An old-fashioned food fight has broken out in recent weeks at the Santa Barbara School Board. Pitting boardmembers past and present against one another, the fracas has spilled onto the op-ed pages of area newspapers, taken up valuable time at the board’s biweekly meetings, and resulted in scathing calls for the resignations of longtime boardmember Bob Noel and Superintendent Brian Sarvis.
Swirling at the center of the debate, however, is the problem of the as yet unresolved meltdown of the district’s Special Education department. Despite being an intricate part of the controversy-basically sitting in the middle of the food fight, so to speak, and on the receiving end of some its harshest affronts-Sarvis summed up the past few weeks by saying, “None of it serves the district well. It has truly been more than unfortunate.”
Starting in mid October, several parents of special education students began taking to the public comment forum of the Tuesday-night board meetings, crying foul about the current state of the district’s Special Ed program, which provides services for approximately 2,000 students. Pointing fingers at the department’s director, Anissa McNeil, as well as administrators like Sarvis and Personnel Director Dr. Kristine Robertson, the disgruntled parents related stories of inadequately trained aides, frequently absent aides, and a director who was either hesitant or slow to remedy the situation.
The complaints continued in earnest until late last month when McNeil, following a particularly brutal browbeating by the board, stepped down from her post. Her departure, less than six months after she was hired, marked the eighth time in the past five years that the district had lost or shown the door to a Special Education director.
And even more damning was the recent revelation that McNeil had earlier this year completed three years of probation from California’s Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology Bureau for violations stemming from her work in the private sector. (Sarvis and boardmembers claim they didn’t know about McNeil’s licensing tribulations until the week of her resignation, though they agree that it should have been vetted during her hiring process last spring.)
Hoping to stay the controversy and get the long underfunded and understaffed Special Education department back on track, Sarvis announced a plan shortly after McNeil’s resignation that included one-on-one sit-downs with disgruntled parents, a review of the entire Special Education department by an as yet unnamed “outside” third party, the resurrection of an advisory committee, an interim director in place by January, and an all-out search for a full-time replacement sometime next spring with the possibility of increasing the position’s pay to attract an all-star caliber candidate. At the time Sarvis explained, “We know that there are serious issues [with Special Education] and because of that it is important for us to do a complete evaluation of Special Education rather than simply hiring someone new. It isn’t going to be quick, but we will get there.” And, to that end, a majority of the board and, to a lesser extent, members of the public seemed placated by the turn of events and hopeful that better days were just around the corner.
End of story, right? Wrong.
Overwhelmingly reelected to his second term on the School Board in 2006, Bob Noel is the least likely to win a popularity contest among his fellow boardmembers. An outspoken champion of procedure and an unrelenting watchdog of bureaucratic transparency, Noel, to even the casual School Board observer, comes off as a boat-rocking loner on the five-member board.
Echoing the cries from disillusioned parents at prior meetings and purporting to be giving voice to district employees and teachers afraid to step forward, Noel attended a December 2 School Board hearing and deliberately acted as a member of the public. The evening, reserved solely for the third and final closed session evaluation of the superintendent’s performance, took a drastic turn when Noel addressed his fellow boardmembers from the floor and called for Sarvis’s resignation. Pointing to the district’s fiscal issues of 2007-when officials couldn’t decide for months on end whether the district’s budget had millions of dollars of surplus or millions in deficit-and the current special ed situation, Noel read a prepared statement. “I have become even firmer in the belief that Dr. Sarvis has neither the moral authority nor the temperament for the task. For the sake of the children and the institution, Dr. Sarvis, it is time for you to step down,” Noel said.
Then, fanning the flames of controversy even further, Noel penned a December 7 op-ed in the Santa Barbara News-Press, reiterating his case for Sarvis’s resignation. Explaining his stance this week, Noel-once a passionate supporter of Sarvis when the then second-in-command administrator appeared poised to leave the district about five years ago-said, “I just don’t think the district can afford to continue lurching from crisis to crisis. Too often it takes painful, painful experiences in the boardroom before anything changes. We have to be ahead of the curve and that is very much a leadership and governance issue.”
