Chris Bley is one of four candidates seeking one of the three open four-year seats on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education; he is one of two candidates who is not a School Board incumbent.
Currently teaching government and history at the independent Brentwood School, Bley (pronounced Bly) has dedicated his life to teaching, especially to working with children with learning disabilities. He believes his experiences with both teaching and community organizing make him uniquely qualified for the board seat.
Bley, 34, grew up in the Westside area, graduating in 1991 from Santa Monica High School. He went on to get a B.A. in history from Colorado State, worked at several Democratic National Conventions, and was a teacher’s assistant at Park Century School for Learning Disabilities. In 1998, Bley joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Rumania, where he had a life-changing experience.
“[I] was stationed in a town called Zalau where I was teaching English as a second language,” says Bley. “I also worked with the county and city governments and with the parents and the school community. We put together the first computer lab in the city of Zalau, and it’s still up and running. We spent two years out there working with the kids. I’ve got to tell you, I still keep in touch with my kids. It is the single most moving, greatest experience I ever had.”
Bley notes that it was an achievement to implement the computer lab and work with the community “in a different language,” Rumanian.
Back in the States, Bley started work at the Brentwood School and continued to be involved in politics with Democratic conventions as well as local organizations.
This year is Bley’s first run for the SMMUSD Board. It is not an easy time, what with the state budget cuts as well as the local controversy over confidentiality agreements with Special Education parents. But Bley is jumping in with ideas and views that he feels can improve the quality of education. In three areas of concern – finances, Special Education, and community involvement – he is outspoken in his belief that the key to a thriving school district is openness and community feedback, and the ability of a school board to act upon the information it receives.
On finances, Bley says: “The fact is that budget cuts are going to affect whatever we do. We are going to have to assess what we feel are the most important priorities. The Music and Arts program has been something that’s been very important for years; Special Education is dear to my heart. We want to make sure that when we sit down, and when we have an open and transparent budget, that we have communication between the District, the staff, and the parents, and we talk amongst everybody to make it clear: here’s where we need to make the money go.”
On the special education problem: “The situation with Special Education is far from done. Things are getting better. I don’t mean that it’s far from done in the sense that people aren’t moving forward. The staff and the parents are coming together, and I want to be a part of that. I think we’re moving slowly in that direction. We want to make sure that there is a budget that everybody knows about, that is going to Special Ed, that we know how many students are in Special Ed, and in that way, we can make a quality assessment of what’s working in one school and transfer those qualities and those strengths into another school.
“I’m the only one running, and I would be the only one on the board, with specific practical experience in Special Education.”
On community involvement, Bley believes he has a really strong background because of his work with the Peace Corps and the Democratic conventions. It was in both of these fields of endeavor that he came up with the concept of “bimonthly work meetings” following visits by representatives with different areas of the community. This is a concept he wants to bring to the School Board.
“What I would advocate and promote is that each Board member would go to different parts of the district – we would go out, be it a church or a community center or the Rotary Club, and we would go speak to the community members in their places. We would come back, compare notes, and I would hope that we’d put all of these pieces of information together. As someone who’s done it before, I would take the lead and say, ‘These are the community issues people are talking about.’ We could work from there.
“Some schools in Santa Monica feel that they’re not getting the attention they need. We have a parent community that over the last few years has been rocked by various issues. It’s very important that we have someone who has the experience of bringing people together in the real world.”
More information about Chris Bley is available at his web site, chrisbley.com.