trustee area elections. Trustee area elections makes democracy more accessible and increases the influence of voters at the neighborhood level and decreases the influence of special interests and big money in school board elections.

In total I served eighteen years on the SMMUSD Board. While on the school board I quickly learned that the power on the school board was controlled by a majority of the Board members that lived north of Wilshire. In fact, since the creation of Santa Monica Malibu School District the political power has been monopolized by School Board members living north of Wilshire.

No wonder, it took 12 years to get one course in ethnic studies, and even though the school board voted to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in 2024, the school district has not delivered. As the achievement gap persists, the School Board led by northside leadership voted to eliminate Headstart, a program designed to help prepare young children from low-income families to succeed in school.

Many studies have shown that lower income students and students of color have fallen behind due to COVID school shuts downs. Up until recently our school board denied that this was a problem. Illustrating the inequality in treatment and representation, the school board spent millions on the purchase of a new district central office while they closed John Muir elementary school for mold and construction defects.

Those who control a majority of seats on the School Board have the power over the budget and every decision made by school administrators. The years of exclusive governance where the Pico Neighborhood and families on the Southside in general lacked political representation was by design.

It was systemic. Any remedy must also be systemic, and we have an opportunity to correct a historic wrong. We invite Santa Monicans who believe that we can do better than the status quo to join us in advocating for fairness in our election system to give fair representation to all neighborhoods and all students that make up SMMUSD.

The LA County Committee on School District Organization has the authority to change our system of elections and they need to hear from us, especially those of us who want a better education system that delivers positive results for our communities.

We want to have consistent representation that is accountable to our community not any special interest groups that bank roll their campaigns.

City Councilmember Oscar de la Torre served 18 years on the School Board before being elected to the Council in 2020.


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