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Santa Monica, Malibu School Board Members Battle for Committee Appointment

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By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

December 16, 2014 -- Unlike the selection of Santa Monica’s mayor, the school board president is usually chosen without any drama. This was the case again last Thursday when Laurie Lieberman was the only person nominated for the position, and was elected through a unanimous vote of her peers on the board.

It was a much different story for the selection of a board member to represent the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District on the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization.

This committee addresses issues such as district separation—a hot topic in the SMMUSD, where Malibu independence is looking more like a possibility than ever before.

Craig Foster, the SMMUSD board’s lone Malibu resident who was attending his first meeting on the dais, was chosen as the district’s representative, but not without controversy.

Maria Leon-Vazquez also wanted to be on the committee, and Jose Escarce nominated her. When it became obvious that Foster also wanted the position, Lieberman noted it was an unusual situation.

“We usually have a hard time getting one person to volunteer,” she said. “We’ve never had this happen, and I feel kind of badly about it because I would love to have you both be able to do it.”

Leon-Vazquez then chimed in that it would be improper for Foster to be on the committee because he was president of Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS), which states on its website homepage that it exists “to create an independent Malibu school district dedicated to excellence in education for the Malibu community.”

She said, “If we’re going to actually look at this with a clear process, [the appointee] has to be somebody who is not engaged in one position or the other.”

Foster responded that he had recently spoken with SMMUSD attorneys, and was told he would need to resign from his AMPS post so that he would be “not conflicted in a variety ways.”

He added, “I think it would be useful to have me on this [county committee] because I am probably the most informed person [on district reorganization], and it would be a useful thing for us to have me there.”

After some more discussion, which included Lieberman saying the district would benefit either way, a vote was taken on Leon-Vazquez’ nomination.

She needed four votes, but only received three from Escarce, Lieberman and herself. Foster voted in opposition, while Oscar de la Torre and Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein abstained.

The board is without a seventh member for at least another month due to Ben Allen’s resignation shortly after he was elected to the State Senate.

After Leon-Vazquez’ rejection, Tahvildaran-Jesswein nominated Foster. His nomination was approved by everybody but Leon-Vazquez. 

It was not clear if Leon Vazquez voted against Foster or abstained. She said something on the dais, but it could not be heard clearly, and nobody asked her for a clarification.

Tahvildaran-Jesswein, who was also attending his first meeting as an elected board member, said Foster’s statement that he would step down as AMPS president “swung my vote.”

He added, “I do have great faith and trust that both of my peers could do the work and represent us well, but I also know Craig has been very engaged in this question. And I think that the community is interested in having a serious conversation about reorganization—wherever it goes.”

Lieberman encouraged Leon-Vazquez to attend the committee meetings, which are open to the public.

The committee would be asked to consider a Malibu separation proposal if it reached that point. But Foster would not be allowed to vote on that decision because he is an SMMUSD board member.

A decision by this committee is one of many steps in the district separation process, which includes a vote by district residents.

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