Better communication with Malibu needed from new superintendent, activists say


Criticisms of the current superintendent include a lack of communication and interaction with Malibu. A search firm will conduct public workshops to gain input from Malibu and Santa Monica.

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

On Thursday, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education met with Peggy Lynch and Michael Escalante of the search firm Leadership Associates to present the personal and professional qualities board members want to see in the school district’s next superintendent. Acting Superintendent Tim Cuneo is retiring in June, and the SMMUSD board has hired Leadership Associates to provide a list of qualified candidates to replace Cuneo.

As the search for the new superintendent begins, Malibu city leaders and educational activists say they want a district leader who will be more involved with the community and who will communicate better with parents and schools here.

Lynch and Escalante will conduct public input sessions in Santa Monica on Feb. 1 and at Malibu High School on Feb. 2 at 5:30 p.m. to take suggestions from community members on qualities they would like to see in the next superintendent. That input will then be used in recruiting and selecting candidates. The school board will interview finalists in early April.

The next superintendent will be the fourth since 2006, and will inherit a district with lingering tensions between Malibu and the district office in Santa Monica, which were most recently exposed in the debate surrounding the effort to convert Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School into a charter school.

Kathy Wisnicki, the last Malibu resident to serve on the SMMUSD board, said that outgoing Superintendent Cuneo’s lack of dialogue with members of the Malibu community has hurt both sides during the Point Dume charter process.

“If the superintendent had come out and said, ‘Here are what we staff see as the issues, what can we do to work around this, because we want to show that we’re a progressive school district that embraces new ideas’-and that didn’t happen- things like that would have really helped,” Wisnicki said. “I hate saying this, because it sounds like I’m bad-mouthing the superintendent, but I think that he did not appear in Malibu, people didn’t know who he was, people didn’t feel comfortable calling him.”

Wisnicki, who has also served on the district’s Financial Oversight Committee, described the current climate as “the most contentious I’ve seen in our district in the 15 years I’ve been here.”

She said she believes that the next superintendent must do more public outreach in Malibu if the rift is to be healed. Such outreach, Wisnicki suggested, could include more trips to Malibu, more public meetings and greater personal interaction with all members of the Malibu educational community.

Wisnicki pointed to former SMMUSD Superintendent John Deasy, who now oversees the Los Angeles Unified School District, as an example of someone who made himself available to community members.

“When John Deasy took over as superintendent, I was just a district advocate/participant, but he knew me as someone who was kind of outspoken in Malibu,” Wisnicki said. “So whenever there was an idea that he had that had a potential impact on Malibu, he would call me or he would call other members of the community to check with them.”

Mayor Pro Tem Laura Rosenthal, who has been active in educational issues, including spearheading a drive to create a separate school district for Malibu, echoed Wisnicki’s concern for more collaboration between the next superintendent and Malibu.

Rosenthal said she wanted “someone that’s interested in working with both communities and understands both communities.”

She added that the next superintendent should also be “an innovator” who is both knowledgeable about new educational ideas and willing to accept suggestions from district teachers and principals.

Rosenthal mentioned, by way of an example, how some school districts were considering replacing students’ textbooks with Kindles and iPads, which would lighten the weight students had to carry around in backpacks and allow textbooks to be updated electronically. The next superintendent should be “willing to think outside of the box” on such issues, Rosenthal said.

When the SMMUSD board interviewed search firms at a special meeting in December before settling on Leadership Associates, several board members stressed their desire for a candidate who would commit to a long tenure at the position in order to avoid the turmoil caused by turnover at the position.

But Wisnicki, who participated in several superintendent searches during her time on the board, said that can be tricky.

“If you’re going to get someone who’s really going to push and be ambitious, really push people to excel, that may be a person who’s also personally ambitious and wants to move on,” she said. “If you’re getting someone sort of in their golden years of retirement, you may end up having that person longer, but you may not necessarily reach the level you’re trying to reach. So it’s a balancing act.”

Speaking with The Malibu Times by phone Monday, Lynch said the board wants “a good communicator and listener… [as well as] someone who can collaborate well not only with the staff, but with the board and with the cities that they work with.” Other qualities desired in the next superintendent include strong leadership, the ability to inspire others and great financial skills, she said. Lynch also said the board wants someone with the savvy to secure revenue for the school district from alternative sources such as grants. She said they also expressed “a fairly strong preference” that the new superintendent has experience working in California, due to its unique tax system and difficult financial climate.

Those who cannot make the public input meetings but wish to express their opinions on the search may send a fax to 949.461.9119 or an email to or, subject line: “SMMUSD Superintendent Search.” Lynch or Escalante can be reached by calling 909.985.7814.