The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education will have at least one new member by the end of this year after five challengers vie against three incumbents for four seats on the school board in the Nov. 2 election.

The eight candidates, which include only one woman, are seeking four-year terms as the school district awaits possible additional funding as part of an advisory measure on the same ballot. The district budget has been one of the issues at the forefront of the race following a school year in which the board was forced to issue layoff notices and make program cuts, something some incumbent candidates have described during the campaign as one of their most difficult decisions.

Through a combination of money from a school fundraising campaign and a federal education jobs bill, the school board voted in August to restore the staff positions cut earlier in the year. The budget was among the topics discussed by the candidates in a forum held early this month.

The three incumbents seeking re-election include board president Barry Snell, Ralph Mechur and Oscar de la Torre. Board Vice President Kelly Pye chose not to seek re-election. Challengers include retired teacher/coach Patrick Cady, producer Jake Wachtel, teacher Chris Bley, community volunteer Laurie Lieberman, and small business owner Nimish Patel.

During opening statements, the incumbents stressed their experience and reflected on some of their achievements they feel should be considered in their re-election bid, while the challengers pointed to qualifications they believe should help them win a first term.

Bley, who previously ran for the school board in 2008, touched on his experience as a teacher for the past 10 years and said he hopes to re-focus the school district on the budget. Hoping to offer Malibu some representation on the board, 35-year resident Cady, who has taught for 35 years and coached, said he brings the perspective of a teacher, parent and community leader.

De la Torre, who mentioned not only his eight years on the school board but his founding of the Pico Youth and Family Center, said the citizens of Santa Monica deserve experienced leadership on the board.

“I want to keep the door of education open for generations,” de la Torre said.

Having chaired the committee for the school fundraising initiative known as Measure A, Lieberman said she has 30 years of community government and school experience in Santa Monica and is running “to bring real leadership that makes a difference for our kids.”

Mechur, a former board president, noted that he has served on behalf of children in the district for 20 years, working with the city as a board member to help develop a partnership for the extensive use of school facilities. Patel, who said he started his small business 10 years ago, explained that he has been actively involved with the district by serving on funding measures and the financial oversight committee.

Referencing his work as a teacher both in the U.S. and abroad, Wachtel said he believes he can offer “a global perspective that is unique to this district.” Snell noted that he has served while the district has worked through one of the worst economic climates in history and he helped build collaborative partnerships.

“I’m running because I care about the kids in our community on all levels,” Snell said.

Two Santa Monica High School students each had the chance to pose a forum question to four of the candidates. Asked what they feel is the correct class size ratio for high schools, Cady said 25:1 is ideal but the issue should be discussed with teachers, while Wachtel agreed, saying math classes in particular, should be under 30. Patel would like to have a 20:1 ratio for elementary schools but said high schools should aim for 25:1, while Lieberman agreed 25 is something to aspire to but said 30:1 is more realistic due to financing.

When the second Samohi student asked if the high school campus deserves beautification, de la Torre, a former student body president, said the “bigger issue is that Samohi is overcrowded,” and he supports having an alternative school for the city.

With the district’s funding struggles having drawn much attention in recent months, incumbents have referred to the significance of funding measures on the Nov. 2 ballot. If approved, Measure Y would create a half-cent sales tax to support various city services, while Measure YY is an advisory measure that asks voters if they support using half of the money generated to benefit the school district. Snell said he is a strong supporter of both measures, which will help stabilize the district finances, but the board would need to think hard about where to make future cuts if the measures fail.

Another recent topic of discussion has been the possible separation of the Santa Monica and Malibu school districts. In regards to the feasibility of a second school district in Malibu, Lieberman said it would be difficult to meet the financial standards for separation.

While Snell said he believes that Malibu should have its own district, that would be a “long-range option” due to financial issues and the district needs to continue understanding the uniqueness of both communities. Patel said he wants to do everything in his power to ensure Malibu feels like part of the district.

“I think every community should have local control over their public school system,” de la Torre responded.

The incumbent added that a proposed separation would need to be approved by the county school system but the district needs to ensure that both communities have equal opportunities for their schools.

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