A matter of days after finding herself in the crosshairs of a very public attack on the current state of Santa Barbara School District’s Special Education program, department director Anissa McNeil announced that she is quitting.

Confirmed by Superintendent Brian Sarvis on Monday, McNeil’s resignation last Friday – made public in an email to her employees – came just three days after a particularly brutal November 18 board meeting in which board members and parents alike expressed displeasure with the special ed department, its accountability, and the adequacy of a report given that night by McNeil about a variety of related issues.

Long an underfunded and understaffed sore spot on the district’s resume, the special education department has been drawing steady criticism during the public comment portion of board meetings in recent months by parents frustrated with everything from inadequate aid staffing and training requirements – specifically for those responsible for autistic students – to an alleged unwillingness on behalf of administrators to do anything about it. And while the District has worked to remedy some of the earlier staffing issues, the matter came to a head last week when McNeil, directed to do so as a response to the many allegations made by parents since school started, presented the board with an overview of the issues and possible solutions.

For most in attendance, the report was less than convincing. Board member Bob Noel summed it up by calling it a “basically a big P.R. show” that “certainly didn’t address the problems.” Outgoing board member and eight-year school board veteran Nancy Harter concurred on Monday that “It is really unfortunate that it took that level of parental distress to bring this issue to the sunshine.” As of press time, calls to the district’s special education department had not been returned.

McNeil’s departure leaves the district with a vacancy at the helm of the Special Education Department – something which directly impacts more than 2,000 students – for the eight time in the past five years, indicating an exceptionally high level of turnover even for an area of education commonly associated with high stress and resulting burnout.

Acknowledging this on Monday, Sarvis explained that “It is important for us to do a complete evaluation of special education rather than simply hiring someone new.” To that end, Sarvis expects to appoint an interim director in the coming weeks, most likely someone “from the outside,” as he put it. He said he hopes that the board decides to resurrect an advisory committee for special education that was abandoned two years ago.

In the meantime, the superintendent says he will continue meeting with parents on an individual basis. “We have to start working effectively and in conjunction with the parents,” he said.


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