Joan Chu Reese’s Letter of Resignation from the SMMUSD Financial Operating Committee

Dear Members of the Financial Oversight Committee, Jan Maez, Kim Nguyen, Board Liaisons, Board President Ben Allen, and Superintendent Sandra Lyon:

I am resigning my position as Vice Chairman and member of the SMMUSD Financial Oversight Committee (FOC), effective as of 9 PM, March 20th, 2012.

Since there may be speculation over the rationale behind my actions, I would like provide clarification.  First I would like to state that I have a great deal of affection of this school district, having been a SMMUSD parent from 2004-2011. My closest friends’ children are in the district, my son spends all his free time with his buddies from the district, I am a property owner in the district, I gladly pay taxes to fund school measures in the district, and I remain a steadfast fan of the schools, teachers, and district staff of SMMUSD.  I am deeply grateful for the many people on the FOC and in the school community who have offered support to me over the last 3 years of my term and particularly during the last month of the renomination process when my suitability for a second term on the FOC has been called into question, led by a member of the school board along with a member of the FOC.  I am also grateful to Board President Ben Allen, Board Vice President Laurie Lieberman, and Nimish Patel, who have forecefully argued that the attempt to replace the FOC’s nominees, put forwards by the FOC itself, is wrongheaded, and to Ralph Mechur who had the integrity to recuse himself from the debate, given his conflict of interest.

I am resigning because:

1)             After years of service to SMMUSD, including hundreds of hours spent in PTA officer roles at two District schools, over a year’s work as the FOC representative to the SMMUSD Strategic Plan, a leadership position within the FOC, active participation in Board budget workshops, extensive FOC subcommittee work for the past three years, hours spent on precinct walking and other legislative work in support of school parcel tax and school sales tax measures, and sustained major donorship to the District (via PTA and the SMMEF) of thousands of dollars annually for the past seven years, I now find my motives and my loyalty to the District being questioned by this same board member in the last Board meeting, because I (as of 2011) no longer have a child attending SMMUSD schools. Never mind that the financial oversight work I have done for the district has been of high quality. Never mind that I have consistently spoken for fiscal sustainability and the need for highly successful revenue enhancement. Never mind that I have actually carried out the job to which I was appointed. This new criteria was advocated cloaked in the need for “having members who are part of the ‘District Team’” which in my opinion is cynicism in the purest sense and criticism at its most insidious, as it is directed at my personal integrity and intentions which have always been to work to ensure the district has the financial wherewithal to continue to provide the high quality education all Santa Monica and Malibu children deserve.

2)             I see a part of the Board increasingly taking alarming steps to control members of the FOC whom they deem to be too active, outspoken, or independent relative to the Board’s own point of view.  Liberties are being taken to pressure individual FOC members to take Board-friendly positions, including singling out new members and calling them individually, outside of public debate, to ask if certain candidates were selected when the nomination process was still underway and to sway same members to a Board-member centric opinion on their perceived failings of members such as myself.  I see attempts to add criteria that would gradually eliminate large swaths of the tax-paying population of the city from membership in a group that by design of the City Council is supposed to remain independent and open to all citizens of the cities of Malibu and Santa Monica. This is very dangerous.  The generous citizens of the two cities will quickly close their pocketbooks if they feel their investments in the community via property and sales taxes will be spent without independent oversight, which would be a terrible outcome for all.  I see major steps being taken to directly hand-pick members who can be easily swayed or are perceived to be more Board-friendly rather than a process based solely on merit for the position. I have email correspondence sent by such an applicant to the Board and Superintendent without copying the FOC regarding her concerns with the FOC nominating process written in such as style as to raise major questions about whether the applicant were coached by the Board in the actual writing to make the FOC nominating committee look bad.  When I raised this as a concern to a current Board member, I was told it was “just politics” from a candidate that had been directly recruited by the Board and it was to be expected.  When “politics as usual” has devolved to using members of the public as political pawns to remove members of the FOC it has decayed to the point where I feel I cannot in good conscience continue to serve. As a member of a group charged with independent financial oversight, I feel these have and will continue to lead to an environment where it is impossible to offer an independent perspective, much less responsible fiscal oversight.

3)    Most of all, I am sickened by the massive amount of time that is now absorbed by many FOC members, the FOC nominating committee, and members of the Board in pointless political maneuvering to remove qualified and deserving members of the FOC, rather than getting to the real issues of maintaining a premium education in the face of debilitating state budget cuts.  I know the personal attacks have had a similar effect on others in the FOC who feel the rules have been changed and the process unilaterally hijacked.  This has led me to the sad but inevitable conclusion that I can work to support the cause of public school education from outside more effectively rather than from within the SMMUSD system.  The students deserve at least this much from me and I refuse to be yet another reason the Board fails to engage on the real topics of importance.

I sincerely hope the Board can come to some resolution with the FOC that is consistent with the core purpose of the FOC as independent financial oversight before permanent damage is done both to the FOC and to the reputation of the Board itself.

Joan Chu Reese

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