A number of serious, ongoing issues have plagued the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District for decades. One of those has been the “achievement gap” — a term stating that demographically white (Caucasian) and Asian students do better academically than students of color. The “gap” also exists along socioeconomic lines and parallels the racial disparities.   

There has been an extraordinary amount of lip service regarding fixing the gap and achieving equality in educational access for all students. However, talk is cheap and coming up with a comprehensive plan to define and address the elements contributing to the inequality problem has so far proven impossible for the SMMUSD Board of Education.

One solution to creating an equal playing field was to implement centralized fundraising. The board would determine the programs to be funded and allocate spending, thus eliminating donations to specific schools, activities, programs and projects and leveling the playing field. The centralized fundraising model was controversial, and many donors and fundraising groups such as PTAs either cut back or stopped raising funds.

In order to provide a better, equal and more effective education to its 11,000-plus students, SMMUSD hired noted educator Pedro Noguera last summer to analyze the district from top to bottom and fix the problems.

The school board and Noguera are now in the process of reviewing the issues, outlining goals and determining how to best measure progress.

According to Noguera, frequent changes in administrative leadership has resulted in a degradation of the educational experience in the SMMUSD. Case in point: Current Superintendent Sandra Lyon, who was tapped as the district’s new leader in 2011, recently announced that she is leaving the district.

According to the Santa Monica Daily Press (“Cautious optimism for SMMUD equity plan,” June 21), Noguera claimed that the district’s history of racial tension has fostered feelings of distrust and marginalization among parents, students and staff. He also mentioned inconsistent training, ineffective buy-in on the part of site leaders and staff and less-than-ideal patterns of communication. “Those factors,” Noguera said, “have contributed to the failure of previous initiatives to close achievement gaps.”

Noguera criticized working relationships. “There are way too many cases of teachers working in isolation,” he said. “Some of your best teachers are not a resource for the others.” Noguera’s statement supports the ongoing disconnect between district and site leadership and a need for improved professional development.

Distractions have kept the district from addressing inequity. The possible separation of Malibu and Santa Monica into two autonomous districts is a “significant distraction from a clear focus on student needs.”

The Board of Education has seriously dropped the ball. I became aware of the mismanagement issues close to two decades ago, when the board initiated a parcel tax ballot measure to pay for staff and faculty raises they had approved but couldn’t fund. Then there were the gag orders, athletic coach stumbles and a whole litany of misfires.

Noguera’s report was equally damning. Again, it confirms that the “persistence and pervasive” nature of the socioeconomic fracture suggests schools in SMMUSD are unclear about how to meet the educational needs of minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged students.” A similar study of the district’s 16 schools was conducted by UCLA nine years ago, and little progress had been made since then, Noguera said.

None of this is new. In July 2001 a report by Michael D. Rich, RAND vice president and chairman of the district’s Financial Oversight Committee, came up with a set of fiscal recommendations that included improving financial planning and management, conducting a “best practices” audit, budgeting labor related costs, strengthening revenue flows and assessing future facility needs among other suggestions. Rich said at the time that the school board members had serious shortcomings in their ability to handle money.

The problems have only deepened. “Teachers are working a lot in isolation, they’re not collaborating a whole lot and frankly, we saw a lot of students who were not thoroughly engaged,” Noguera said.

Administrative appointments, including those of board-approved superintendents, seem to be based more on a candidate’s social engineering philosophy, political leanings or cronyism rather than being able to effectively manage a $100-million academic, nonprofit learning institution.

With three board seats up for grabs, Santa Monica and Malibu voters have a great opportunity to clean house and put some competent and invigorated overseers in place. Dr. Jose Escarce has announced he’s retiring. Escarce is a huge advocate of bringing in non-resident permit students whose cost to educate was not fully covered by the California education subsidies — it’s the reason we pay high school parcel and sales taxes. To make up the difference.

Ralph Mechur says he’s running again. He was voted off the board a couple of years ago, but when an opening turned up after Ben Allen resigned to take a State Senate seat, Mechur was appointed to the board by his Renter’s Rights cronies to serve out Allen’s term. The problem is that Mechur lacks leadership, as does Maria Leon-Vazquez, another longtime board member whose claim every election cycle that “helped close the achievement gap” isn’t supported by the facts.

Our schools are run incompetently and inefficiently by a bunch of glad-handers and social cliques out to maintain power, control their own turf, toot their own horns and reward cronies. Our kids are being shortchanged, but not enough people seem to care — or want to do something about it. Sad.

Bill Bauer can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com.

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