By Michael Tittinger
The search is over.
On Friday, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District announced Dr. Ben Drati as its choice to become the next superintendent. Drati, who has served as assistant superintendent of secondary education for the Santa Barbara Unified School District since 2012, is credited with shaping a district focused on diversity, inclusiveness and cultural proficiency.
The SMMUSD Board of Education expects to appoint Drati as superintendent, effective Jan. 1, at its regular meeting this Thursday. He would replace Sandra Lyon, who stepped down in June to serve as top executive for schools in Palm Springs.
“What really attracts me to Santa Monica is their mission to support all students,” Drati told The Daily Press on Friday. “I love the courage of the board.”
The appointment would be a homecoming of sorts for Drati, who grew graduated from Los Angeles High School before leaving the area to attend college. He got a great feeling about the Santa Monica post after talking to random people on the streets about the district.
“I appreciate all they’re trying to accomplish here,” Drati said. “Districts like Santa Monica aren’t always concerned about the achievement gap, but they have the courage to go deeper.”
A team of local school board members, administrators and union leaders conducted a validation visit in Santa Barbara last Thursday as part of their vetting process. There, they discussed Drati’s qualifications with his current colleagues and community members.
“We heard very favorable common themes from participants describing Dr. Drati’s leadership skills,” Laurie Lieberman, board president, said. “Staff and community members who have worked with him described him as authentic, noble, a unifier, a good listener, a person who engenders trust and has a tremendous heart, builds systems and cohesion, and forms highly productive relationships.
“His passion for, and experience in, providing educational opportunities so that all students may reach their full potential fits in perfectly with our Excellence through Equity plan implementation.”
Following Lyon’s departure at the end of the 2015-16 school year, the Board of Education selected co-interim superintendents Dr. Sylvia Rousseau and Dr. Christopher King to preside over the district until a permanent successor was found.
Over the summer, consultants from executive search firm Leadership Associates held meetings with stakeholders and community members in Santa Monica and Malibu to solicit input on what traits were desired in the next superintendent prior to conducting a broad search for candidates.
District officials and consultants gathered input from senior staff and site principals as well as Classroom Teachers Association and union representatives. Leaders from the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation and PTA Council were also be consulted. District committee members, City of Santa Monica officials and Santa Monica College board trustees were expected to contribute as well.
Back in June, school board members began discussing the characteristics they wanted to see in a new superintendent and weighed the challenges facing the district.
The board was seeking a successor with a track record of effective leadership in education and someone who has had “success with working with a diverse group of people and diverse interests, while maintaining student-focused goals,” SMMUSD spokeswoman Gail Pinsker said. The ideal candidate would also have “strong experience with parent engagement.”
Board members said they wanted a superintendent who would close academic achievement gaps and guide the district through the strategies being outlined by education reformist Pedro Noguera. On Friday, Drati acknowledged the work by Noguera got his attention.
The excitement and enthusiasm for Drati was confirmed after hearing from his current community. His hiring comes at a critical juncture for the district, which is dealing with the possible creation of a separate Malibu district.
“We are excited to welcome Dr. Drati to our district,” Lieberman sa