So Many Dogs, So Little Time
Is there life after school board for curmudgeonly contrarian?
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
OFF INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER: When I woke up Tuesday morning, the crickets were just warming up. I could hear the dew sliding down the grass in my neighbor’s yard. In other words, it was too quiet. It could stay that way for a while.
That’s because this Tuesday, Bob Noël officially stepped down off the Santa Barbara School Board, where he’s functioned as the curmudgeonly contrarian, skunk-at-the-garden-party, and odd-man-forever-out for the past 12 years. (It was also the last day for Santa Barbara City Councilmember Das Williams — standard bearer for the lefty progressive wing of the Democratic Party — who is about to ascend into the dubious heaven of Sacramento, having just won the race for 35th Assembly district. But that’s another story for another day.)
Noël, who just turned 81, is retiring after having sat through roughly 600 school board hearings, many of which became long-day journeys into even longer nights. With Noël and Williams gone, the wheels of local government will churn ever more politely. Fewer noses will be put out of joint. But a whole lot less hell will get raised in the process. And for people who believe they live in Paradise, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
A former juvenile delinquent and aggressive under-achiever who famously got suspended from his Pasadena high school for making brass knuckles in shop class, Noël saw the light while stationed in Korea during the Korean War and concluded that a mind was a terrible thing to waste, especially his own. The smart-ass kid with a chip on his shoulder earned a PhD from Northwestern University in International Affairs; by 1963 he was teaching at UCSB. Initially, Noël wanted to save the world, but by the time he retired in 1997, he recalibrated his energies to focus on Santa Barbara kids who happened to be born with the wrong skin color.
Armed with bar graphs, pie charts, and a blizzard of mind-boggling statistics, Noël set about storming the Bastille of indifference concerning the huge gap in academic achievement separating Santa Barbara’s white students from their Latino peers. After winning election to the School Board in 1998, Noël wasted little time demonstrating he had no interest in being a get-along kind of guy. After his board peers moved to issue a letter of recommendation for then-school district chief Mike Caston — without any pretense of a formal evaluation — Noël refused.
Smart, outspoken, and energetic, Noël was noisy in the extreme about the chronically sorry state of district bookkeeping. When the district discovered it had $5 million squirreled away it knew nothing about — after having just laid off scores of teachers — Noël went ballistic, and a state agency was called in to audit the district books. Likewise, Noël was a relentless critic of the chaos that’s long afflicted the district’s special education program. Eventually, this program would be the subject of a scathing audit by an independent state agency. Because Noël was willing to say out loud what others were reluctant to even whisper, he was embraced by constituencies who felt either ignored or stonewalled by school administrators. Often, Noël was the only one asking the right questions at the right time. Other times, he would have been well-advised to hold his fire.
This year, for example, Noël publicly called on school Superintendent Brian Sarvis to resign after the district had gone through eight special ed directors in the span of seven years. It was a dramatic gesture, but empty and self-defeating. Noël had no support from fellow boardmembers; he never bothered to seek it. Similarly, Noël had left fellow boardmembers dangerously in the dark when he announced, at the beginning of his last term, that he had independently raised $400,000 on behalf of a new charter school he was proposing. The school was an intriguing mix of college prep, vocational ed, and ROTC designed to provide another path for promising but underperforming students. But other boardmembers objected angrily that Noël sprang the idea on them sight unseen without any consultation. They made sure his proposal never saw light of day.
Today — 12 years after taking office — Noël assessed the district’s progress in narrowing the achievement gap that spurred him into action as “negligible.” He dismissed the statistical basis of claims to the contrary by Superintendent Sarvis as “tortured.” Is he right? It all depends, I guess, whether you choose to see the glass as 10-percent full or 90-percent empty.
Anyone watching Noël in action has stories to tell. I remember desperately wondering if I’d see my bed before dawn at one meeting as Noël interrogated district administrators in excruciating detail about how much money they could save by forgoing the extravagance of bottled water. But I also remember watching Noël spring to action several years ago when district officials seemed poised to declare La Cumbre Junior High a lost cause, pull the plug, and walk away.
At that time, La Cumbre was the poster child of white flight. Test scores were plunging, and so were student enrollments. Teachers were at war with each other and their principal; their principal was waging a rear-guard battle against “Downtown.” He lost. The district appointed a promising new principal, who promptly had a nervous breakdown. More than any boardmember, Noël jumped in feet first. Working closely with former school chief Debbie Flores — whose life he had on occasion made miserable — Noël worked overtime to stabilize the situation. Where any sane person saw a no-win nightmare, Noël conjured big dreams for the struggling school and fanned the flames of unlikely optimism. Eventually, the district would appoint the no-nonsense Jo Ann Caines as the school’s new principal, whose rough, gruff, and tough approach appears to have paid off with dividends. Students and faculty alike are afraid not to succeed.
Today, La Cumbre’s student population remains overwhelmingly Latino. Test scores are improving steadily and markedly. La Cumbre still has a way to go, but two years ago, all but a few of the student sub-groups that district administrators monitor outperformed their peers at La Colina, Goleta Valley, and Santa Barbara junior high schools. Noël is the first to tell you he did not make that happen. But he deserves major assist points for the fact that La Cumbre is still operating at all. Is the glass 90-percent empty or one-tenth full? Maybe the answer depends on how thirsty you are. But in the meantime, Noël deserves credit for making some serious noise.