Serving on the school board is in many ways a thankless job, especially during a recession. It pays a measly stipend, the opportunities to alienate parents are endless, decisions to withhold resources from teachers and students are unavoidable, the meetings often drag on interminably, and the workload can be impressive.
Annette Cordero, who served two full terms and a short appointment, said that if her job as an instructor at SBCC were not flexible, she isn’t sure she could have served. “You could spend every minute of the day” on board issues, she said when she dropped by The Santa Barbara Independent earlier this week to reflect on her tenure. Joining her was outgoing board president Susan Christol Deacon — to be replaced by Monique Limón — who said, “School board is almost a volunteer job. It may attract people so invested [in education] that they are willing to make sacrifices.”
One of the greatest ironies of serving in an elected office for those who see themselves as change agents is that they must reconcile themselves with becoming part of a bureaucracy. “When I first joined the board, I felt like I was not able to be a public advocate for certain groups of people,” said Cordero. “I had to represent the whole district.” Deacon added, “I would often empathize with parent groups, but I felt stuck in this awkward position where I had to explain district policy to them.” She coped, she said, by trying to address wayward policies rather than cater to specific interest groups.
When Deacon joined the board four years ago, she was in on the decision to move the district to basic-aid status (which did not last, because property values were reassessed shortly thereafter) effectively restricting interdistrict transfers. Deacon said she was recently looking through her records, and she found emails from parents begging her not to vote for the move.
There were times, however, when Deacon and Cordero did not see eye to eye with their constituents. The most trying moments of her tenure, said Cordero, were when the board first considered combining GATE and honors courses. “It was personally painful to sit through the meetings,” she said, as parents complained with “racist rhetoric” that they didn’t want their kids’ classes watered down. She said she left meetings shaking. The board did eventually combine the courses with the intent of encouraging Latino students to achieve at the highest level.
Both Deacon and Cordero believe that the district’s most pressing — and most necessary to address — challenge is closing the achievement gap between white and Latino students. “If we don’t address the achievement gap,” said Cordero, “nothing else matters.”
“We need every member of society productive and well-educated,” said Deacon. And district Superintendent David Cash has spoken openly of the inequitable outcomes for different student demographics in the Santa Barbara schools, but, said Deacon, “The heavy lifting is still to come.”
The retiring trustees — both of whom chose not to run for their seats again — also said Cash is the man with the muscles to do it. Deacon counts the hiring of Cash as one of the board’s greatest accomplishments of the last four years, along with passing parcel taxes and bond measures. For his part, Cash has reshaped the board, cutting meeting times — maybe initially too much, his trustees say — and serving as a liaison between boardmembers and district staff. The trustees unwittingly “usurped” the previous superintendent’s job, said Deacon, by going straight to staff themselves with their concerns and sometimes sowing chaos.
Both trustees feel they are leaving the board in better shape than it was in when they arrived and that, as thankless as the job may seem, both gained much from the experience: becoming creative thinkers and problem solvers, learning to listen to other points of view, and increasing their capacity to compromise. Their seats will be filled by Gayle Eidelson, a longtime district volunteer, and Pedro Paz, a program evaluator for First 5 Santa Barbara.