March 3, 2024 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

Santa Monica Parents Launch Recall Effort for Four School Board Members

Laurie Lieberman, Maria Leon-Vasquez, Jon Kean and Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein targeted in recall petition

By Sam Catanzaro

Santa Monica and Malibu parents have submitted signatures to initiate the recall of four members of the School Board.

The recall, launched this week, targets Laurie Lieberman, Maria Leon-Vasquez, Jon Kean and Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, citing “serious malfeasance”.

“Rather than focus on educating students, the board has focused on real estate purchases, construction projects, and fighting parents’ lawsuits while failing to give parents, teachers, and school staff a meaningful seat at the table,” recall organizers wrote in a press release.

Leon-Vasquez–wife of former Santa Monica City Councilmember and current member of the California Board of Equalization Tony Vazquez– is called out in the recall effort for “corruption”.

“She voted to award large SMMUSD contracts to the clients that paid her husband tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees. Vazquez and her husband have received substantial financial gains for her votes on the school board –– a direct violation of California’s Political Reform Act,” the petitioners wrote, citing a series of Los Angeles Times articles.

Leon-Vazquez did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

The recall also alleges corruption by current Board President Kean and Vice President, Lieberman, accusing them of regularly violating the Brown Act during meetings.

Petitioners allege Kean recently voted to have SMMUSD pay his expenses incurred for a political expense without prior approval. As reported by the Santa Monica Lookout, “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.”

Kean, when reached for comment, called the recall effort fraudulent.

“Do not be fooled by this fraudulent recall campaign. The people truly behind the effort have purposely kept their names off of the petition and deliberately put misinformed parents out front as proxies to hide their own nefarious motives,” Kean said. “The lies and accusations included in the petition are 100% false and will be refuted in the near future with simple and straight forward facts, facts that the petitioners did not even bother to investigate before publicly smearing the reputations of four dedicated public servants.”

Petitioners also take aim at Lieberman, who is accused of diverting funds from the District to developers and her husband’s law firm. According to the Lookout, Lieberman is married to Chris Harding, whose law firm is registered as a lobbyist with the City of Santa Monica representing 129 development projects.

“Lieberman has diverted millions from SMMUSD to enrich Santa Monica real estate developers –– an industry her husband’s current law firm represents –– and to her husband’s former law firm where she has approved $7 million to Pillsbury Lawfirm,” recall organizers wrote. “During her long tenure as a board member, she has diverted SMMUSD’s focus from educating students to real estate and construction pushing three major bonds that cost the taxpayers over $1 billion.”

Lieberman, like Kean, characterized the recall effort as based in false information.

“The recall petition is based on malicious lies about me, my family and others. Those who are behind it are deliberately spreading false information about our schools, our school district and three of my colleagues. Those who have chosen to sign the Notice of Intent to Circulate Recall Petition have been lied to and have not done their homework. They are fronting for others who have personal agendas and interests that do not align with the interests of students in our well-respected and successful school district. I am gratified by the overwhelming support that has bubbled up since rumors of the recall began to surface. I am confident that our community will not fall for baseless personal and political attacks that seek to undermine the will expressed by voters in the last two elections and to harm our school district,” Lieberman said.

The recall effort also targets Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, accusing him of voting on items that benefit other board members despite their known conflicts of interest, appeasing special interests and voting on matters pertaining to his employer despite his conflict of interest. Tahvildaran-Jesswein, when reached for comment, also called the recall effort false.

“This petition against me is 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. 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,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein said.

Petitioners argue that the actions of Lieberman, Leon-Vasquez, Kean and Tahvildaran-Jesswein hurt the long-term economic viability of SMMUSD, among other consequences.

“these four board members have long-term consequences for SMMUSD students and the City more generally. They deprive our students of an excellent education, increase socio-economic inequality, fail to close the achievement gap, neglect to hold incompetent administrators accountable, undermine the District’s beloved teachers, and hurt the long-term economic viability of SMMUSD,” recall organizers wrote.

Both Kean and Tahvildaran-Jesswein in their comments disputed this, touting the District’s financial credit rating and bond programs.

“As neighboring districts are laying off dozens of teachers while their reserves are dwindling, SMMUSD has balanced its budget and is retaining teachers. Our credit rating has been upgraded twice recently and our taxpayers have saved over $21m with a bond program that is on schedule and addressing decades of prior facilities neglect. This is the mark of a healthy school district with strong leadership at the school board level,” both Kean and Tahvildaran-Jesswein wrote in the comments.

Organizers have 160 days after approval from the County Registrar to collect signatures from 15 percent of the registered voters in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, around 12,500 people.

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