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Departing Santa Monica-Malibu Schools Superintendent Gets Generally Positive Reviews
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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

Note: This article has been updated to remove unsubstantiated quotes.

May 4, 2016 -- Santa Monica-Malibu Schools Superintendent Sandra Lyon is leaving her post of five years with supporters citing her efforts to help poor and minority students and one critic from Malibu saying her exit is welcomed.

Lyon announced on Monday she is leaving July 1 for the Palm Springs Unified School District, which covers six cities in the Coachella Valley. She was hired by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) in 2011 ("Santa Monica-Malibu Schools Superintendent to Leave Post," May 3, 2016).

With an enrollment of about 23,000 students, Palm Springs Unified has more than twice as many students as SMMUSD, with more than 80 percent of them deemed disadvantaged.

Lyon’s fans said Palm Springs Unified will be a good fit for her.

“She was genuinely dedicated to providing equal opportunity to all students,” said Tom Larmore, an attorney long involved with committees providing oversight and other functions for SMMUSD. “I think that will be her legacy.”

Ralph Mechur, a school board member, said Lyon demonstrated great compassion for disadvantaged students and a real focus on closing the district’s student “achievement gap” – which the board has designated a top priority.

“She is an amazing person,” Mechur said.

Still, even Lyon's supporters acknowledged the district’s badly lagging test scores for poor and/or Latino or black changed little during her tenure.

Latinos comprise about 30 percent of the district’s total 11,300 enrollment and are not generally financially well off, statistics show. They also test poorly in comparison to white student. About half meet or exceed state standards.

Black students, who represent another 7 percent of SMMUSD’s enrollment, also have financially troubled backgrounds, for the most part. They register lower test scores than both Latino and white students.

A UCLA expert last month concluded the district had failed every effort to help such struggling students for more than two decades. SMMUSD lacked the will in leadership and also had too many political distractions to help at all, the study by Pedro Noguera, an academic with expertise in equity issues, found ("Santa Monica-Malibu Schools Get Failing Grades in Closing Achievement Gap," April 20, 2016.

But School Board Member Oscar de la Torre, like others, said Lyon should not be blamed for the report’s bleak findings.

Five years is barely enough time to even start tackling such a complex and deeply rooted problem, he said.

“By bringing Dr. Pedro Noguera to the district, she showed a strong focus on equity,” de la Torre said. “I think it was one of her most important contributions to the future of the district.

"She inherited the problem," de la Torre said. "Any superintendent is going to inherit issues."

Mechur agreed. "The achievement gap is a longstanding problem, a national problem,” he said. “She made progress.”

De La Torre also noted that Lyon lasted twice the 2.5-year average tenure for school superintendents nationwide.

One harsh assessments of Lyon came from a Malibu attorney who rattled SMMUSD officials when he participated in a Voting Rights lawsuit filed against the City of Santa Monica in April.

Kevin Shenkman, who resigned from the committee conducting talks about separating Malibu from the District, said Lyon’s announcement that she is leaving SMMUSD prompted “celebration in Malibu and enormous happiness” ("Lawsuit Pauses Santa Monica-Malibu School District Split Talks," April 18, 2016).

The Noguera findings alone spoke volumes about her abilities, he said.

“I think it’s a travesty that a district with so many resources could do so poorly,” Shenkman said. “Lyon is tone deaf to the needs of minority students.”

Shenkman said Lyon also provided little assistance to Malibu parents trying to split from the district, a years-long fight that finally turned the corner when a majority of school board in December agreed to a proposed separation.

In general, Lyon is lauded by District officials for starting to improve and modernize the district’s schools, using a $385 million bond measure she is said to have been instrumental in bringing to a successful public vote in 2012.

She is also credited with initiatives to strengthen teaching and instruction, implementing the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress tests and helping make the transition to the district’s “Local Control Accountability Plan.”

Supporters also point to Lyon’s role in shaping a centralized policy for outside fundraising that spreads contributions equally among all 16 schools.

The change boosted the importance of the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation, a nonprofit that collects contributions for extra staff in subjects like literacy, arts, math and science.

SMMEF anticipates raising $3.7 million by June 30, the end of the district’s fiscal year, and brought in about $6 million in contributions the two previous years, officials said.

The money is earmarked for arts education for 4,900 elementary students, 87 instructional assistants, literacy coaches and enrichment grants for all schools.

“It was a radical change, a wonderful change,” Larmore said. “Parents who were wealthier were getting the extra programs that the students who really needed them weren’t. She brought everybody up to the same level.”

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