Oscar de la Torre is the new president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s Board of Education, elected unanimously by his peers on the board. Jose Escarce will serve as vice president.
De la Torre was elected to the board in November 2002, and was 2007’s vice president. Escarce, elected to the board in November 2000, has previously served as vice president as well as president.
After his election, de la Torre remarked that it is “our job to build consensus and keep the work moving forward. I look forward to working with the whole community here by supporting the parents, the [District] staff, and administration. Doing the work that will make our District a world-class public education system – that’s the goal we’ve set for ourselves. Maybe we can’t do it in one year, but we’ll definitely plant many seeds.”
The board then focused their attention on approving a contract with Lou Barber and Associates for an independent review of the District’s Special Education Program. The review, according to Superintendent Dianne Talarico, will cost approximately $79,000. The District’s review committee also considered two other firms before recommending Lou Barber and Associates to conduct the audit.
An independent review was prompted by a Santa Monica City Council decision last June to hold in reserve $530,000 of the $750,000 increase in the City’s annual base payment to the District. The decision was made after Special Education parents raised the issue about the use of confidential Special Education settlement agreements in the District. These parents told the Council that “gag orders” are routinely signed by Special Education parents in order to secure services for their children. Such agreements preclude the community from access to the financial records, and there is also no accounting as to the actual cost of these services. These agreements therefore, in the view of many, can impact the District from operating in a transparent and accountable manner.
Board member Barry Snell, liaison to the District’s review committee, reported that Barber said he would “use focus groups to look at certain areas of the Special Education Program.” He then emphasized that the board will be “closely monitoring the review and will not tolerate any insubordination or a public display of disrespect which has been the climate in the past. We’re going to have a collaborative and open process. We as board members, particularly myself, will be very cognizant of individuals that are trying to cloud the process or have special interests in mind. We’re focusing on the Special Education children and that’s why we’re doing the process.”