Carey Upton oversees the development and operations of SMMUSD schools


When a company wants to film a commercial at one of Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District’s 16 schools, chief operations officer Carey Upton knows the first question he’ll hear: “Where are the chalkboards?”

“That’s not how we teach today,” Upton said, who knows the location of every old-fashioned chalkboard in the district.
Throughout the district, chalkboards and wooden desks (which Upton described as “heavier than our students and older than their parents”) are giving way to smartboards and seating areas that can be easily shifted to create multiple learning environments.

Upton is also overseeing $900 million in facility modernization and construction throughout the school district, including an innovative open building concept for Santa Monica High School’s new Discovery Building.

“This is one of the first K-12 buildings anywhere to be built with change in mind,” Upton explained.

Unlike the high school’s nearly 90-year-old history building with its cramped classrooms and narrow hallways, the Discovery Building will feature moveable walls set above a base that houses pipes and wiring, so the configuration can change and adapt with educational needs.

“We’re giving teachers the tools to do 21st century learning, blending technology, interaction and flow,” Upton said.

“We’re shifting the entire dynamic, envisioning a school facility that supports where we’re going in education and as a culture.”

Upton has served as the district’s chief operations officer since 2016, and from 2007 to 2016 was the district’s director of facility use, in charge of theater, filming, special events and athletics. Upton’s background is in theater, which he says prepared him well for his current role.

“When my wife and I moved to Los Angeles, I quickly discovered that it’s not a theater town,” Upton said, who had worked at theaters throughout the country. “I originally came to the school district to manage its theater. They gave me more and more to do, and I kind of wandered into the operations job.”

It may seem like a big jump from theater to operations management, but as Upton explained, everything he has done in his theater career has been applicable to this job.

“Swinging a hammer as a stage tech, designing sets, stage managing, production, teaching theater, directing – I’ve dabbled in enough areas that I can talk with different people and understand their needs,” Upton said. “In both theater and operations, you’re bringing together people from many disciplines, working together to create something on time and on budget.”

Another similarity between theaters and schools is that both were shut down by the pandemic. Upton’s job includes ensuring that when the schools eventually reopen, everything is ready to go.

“Even with the pandemic, our buildings still have to be maintained,” Upton said. “Our goal has been to get the schools back open, but what that looks like has changed several times.”

First, the focus was on hand washing and surface cleaning, so Upton’s team installed portable sinks and sanitized every surface. Then there was an emphasis on distance, so they set up systems to keep people at least 6 feet apart. Now air circulation is the focus, with the need for ventilation and ionization systems, air scrubbers, HEPA filters and improved air exchange.

“I’ve been working every step of the way with the LA Department of Public Health, even as the conversation keeps shifting,” Upton said.
When the kids weren’t in classrooms due to COVID-19, Upton and his team were able to move full speed ahead with work on construction projects that are usually put off until the summer.

“Even as we continue construction, we’re focused on getting the kids back as soon as we get the word,” Upton said. “It’s just like getting ready for the opening night of a play. I’ve had more than 300 opening nights, and with one exception, every play opened when it was supposed to. For the school district and our construction projects, we must be ready so the kids can return. It’s all about putting butts in seats, just like in the theater.”

— Elizabeth M. Johnson