In 2016, exactly three candidates enlisted to run for three open seats on Santa Barbara’s Unified School District board, making them instant winners without the inconvenience of campaigning or even appearing on the ballot.

Two years later, the political landscape has changed dramatically.

Now, a field of eight candidates is competing for two seats, in one of the more important and expensive local races of the November 6 election.

Much of the sudden interest may be traced to the board’s 4-to-1 vote last winter that backed Superintendent Cary Matsuoka’s sacking of popular San Marcos High School principal Ed Behrens, despite forceful community opposition.

The episode highlighted the fact that none of the board’s five members was actually elected: Besides the three 2017 walkovers (Laura Capps, Jackie Reid, and Wendy Sims-Moten), a fourth (Ismael Ulloa) was appointed, while veteran Kate Parker also won without opposition, in 2014.

“The San Marcos situation was super-emotional and seems to have been a catalyst for a desire for change,” said candidate Kate Ford, who’s backed by the San Marcos faction.

State of Play

Two seats are up because (a) Parker is departing to run for the SBCC board and (b) appointed incumbent Ulloa, chosen to fill the vacancy left when Monique Limón was elected to the Legislature, is running for the first time.

At stake are a range of critical policies, from Matsuoka’s future and the maddeningly intractable “achievement gap” between white and Latino students to school safety strategies and fiscal concerns stemming from Peabody Stadium project cost overruns to a controversial $300,000 contract for “bias training” of teachers and staff.

Here is how the field breaks down:

The Party’s Choice

Bidding to elect more partisan-backed candidates to nonpartisan offices, the county Democratic Party endorsed two favorites months before the filing deadline. The endorsements gave the pair a boost, serving as a political signifier for voters amid a field of unknowns and as a source of volunteers and other resources.

Ismael Ulloa, a City College adviser, says key concerns are achieving “equity” in educational opportunities for students of color and improving “language access” for Latino parents; he defends his vote to can Behrens: “It was the best for our community as a whole and as a district, including San Marcos.”

Rose Muñoz, a case management worker for a company that administers Medi-Cal, points to her volunteer work with migrant students and high school moms. “As a social worker, what I bring is my familiarity with underserved communities,” she said.

The Insurgents

Amid last winter’s San Marcos Sturm und Drang, pro-Behrens parents organized a political committee now backing two other candidates.

Mark Alvarado, a veteran S.B. activist, sharply criticizes the district’s treatment of Behrens (“They messed with his dignity”) and argues that incumbents are too passive in “cheerleading” for Matsuoka: “The main question is, What do they actually do? Aren’t they supposed to be asking questions?”

Ford, the longtime principal of Peabody Charter School before she worked as a superintendent in Los Angeles, says her granular understanding of education policy would increase “transparency” of district operations and help bridge the achievement gap for “students of poverty and students of color.”

The Wild Cards

Ricardo Cota, a Santa Barbara native and middle school teacher, says that he would focus on “ignored populations and students who are marginalized.”

Jim Gribble, a UCSB Gevirtz Graduate School of Education researcher currently working in Finland, says he wants to ensure the district “prepares students to compete in a global economy.”

Bonnie Raisin, a retired real estate broker and fiscal conservative, says, “Trying to reach the lowest common denominator, including children who have not developed adequate language skills, we perhaps are neglecting maybe those who are achieving at higher levels.”

Jill Rivera, a banking executive, stresses management and fiscal experience: “I look for opportunities to add value and improve operational efficiencies,” she said, “so I would take that lens and apply it to the school board.”

You can see all the candidates on Newsmakers TV roundtables at


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