Circling the wagons around Sarvis, prominent area business leaders, educators, and former Santa Barbara School Board members fired back at Noel at last week’s board meeting, turning the resignation tables on him and demanding that he step down. On a night when newly elected boardmembers Ed Heron and Susan Deacon and incumbent Annette Cordero were being sworn in, the podium was grabbed by pro-Sarvis public commenters such as John Romo, former Santa Barbara City College honcho; Steve Cushman, Chamber of Commerce president; Paul Didier, United Way Santa Barbara Chapter CEO; and former boardmembers Lynn Rodriguez and Laura Malakoff. In fact Malakoff, who did not seek reelection to the board in November, even went as far as to suggest that recalling Noel “would be best for the district.”
To them, Noel’s open declaration of war on Sarvis was just the latest in a long line of offenses against the effectiveness of the board, including his accusations three years ago that the district had violated the Brown Act, his perceived unwillingness to play nice with colleagues, and his self-admitted habit of forcing policy discussions by first building public support and then taking it to the board rather than working to sway fellow boardmembers on his own. And while Sarvis says the swell of support was not solicited but rather was “an honest reaction” to Noel’s attacks, critics-pointing to Sarvis’s position with the United Way and Malakoff’s end-of-term efforts to give Sarvis a contract extension-privately speculated that Tuesday’s counterstrike amounted to little more than cronyism.
Either way, the attack was upped the following day when Nancy Harter, a two term-boardmember who also declined to seek reelection this fall, penned an op-ed for Noozhawk.com, in which she too called for Noel’s resignation. In her opinion, not only was Noel’s tactic the “equivalent of a verbal hand grenade lobbed into the room,” but it was motivated by Noel’s vendetta against Sarvis, which stemmed from the defeated plans for the American Charter School. Noel raised more than a few eyebrows in the district back in late 2006 when he announced his intentions to form the American Charter School-an alternative high school concept that he helped craft, which aimed to help students not engaged in the traditional high school experience.
Instead of working with his colleagues and getting their feedback in the early stages of planning, Noel began the application process and secured grant funding before ever alerting the board. Though he was under no obligation to do so, boardmembers and Sarvis were clearly put off. When it came before the board, the charter school was dismissed on several grounds. Noel and his fellow American Charter visionaries then appealed the decision to the County Education Office, which also voted it down. The school’s last chance was a state appeal held six weeks ago in Sacramento, at which time the applicants opted to pull the proposal off the table rather than suffer another defeat. In the eyes of Harter and others, the timing of American Charter’s demise and Noel’s public call for Sarvis to step down are more than a coincidence. Noel denied such a connection, saying, “That is absolutely not the case. I was basically doing my job. It is perfectly legitimate for a boardmember to be looking at a superintendent’s leadership style. It is one of the things I am elected to do. ”
Detention or Recess?
Both Noel and Sarvis have promised that they have no intentions of going anywhere else anytime soon. Noel pointed to his reelection two years ago as evidence that he carries public support. While he maintained that Sarvis needs to go, he said he is confident that he will be able to work with the new incarnation of the board and district administration when meetings resume next year. And Sarvis, who is under contract through June of 2011, explained, “I answer to the entire board, not just one member. If I had the full board telling me I had to go that would be very different. : I am still firmly committed to the children of this community.”
Meanwhile, a long road remains ahead for Special Education. Candidates for performing the third party review are slated to be discussed on January 13. A less-than-ideal state budget will surely result in district budget cuts in the spring. The hope is that the School Board will no longer be the site of mudslinging and become a place where progress can be made in the education of the children of Santa Barbara. After all, as current board president Kate Parker put it recently, “All of this is terribly distracting-especially when we have so much work that needs to be done.”