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Recall Drive Targets Four Santa Monica School Board Members

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By Jorge Casuso

Editors note: This article was updated at 1 p.m. Thursday to include comments from Board members Jon Kean and Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein. Only Maria Leon-Vazquez has not responded to a request for comment.

March 31, 2021 -- Education activists on Wednesday filed their intent with the Los Angeles County Registrar to circulate petitions to recall four local School Board members for alleged conflicts of interest.

The petition drive targets president Jon Kean, Vice President Laurie Lieberman and Board members Maria Leon-Vazquez and Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, all of them Santa Monica residents who have served more than four years on the seven-member board.

Sponsors have 160 days after the petitions have been approved by the County Registrar to gather signatures from 15 percent of the registered voters in the District, which amounts to some 12,500 signatures.

The petitions against Kean, Leon-Vazquez and Tahvildaran-Jesswein allege the three board members violated California’s landmark anti-corruption law, while the petition against Lieberman accuses her of "diverting SMMUSD’s funds to her lawyer friends."

“The years of shocking financial mismanagement, conflicts of interest and failing to promote student educational achievement and equity, ultimately fall at the feet of these board members," said Kat Blandino, a Santa Monica parent involved in the petition drive.

"They have created a culture where not all voices are welcomed -- a culture that is dismissive, divisive, and, in many cases, retaliatory against parents.

"Our schools, children, and teachers deserve better, and these board members have shown themselves incapable or unwilling to put students’ education ahead of their own personal interests,” Blandino said in a press release Wednesday.

The petition against Leon-Vazquez -- who won a record sixth four-year term in November -- focuses on a 2017 internal conflict-of-interest investigation by the School District ("District Probe of Santa Monica-Malibu School Board Member Shies Away from Judgment," January 19, 2018).

The District found that Leon-Vazquez had voted for contracts with consulting firms that had hired her husband, former Santa Monica Mayor and Councilmember Tony Vazquez, on at least nine occasions.

The investigation did not determine whether Leon-Vazquez had violated State conflict-of interest laws, but the Los Angeles District Attorney's public integrity unit opened a review.

"(T)he majority of her husband’s clients have, after paying Leon-Vazquez and her husband tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, been awarded SMMUSD contracts," according to the recall petition.

"These actions are not just dishonest; they constitute criminal violations of California’s landmark anti-corruption law."

The petition concludes that "Leon-Vazquez has used SMMUSD’s funds, intended for our children, as her own personal piggy bank."

The DA's office has not reported having taken any action. The statute of limitation to investigate a corruption allegation is four years.

The petition against Kean, who was elected to a second four-year term in November, also accuses him of violating the Political Reform Act "by voting to cause SMMUSD to deplete its general fund to pay for his expenses, incurred without the permission of SMMUSD."

Education activists behind the petition allege Kean used $3,000 to fly and accommodate muralist Jane Golden in Santa Monica without the Board's consent, then was reimbursed for the expense.

The District was determining the fate of Golden's "Muir Woods" mural at former Olympic High School site ("'Muir Woods' Mural Gets Reprieve from School Board "Muir Woods" Mural Gets Reprieve from School Board," October 18, 2019).

The petition also states that Kean "regularly violates the Brown Act and belittles parents during Board meetings.

"He has failed to oversee district finances, allowing ever-increasing structural deficits and misuse of taxpayer funds," according to the petition.

"He has created a culture of political retaliation to stifle the dissent of parents he seeks to marginalize."

In an email to The Lookout, Kean called the accusations in the petition to recall him "absolutely false and outright lies."

The petition to recall Tahvildaran-Jesswein, who was first elected to the Board in 2014, alleges he "regularly" violated the Political Reform Act "by voting on financial matters pertaining to his employer, SMC (Santa Monica College)."

Tahvildaran-Jesswein is associate director of SMC's Public Policy Institute and has twice served as SMC's Academic Senate president.

According to the petition, Tahvildaran-Jesswein has "been complicit in his fellow board members’ corruption" and "participated in creating a culture of retaliation against parents."

The petition to recall Lieberman, who has served on the Board since 2010, alleges Lieberman directed administrators "to focus on grandiose real estate transactions and construction projects to the benefit of her husband’s law firm."

Tahvildaran-Jesswein called the petition against him "categorically false, mean-spirited, and harmful to our exemplary school district.

"The recall is baseless and does not serve our students or the voters of Santa Monica and Malibu," Tahvildaran-Jesswein wrote in an email.

"Again, the recall drive against my colleagues and me is based on lies and personal innuendo. It is meant to confuse the voters and undermine our democratic process."

Lieberman is married to Chris Harding, whose law firm is registered as a lobbyist with the City of Santa Monica representing 129 development projects, according to City records. None of those projects involved the District during Lieberman's tenure.

"To divert even more of SMMUSD’s funds to her lawyer friends, Lieberman has caused tens of millions of dollars to be spent fighting lawsuits SMMUSD cannot win," according to the recall petition.

Like Kean, the petition states that she "has created a culture of political retaliation to stifle the dissent of parents she seeks to marginalize."

Liberman said the petition against her " is based on malicious lies against me and my family. And it appears that people who are promoting this recall are hiding behind others who have signed the Notice of Intention.

"Those who are behind this are also lying about our schools, the school district and my colleagues," Lieberman wrote.

"I am gratified that since rumors of the recall began circulating, my colleagues and I have received overwhelming support from those who have our students’ best interests at heart."

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