With roughly 15,000 children attending the Santa Barbara School Districts on any given day, there is a strong case to be made for the school board — the five-member committee that rides shotgun over the whole undertaking — as the area’s most immediately critical locally elected entity. After all, as the song says, “The children are our future.”
Add to that what seems to have become an annual multimillion-dollar budget bloodletting (though this year’s cuts look to be nowhere near as bad as previously anticipated); a long-serving superintendent with a contract set to expire next year; a Special Education department inching its way back toward respectability; an improving though still alarming achievement gap; and an upcoming state-mandated curriculum shift for all grades, and you have yourself a governance equation that is anything but lacking in the importance, intrigue, and difficulty factors.
This November, with longtime and often polarizing boardmember Bob Noël choosing not to seek reelection, and single-term veteran Kate Parker defending incumbency, there are four candidates (including Parker) running with only a pair of seats up for grabs. Here is a bit of background on each to help you understand why they would even want such a gig and, more importantly, to help you make up your mind as election season hits the home stretch.
With three kids in the district, Kate Parker followed a strong PTA background at Adams Elementary with her first term on the school board in 2006. And while the four years since have been anything but easy from a logistical standpoint — millions of dollars of annual budget cuts and meltdowns in the Special Education and Finance departments to name but a few incidents of headache — she is eager for Round 2.
Hanging her hat on things like a definite district-wide improvement in student achievement, the passing of a parcel tax that helps keep programs like art and music intact no matter how severe the budget season, nonprofit partnerships that have brought gardens to campuses and better food into the cafeterias, and regular budget cleaving that has, for the most part, stayed as far away from the classroom as possible, Parker is “proud” of the work she and her fellow boardmembers have done.
That being said, she admits things haven’t always gone as hoped and that improvement is needed, especially when it comes to courting the public. Pointing to the bitterness of some parents as news spread about possible changes to the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program and the Special Education turmoil (a “deep, wide, and old problem” in Parker’s words) that hit a crescendo with a scathing FCMAT (Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team) report on the subject, Parker admitted recently, “The district could have done a better job with outreach to parents, and I think that is something we have to make sure improves.”
As for the future, Parker hopes to continue improving test results, help make the district-wide transition to Common Core State Standards as smooth as possible, and create “more cool and relevant pathways” for high school students to engage in career- and technical-based learning.
There is no denying Dean Nevins’s credentials for service on a school board. A computer science professor at Santa Barbara City College for the past 13 years, Nevins is halfway through his second term on the Goleta Union School Board, is president of the Santa Barbara County School Boards Association, and president-elect of SBCC’s Academic Senate. Even better, as evidenced by Goleta Union’s marked uptick in test scores and solid fiscal footing despite cash-strapped times during Nevin’s tenure, he helps get results.
Now Nevins, who has two children in the system, is eager to lend a helping hand to a new district, one he has long had his eye on as he often teaches its graduates and, more immediately, sees Goleta schoolchildren graduating to its secondary level. Noting the ongoing money crunch, the potential of a new superintendent, and the implementation of sweeping curriculum change, Nevins sums up his motivation for running simply: “In the next two years or so, there are going to be some pretty significant changes going on [in Santa Barbara], and I think I have the experience to really help out.”
The key, as he sees it, is to have a well-thought-out strategic plan — something the district currently lacks, in Nevins’s estimation — and then the fortitude not only to implement it but to get results. Describing the sitting board as “fundamentally good, but sometimes lacking that strong voice to rally around” in order to make real change, Nevins hopes to provide just such a voice. “I am not afraid to discuss things in public, and I am willing to take it on the chin if we have to make a decision that isn’t popular,” he said.
“It wasn’t a matter of if I was going to run; it was really matter of when,” explained Monique Limón. A former English as a Second Language (ESL)- identified student who worked her way into GATE classes by the time she hit Santa Barbara High School and who eventually earned a master’s in education from Columbia University, Limón is very much a product of the district she hopes to serve — a reality that is anything but lost on her. In fact, it seems to be her chief motivation. “This community invested so much in me,” explained Limón, “and now I want to do the same and help pay it back.”
In her opinion — and in the opinions of many others for that matter (several high-ranking Santa Barbara Democratic officials like County Supervisor Salud Carbajal and Mayor Helene Schneider have lobbied hard on behalf of Limón) — it is her unique, if not inspiring, educational trajectory and current profession that are some of her strongest qualities as a candidate.
She said she has experienced firsthand what it is like to go through Santa Barbara schools at both ends of the academic spectrum and has had daily interactions with current students, families, and recent graduates in a professional capacity as program advisor for the local California Student Opportunity and Access Program. Limón, who is no stranger to the problems facing the district from an in-the-trenches point of view, explained, “To solve very complicated problems — and that is what the district is looking at — you need different perspectives and experience.” And, if elected, that is exactly what she hopes to provide.
It was a casual conversation with a neighbor about the district’s plans to reimagine its GATE program last spring that inadvertently spurred Loren Mason’s candidacy. A former heavy-construction executive (think multimillion-dollar highway projects and dams, rather than houses and office buildings), Mason — who has two children currently attending Dos Pueblos High — turned up at his first board meeting to comment on the controversial GATE plan and hasn’t stopped going since. Though he calls the GATE change, which was done to help facilitate a more diverse cross-section of kids in the high-end classes, a “wonderful, wonderful goal to have,” Mason, who sees the course of action as a symptom of a bigger problem facing the board, explained, “Unfortunately, they didn’t fix any of the underlying issues that contribute to the achievement gap that causes the imbalance of students in the first place.”
Mason, who likes to use the district’s own research to inform his commonsense view that all is not well in Santa Barbara’s schools, feels that the current board all too often has good intentions but no follow-through — something he hopes to change with his task-oriented business background. “There is evidence all over the place; we are failing these kids,” said Mason. “Teachers, principals, administrators need to be held accountable.”