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.

Rosanne-Crawford.jpgRoseanne 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.jpgSuzy 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.jpgThinker 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.jpgKate 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.jpgBob 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.


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