SMMUSD HDQTRS — Sandra Lyon took over the top position in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in May 2011.
Since, the district has weathered a hard-fought battle to fundamentally alter the method of fundraising in the schools, taken on violence and racial conflict that erupted at Santa Monica High School and began the complicated process of working with a group of Malibu education advocates trying to secede from the union.
That’s on top of the “normal” problems facing public education, primarily the state financial crisis that’s resulted in a 20 percent decrease in the amount of funding available to SMMUSD, leaving a $5 million budget deficit that could balloon to $10 million if neither of the two tax increases on the November ballot make it past voters.
Add to that a newly-launched campaign calling on local voters to accept a $385 million bond measure to help repair aging school facilities on campuses that are looking back on their 100th birthdays, and you have quite a year.
Despite those dustups, Lyon is looking steadfastly forward.
At the convocation that launched the new school year, she announced to every district employee that this would be a time to focus on collaboration and efficiency.
She plans to use her second year to address the persistent achievement gap between minority students and their white and Asian counterparts, and put the district in a position to succeed as the federal government pushes to standardize tests throughout the nation.
The Daily Press sat down with Lyon to discuss her take on the year behind her, and what promises to be an eventful one to come.
Daily Press: So how would you grade your performance in your first year?
Sandra Lyon: I’m going to give myself a B. I think there were things that I didn’t expect in terms of some community expectations and how my time was used that, had I planned better, I might have been more effective. So I think this year we’re setting up some scheduling and ways to meet with people so that I can be out in the community and meet with staff. I think that will help me be more effective.
DP: What were some of those unexpecteds? The districtwide funding debate, the Malibu unification?
SL: Yes. All of those things were sort of unexpected. I think you can be a superintendent for a career and not deal with any of those issues.
DP: How did you envision your first year going?
SL: One of the things that I thought was that I would get out to schools more. I also think that I didn’t understand the community involvement level, and the interaction and relationship that the district has with the city of Santa Monica, city of Malibu and sort of the political connectedness that not every district has.
DP: Did the level of community involvement surprise you?
SL: It’s unique to have so many committees and so many people involved in them. Trying to get an understanding of our relationship with the community and community expectations took a bit longer than it might in some districts where those community groups are fewer and usually under the purview of the superintendent.
DP: What does that engagement add to the conversation, and what challenges does it present?
SL: I think it obviously adds a lot. This is a very engaged, passionate community of people who are intelligent, educated and experienced. When you have those folks sitting around a table working on an issue, you’ve got a lot of people who bring a lot to bear on every discussion, and I think that’s a huge advantage. On the other hand, I think the challenge is that sometimes the district is working in a parallel structure to the community, and what I want to work more on is co-missioning so that our community groups are working with us, giving us input, giving us feedback and we’re all rowing in the same direction.
DP: The community has accused the district of lacking transparency in the past. How will you address that?
SL: I think the struggle that we have is the idea of transparency to some people means they’re involved at every level, and the reality is that you can’t run a district without some decisions being made by the people we pay to make them.
DP: How do you decide?
SL: If a decision needs to be made there really are very few options, the trust is that I’m going to choose from those small array of options and it’s going to be done … For decisions that are really about change, about big picture goals and pieces that involve a lot of the parts of a district or organization, you really need everybody at the table having those conversations.
(We need to be) transparent enough that people understand our thinking. They may not always agree, but that they understand why we did what we did is critical, especially in those big picture kind of issues.
DP: Did districtwide fundraising follow that model?
SL: I think it did, and what I really try to get community folks to understand was the board is elected to create the “what,” the policy that governs us. The staff and community work to do the “how,” how are we going to make that happen. The board had a clear vision and direction and we passed that policy, but to make it work within the community we do need all of the stakeholders around the table working on the details.
DP: What will the districtwide fundraising conversation look like in the future?
SL: So now what you’re going to see in this next year is the next iteration of that community involvement as the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee. We’ve moved out of the piece where we crafted that timeline and presented it to the board, and now the committee’s going to really work on the details and how that is going to play out, what the next three years are going to look like — the relationship between the (Parent Teacher Associations) and Education Foundation. That will be an ongoing committee that will continue throughout the life of this so that there’s always a mechanism for the community and district staff to be talking about our goals, what we think it will take to fund them and what it will take within the community to make that happen.
DP: What big discussions are on the horizon?
SL: I think what you’re going to see over the course of the year is more involvement, more discussion over the achievement gap because our data continues to be not what we want it to be in that area and I remain convinced that we are a district that can make great strides.
The common core is big for us.
(Common Core Curriculum is a new set of nationwide education standards that will allow student data in one state to be compared to student data in another.)
It’s the standards that nationally 46 states have adopted. It will be a big shift for us instructionally because they are very performance-based. They will require more from our students in terms of critical thinking and being able to communicate their thinking and the writing — it’s a big shift. We really want our teachers to be well-versed in the common core and understand what it looks like in the classroom when student learning is being measured in a different way.
The other thing is 21st century learning skills. There are four Cs that we talk about nationwide, and they are critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.
We need students that are innovators, we need students that are thinkers, we need people who will be able to work in the flat world. How are we then as instructors planning lessons that get kids to learn those pieces?
DP: What do you think are some unfair criticisms the district receives?
SL: I don’t know about unfair but I will say it goes back to the transparency issue. People will say we did something secretively when, in fact, the board agenda was published, board notes have gone out but we didn’t send above-and-beyond e-mails, which is just not something we have the time or the staff to do or is really how most districts — or any district I’ve ever worked in — functions.
I don’t know that’s unfair, but I think it is sometimes maybe an unrealistic expectation that the district isn’t communicating about things that are being communicated but maybe not in the format that people want them.
DP: What do you tell people about the bond measure?
(Measure ES, which will appear on the ballot in November, is a $385 million bond that will go to repair aging facilities and bring new technology to the district.)
SL: I can never tell anybody how to vote on any measure, I can just explain what the implications are for us as a district. For us as a district in terms of the bond measure, facilities are never going to be taken care of unless a local bond measure is passed.
I just felt it was imperative not to neglect the facilities side of the house. That was really the decision around it. We have relocatables. The plans have been for years to replace those, and there has to be a bond piece to get that done. We have safety upgrades we got started with (Measure) BB (the $268 million bond passed in 2006) that won’t be done without another bond. There’s also the Malibu High project, and then Samohi, which has huge needs. BB is going to get the one building built, but won’t meet the rest of the academic needs. So the problem is that there are ongoing needs and no extra resources, so you really do have to have an ongoing bond plan to upkeep 100-year-old buildings, which we have.
DP: Do you support Proposition 30 or Proposition 38?
(Proposition 30 is a tax measure put forward by Gov. Jerry Brown. It would raise the sales tax by one-quarter of 1 percent and raise taxes for the wealthiest Californians. Proposition 38 is a measure created by education activist Molly Munger. That measure proposes to raise income taxes for most Californians.)
SL: We just don’t know as much about what the impact will be for Proposition 38. Obviously, since the governor’s proposing Proposition 30 and it’s tied to our current revenue stream, what we know is without Proposition 30 passing there is a trigger cut immediately. So that’s a huge impact for us. Lots of folks, including the (California School Board Association) are asking people to pass both, or to vote for both because we need one to pass.