Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Superintendent Ben Drati announced on Friday that he would be departing the district effective January 2023; one day earlier, Drati accepted a job as superintendent of Bellflower Unified School District.

Drati came to Santa Monica six years ago in November 2016, months after former Superintendent Sandra Lyon departed for Palm Springs.

“I did not see this coming,” SMMUSD Board Member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein said following Drati’s announcement.

Tahvildaran-Jesswein, speaking to the Daily Press on Friday, said he was on the hiring committee that brought Drati to the district six years ago and that over the years he has been very happy with Drati’s work and leadership style.

“I would really like to convey this to you and anyone who’s interested in what I might think — I’ve said to people over and over that what I think one of the best decisions I’ve made as a board member was to hire Dr. Drati, and I stand by that,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein said.

In his surprise announcement on Friday morning, Drati wrote that he “thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated serving as the Superintendent of SMMUSD and will always cherish [his] time here.”

Drati’s departure potentially leaves the SMMUSD without a superintendent beginning in January; no interim or permanent successor had yet been named. Prior to his arrival, two interim superintendents filled in for about five months after Lyon departed for Palm Springs Unified School District.

Tahvildaran-Jesswein said the Board was set to discuss options during a closed-session meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 29; it was his feeling the Board should wait to select an interim and/or permanent replacement until after new school board members are sworn in next month. Two board members, Craig Foster and Keith Coleman, resigned from their posts and will be replaced by newcomers Stacy Rouse and Alicia Mignano beginning on Dec. 8.

In his departure announcement, Drati took the opportunity to highlight what he felt were his successes while at the helm of the District, including a “positive fiscal outlook,” “creating 21st-century learning environments that align with our education specifications,” and “parents’ willingness to participate and partner with school staff and administration in supporting their student’s progress and overall best interests of all students,” among others.

Under Drati’s leadership, the SMMUSD has made major strides toward modernizing its curriculum with the addition of the project based learning pathway at Samohi.

He has also seen the Samohi campus transform. Santa Monica High School’s new award-winning Discovery Building was constructed during Drati’s time as superintendent; recently, the campus broke ground on two more 21st century buildings, the Exploration Building and Gold’s Gym.

Tahvildaran-Jesswein said that among Drati’s accomplishments was his commitment to social justice learning standards.

Drati’s tenure as SMMUSD superintendent was also bookended by upheaval in the local school district. He arrived just weeks after a U.S. District Court judge ordered the school district to remove all polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from Malibu High School, after the SMMUSD spent millions of dollars trying to keep from having to do so.

That battle fanned the flames of Malibu’s desire to break away from the joint school district; that attempt has been ongoing throughout Drati’s time as local superintendent.

Now, upon his departure, Malibu’s split from Santa Monica seemed closer than ever, after an October agreement that lays out financial terms for the eventual divorce. At the same time, local parents were up in arms over extensive water and mold damage at John Muir Elementary in Ocean Park and the future of that Title IX school. Drati’s departure also comes shortly after a major ruling against the school district resulting in a $45 million payout over abuse of a special needs student in Malibu.

Bellflower, where Drati will begin as superintendent next year, is one of LA County’s Gateway Cities in southeastern LA County. Other Gateway Cities include Downey, Whittier and Cerritos. Bellflower Unified is a two-thirds majority Latino district that contains 10 schools including four high schools; with an enrollment around 10,000, it’s about 10% larger than SMMUSD. According to public information shared by Transparent California, the Bellflower Superintendent earned about $290,000 in salary and benefits in 2020; in the same year, Drati earned $302,000 in salary and benefits in Santa Monica.

emily@smdp.com