Santa Barbara School Board Candidates Clash Over Budgets, Teachers’ Housing, and Personalities
by Ethan Stewart photos by Paul Wellman
Given the vital role public schools play in forming the minds of our community’s next generation, the case could easily be made that this fall’s race for two vacant seats on the Santa Barbara School Districts Board of Education has the most local significance of any election this November. With declining enrollment trends, tight budgets in both the elementary and secondary school districts, stalled and contentious teacher salary negotiations, various No Child Left Behind sanctions, and a laundry list of desired facility improvements, the need for a strong and visionary board has never been more apparent. Complicating matters further has been a recent run of tedious, if not strained, relations between current members. Usually an amicable bunch, the board in the past year has had its fair share of head-butting sessions, lawsuits, Brown Act violation accusations, public eye-rollings, and angry board dialogue. While the job of a school board is never easy or free of criticism, it certainly seems the current board has fallen upon hard times.
With current boardmember and past president Lynn Rodriguez choosing not to seek reelection and incumbent Bob Noel seeking a third term, there will be at least one new member next year on the five-person panel. Six candidates have officially thrown their hats in the ring. Beside Noel, these contenders include Suzy Cawthon, Rosanne Crawford, and Kate Parker, as well as two lesser-involved candidates: the always-interested-in-any-available-city-office Thinker Bill Hackett and the mysterious Michelle Magdalena Maddox. (After deadline, Maddox — who was unreachable for comment — officially withdrew from the election.)
While Noel has alienated himself somewhat in the past year for being an outspoken critic of the very board on which he sits, the spectrum of other candidates represent a much more middle-of-the-road attitude toward district stewardship. All the candidates agree that money — or the lack thereof — and the management of a seriously hamstrung budget will be the penultimate issue for the board in coming months as it faces tough decisions about campus mergers, cafeteria programs, teacher raises, and property development. But perhaps the overriding factor in all future decisions will be to what degree the new board will be able to collaborate, getting the most out of all five of its members. In that sense, this year’s board race is as much about policy and platforms as it is about personality and communication skills.
Roseanne Crawford Roseanne Crawford is the mother of two Santa Barbara school district graduates. Although she has been asked by supporters to run in the past two board elections, Crawford declined the urgings of her constituency because her “first priority was with [her] family.” This year, however, she decided to make a run at one of the empty seats now that her children have flown the coop and left for college. Driven by her self-described passion for community and “children-first” mentality, Crawford is a bilingual neighborhood schools advocate, with more than 15 years of involvement in the local public school landscape. As her children grew up, Crawford — who also owns and operates the locally based Child Time nanny placement service — spent time on the PTAs of Roosevelt and Monroe elementary schools and Santa Barbara Junior High; she currently sits on the Santa Barbara High PTA. Additionally, the one-time Radiation Protection Specialist for the State of California is the director of Student Exchange between Santa Barbara and our sister city Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Specific qualifications aside, Crawford calls herself a “fiscal conservative” who thinks the board needs more transparency in its budget-keeping process. Still, she believes that “for the most part, the district is headed in the right direction.” She opposes the tentative plan to develop district-owned properties in the Hidden Valley and Tatum neighborhoods in the name of teacher housing; while she supports affordable teacher housing, she considers the proposal inequitable and, simply put, “not the answer to what the district needs.” What the primary district needs, according to Crawford, is more money and cheaper benefits for teachers, redoubled efforts to stimulate the academic programs for the district’s fast-growing and under-performing English learners, and a continued commitment to building bridges to the public at large. “I think the board’s responsibility is not only to set policy but also to connect with the needs of the entire community,” Crawford explained.
Suzy Cawthon There is no denying the abundance of Suzy Cawthon’s energy. Though only a resident of the Santa Barbara area for four years, Cawthon has amassed an impressive amount of experience in our local schools, including a two-year presidency of the San Marcos High School PTA and a seat on the Measure V Bond Oversight committee. The mother of a junior and a senior at San Marcos High and an eighth-grader at Santa Barbara Junior High, Cawthon hopes to parlay her past experience as a school board chair and PTA powerhouse in Montana into a similar role in her new home; as Cawthon put it, “Bloom where you are planted.” Her hands-on approach to district decisions is a testament to this personal philosophy. Another indicator of Cawthon’s waste-no-time work ethic is the laundry list of local endorsements she has received. With a campaign based on closing the achievement gap and strong fiscal accountability, Cawthon has received public votes of support from all three of the sitting Santa Barbara school boardmembers, as well as the Santa Barbara Teachers Association, Mayor Marty Blum, two Montecito Union School boardmembers, and Santa Barbara City Councilmembers Grant House, Das Williams, and Helene Schneider. Like the other candidates, Cawthon considers declining enrollment and finding new revenue streams to be the fundamental issues facing the future board. Given her masters degree in business administration, it’s easy to believe Cawthon’s claim, “I know how to look at numbers.” The 45-year-old Cawthon added, “The board’s main role is all about the kids. … But when it comes to money, you can’t count on Sacramento. You have to be able to depend on yourself.”
