Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a multi-part series about the Santa Monica-Malibu school district’s achievement gap.

Sandra Lyon watched with joy Thursday evening as elementary school students performed “De Colores” in front of the local Board of Education. For a few moments, at least, the issues facing the Santa Monica-Malibu school district were drowned out by the singing voices of young children.

A week earlier, when the school board heard a presentation by Pedro Noguera on longstanding achievement gaps in the district, Lyon sounded relieved to be addressing a problem directly related to education.

“This is the fun stuff that we love,” the superintendent said. “How do we improve outcomes for kids?”

As stakeholders are well-aware, and as Noguera reminded district leaders and community members during his recent talk in the Santa Monica High School cafeteria, non-classroom matters have commanded ample time and resources in SMMUSD in recent years, requiring a lion’s share of Lyon’s attention.

The discovery of chemicals in the caulk at Malibu schools has enraged families in that city and spawned an ongoing lawsuit, the centerpiece of a protracted battle that has cost the school district millions of dollars in consultants and legal fees.

That conflict has fueled an effort by Malibu activists to separate from the existing district and create their own school district. Board-sanctioned negotiations between Santa Monica and Malibu advocates came to a halt last week over the filing of a lawsuit that challenges Santa Monica’s current at-large voting system. Kevin Shenkman, a member of the Malibu negotiating team, is representing the plaintiffs in the case.

“The distractions matter,” Noguera said, arguing that they divert district leadership’s attention from academic problems. “What is being discussed at the school board level? Is it teaching and learning? Is it equity? Or is it something else?”

In order to close the achievement gaps that persist between black and Hispanic students and their peers, Noguera said, the school board must establish that as a primary goal. He added that the district must shift its focus from adults to kids.

“If equity is a priority,” he said, “how does it show up in our time in meetings and in our budget? … How much time in board meetings do you spend really thinking about the kids? If it doesn’t get attention, it’s not a priority.”

Noguera, who was hired by the district last year, has spent months observing classrooms and meeting with administrators, teachers and students. He and his consultancy found that racial tensions have contributed to feelings of distrust and marginalization among stakeholders.

“If we truly want to further equity and reduce economic disparity, we need to make a clear and unequivocal effort to that commitment by focusing our attention and allowing our superintendent to help focus the attention of the district on teaching and learning,” board president Laurie Lieberman said. “We need to keep other issues, however important, from diverting our attention and the staff’s attention.”

Added board member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, who relayed a portion of his conversation with former board president Patricia Hoffman: “The distractions are real. We are representatives of the community, and we need to be on the same page together. … ‘It doesn’t matter what [Noguera] says. It matters what you’ll do.’”

Board member Oscar de la Torre, a Samohi alumnus, advocated for an annual report on the work being done to close the achievement gaps. That way, he said, the problems won’t fade away.

“On this issue, there’s a lot of common ground,” he said. “We’re good at developing these reports, these strategic plans, and then they go nowhere. There needs to be public accountability. … I don’t want this to be another good report that gets put on the shelf with very little in outcomes.”

jeff@www.smdp.com