SMMUSD HDQTRS — School board members voted unanimously Monday night to hire Sandra Lyon as the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s new superintendent.

Lyon hails from the Palmdale School District, where she spent two years as the chief leadership officer, which entailed supervising, guiding and disciplining the district’s 27 principals in schools spread over 70 square miles.

Throughout her 25-year career in the field of education, Lyon has served in various districts as superintendent, principal, assistant principal and as a teacher in an after-school program for at-risk students.

It was her proven capacity for strong leadership and record in helping principals and teachers through their professional development that ultimately won her the position at SMMUSD, said Board President Jose Escarce.

Lyon’s professed style of fostering a culture of openness fueled by communication and a hands-on style of leadership also appealed to the board.

“Her intelligence, experience, personal warmth, focus on all students and collaborative approach make her ideal for our schools and communities. We are thrilled that she will be assuming the leadership of our district this summer, and we look forward to working with her to make our schools better for all students,” Escarce said.

Lyon’s selection came at the end of a four-month search process which collected a batch of candidates that several board members remarked on as being the most talented they had seen.

Over a series of meetings, the board narrowed down the pool, and then board members Laurie Lieberman and Oscar de la Torre conducted a site visit at Palmdale to speak to Lyon’s co-workers and supervisors.

There wasn’t a person at the Palmdale District with a bad thing to say about Lyon, the two reported.

Palmdale Superintendent Roger Gallizzi echoed those comments in an interview Tuesday.

“Weaknesses?” Gallizzi said. “She already has the job, and I still really can’t say she has one. I hold her in such high esteem as a fellow superintendent.”

Board members hope that Palmdale’s loss will be SMMUSD’s gain.

“I’d like to welcome you to our crazy district,” Lieberman said. “It’s a wonderful district, but we can be a challenge.”

That’s one challenge Lyon believes she’s prepared for.

At Palmdale, Lyon weathered budget cuts, layoffs, the closing of two schools and the pressure of declining enrollment. New will be the unparalleled participation of parents in the school process in her new district.

“This is a really involved community, with great programs already in place, a vision to move forward and to be innovative,” she said Tuesday. “All those factors appealed to me.”

Lyon will take over the reins of the district July 1. In the meantime, she will wrap up her job in Palmdale, and find a place to live in Santa Monica.

Her arrival will be a historic first at SMMUSD — it will be the first time that the district has had an all-female senior cabinet, school officials said.

“Only 24 percent of superintendents in the country are female. Since 70 percent of all teachers are female, we have a gender gap in terms of top leadership,” Lyon said. “Getting to work with women who are committed to their professions and education is a great opportunity.”

As they welcomed Lyon into the fold, board members also praised current Superintendent Tim Cuneo for his three years of work at the district.

“You were my first superintendent,” said Board member Nimish Patel. “You never forget your first.

“Not that way! Come on, people,” Patel implored as the packed audience burst into laughter.

A request for Lyon’s contract, including salary and benefits, was not fulfilled by presstime.

However, when Cuneo was formally hired in February 2009, he received a $220,000 base salary with health, dental and disability insurance as well as $1,000 per month for a car and phone and $3,200 per month for housing.

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