Looking at the possible revenue potential in it, Cawthon is in favor of developing the Hidden Valley and/or Tatum properties as market-rate housing with ground capital leases for local teachers. Of additional note is the fact that, of the contenders, Cawthon is without a doubt the candidate who’s most outspokenly critical of incumbent Bob Noel.
Thinker Bill Hackett A regular candidate in several city races throughout the last several years, Thinker Bill Hackett has decided to throw his political posturing — which is full of innovative ideas, less so of substance — into the fray for a seat on the school board. Hackett was running a low-key, if not invisible, campaign until last week, when he joined the other candidates in a forum at the Faulkner Gallery of the Santa Barbara Public Library. Wearing his trademark cherry-red reading glasses and a shirt emblazoned with his surname, Hackett unveiled a campaign based upon “brand new, state of the art, all the same” laptops for every teacher and student in the district, which is just like they do in Libya, he said. He also believes Santa Barbara’s public schools can become “the finest in the world” if GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) students start a letter-writing campaign to members of the Forbes 400 asking them for money. Switching seamlessly between the first and third person, Hackett summarized his campaign Monday night: “Think Bill Hackett, number one on your ballot. Thinker Bill may not be number one when we are done running the contest, but I have been trying.”
Kate Parker After attending Santa Barbara school board meetings for the better part of the last two years as the Adams Elementary School PTA liaison, Kate Parker made the remarkable discovery that she not only tolerated the oftentimes tedious and lengthy meetings, but that she actually “loved” them. The mother of three kids — two currently at Adams and one in preschool — and a part-time librarian at Cate School, 39-year-old Parker is committed to bringing her “big picture” sensibilities to a board she has watched so closely in recent years. Also a past president of the Adams PTA, Parker possesses the seal of approval from the Santa Barbara Teachers Association and a solid grasp on the key issues facing the future board. “Financial issues are tough already and are only going to get worse in coming years, especially in the elementary district,” Parker opined recently. And while she appreciates the current incarnation of the board, she was quick to point out, “A lot of times I think they miss the elementary district issues.”
The particular “big picture” items Parker sees looming on the board’s horizon include the district’s varied facility problems, teacher cuts, salary negotiations, and the master plan update, which is currently being reviewed. Pointing to the ugliness that followed the Measure I-98 facilities bond, Parker said, “If you don’t pay attention and think about the repercussions, years can go by and you can wind up in big trouble.” She was concerned by the board’s aforementioned vote late this summer to conceptually approve the La Cumbre/Santa Barbara Community Academy campus mash-up and considers the difficult discourse about school closure to be a sad but perhaps inevitable topic of conversation for the board. To her, the keys to school board success are knowledge about the ground-zero conditions of a district and a willingness to listen to the people working in the trenches. After all, as Parker herself put it, “This may be a large district, but it’s not L.A. Unified. Boardmembers need to get out and know all the sites.”
Bob Noel Describing himself as the single “voice” in an election of “echoes,” Bob Noel — who is seeking a third term on the board — is the candidate everyone has an opinion about. Equally celebrated and criticized for his decidedly contrarian attitude and watchdog mentality about board decisions and policymaking, Noel has become embroiled in controversy in recent months for his public musings and newspaper editorials about alleged Brown Act violations perpetrated by the board, mismanagement of Measure V funds, and the dour fiscal future of the elementary district. Speaking about the backlash and sometimes strained relations with fellow boardmembers, Noel commented recently that he thinks things have cooled down a bit, though he was quick to add, “Of course, I don’t enjoy it [the criticism], but I’m not on the board for enjoyment. I am on there to make a difference.”
The 76-year-old Noel was initially inclined not to run for reelection but said he had a change of heart after being prevailed upon by “many, many supporters who admire me for standing up and being independent.” That said, the chief motivation behind his reelection campaign seems to be the three new school-within-a-school initiatives he recently proposed for the district’s high schools. Along with Police Chief Cam Sanchez, Noel announced a proposal last week to create a new Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Academy that would work to replace the Junior ROTC program cut by the district last year. The second such initiative is a pre-advanced placement (AP) program that aims to stimulate the academic growth and success of kids who possess the tools to succeed at the AP level, but who, for a variety of reasons, shy away from enrollment. The third is a Construction Technology Institute that would see students build a house during a four-year period, and thus learn valuable trade skills without giving up a traditional public high school education. According to Noel, all three of these proposals are aimed at “the kinds of kids we have to reach. … And as it currently is, the system hasn’t really been able to address them.”
Noel acknowledged that he has made mistakes in the past and that the resulting fallout may very well affect his power of persuasion with fellow boardmembers. But he explained recently, “I don’t think I get things done by power of persuasion … I get things done by threatening embarrassment or showing public support for an issue.” An ardent and occasionally longwinded bean counter, Noel openly admitted the board — himself included — made a “big mistake” last August when they conceptually approved plans to merge La Cumbre Junior High and the Santa Barbara Community Academy campuses.