In a dramatic move, Santa Barbara’s school board on Tuesday ordered its lawyers to change the district’s settlement with embattled MAD Academy Director Dan Williams to force his “immediate removal from campus.”
The board’s action, announced as the five members emerged from closed session, followed a half hour of angry and impassioned testimony from parents and district critics, several of whom called for firing Superintendent Cary Matsuoka.
“A fish rots from the head,” said James Fenkner, a parent and plaintiff in legal action against the district in a separate matter. “It is your sole responsibility as a board to deal with the rot at the top, and please deal with it now. Otherwise, the stink will only get worse, and it will be forever on your hands.”
So vehement was the outcry that board attorney Craig Price took the unusual step of standing in defense of Matsuoka to rebut parent arguments and take responsibility for the district’s legal strategy, at one point snapping at audience members who yelled “Time” at him, after he’d exceeded the three-minute limit imposed on them.
“I’m sorry; I’m finishing,” he barked. “Don’t interrupt me!”
As the simmering controversy over Santa Barbara High’s Multimedia Arts & Design (MAD) Academy boiled over, the bid to remove Williams for the school year’s final week was a victory for parents who broke silence surrounding the affair to allege misconduct by the longtime director and by former operations director Pablo Sweeney, while charging the district violated legal requirements to report such complaints to law enforcement.
“I am sorry that you have allowed this incident to fester into the community scandal that we now confront,” said Mark Sherman, father of the former MAD student whose unheeded complaints to Williams about Sweeney a year ago triggered the affair.
“I am sorry that you chose a course of delay and obfuscation rather than one of justice and elucidation,” said Sherman. “That you chose to mimic Penn State, Michigan State, USC, the Catholic Church, rather than demonstrate a more enlightened course fitting of a smaller, community body.”
Founded in 1996, MAD is one of the more successful of many specialty-learning programs, known as academies, in Santa Barbara’s three public high schools. Its academic success rests on substantial financial support from parents and wealthy donors through a nonprofit foundation.
Its website calls the academy a “four year ‘school within a school’” where students take “an integrated curriculum” comprising pre-college requirements, advanced placement studies, and classes in “graphic design, film, photography, social media, and web design.”
Amid crosscurrents of education policy, legal conflicts, and community politics, the MAD affair boils down to three basic questions:
• Did Williams party with students at times and places involving underage drinking and/or drug use, as suggested by a social media video released by parent Justin Tuttle?
• Did Sweeney send illicit electronic communications, or act otherwise inappropriately, to a male student or students, as alleged by Mark Sherman, his wife, Tami, and their son?
• Did Williams and district administrators circumvent legal requirements to report information to law enforcement, as required by California’s Penal Code?
Under pressure, officials on Sunday turned over to the Santa Barbara Police Department (SBPD) a confidential private investigator’s report its attorneys commissioned to look into the allegations.
“The contents of the document will be reviewed by our Investigations Division,” said SBPD Public Information Officer Anthony Wagner. Anyone with information about the case should contact the department at (805) 882-8900.
The controversy surfaced in April, when Williams suddenly was placed on paid administrative leave, pending an unspecified “investigation.” About 10 days later, a terse email announced an “amicable agreement,” allowing him to finish the school year but announcing his June 30 retirement.
Sweeney, who worked at school but was employed by the nonprofit California Academy Foundation, was escorted off campus in January and resigned in March.
Events unfolded after Sherman’s son in January presented a package of information about allegations by him and others to an assistant principal at SBHS; now at UC Berkeley, the student made similar complaints to Williams a year earlier, but was rebuffed, he said.
Efforts to reach Williams and Sweeney were unsuccessful.
On Tuesday, some parents pleaded for Williams’s removal.
“I implore you,” said one mother, who asked her name be omitted to avoid problems for her son at MAD. “Dan was still at school today, and I find that very disturbing. I asked my son today — ‘how does that feel?’ He doesn’t like it. The kids are confused.”
The woman said she went to Williams’s office last week to ask about year-end logistics.
“I really didn’t even want to go in there,” she said, “and there was a boy in there that was wrangling him around from his back, wrestling in the office.”
As a practical matter, it was unclear how the board’s directive, unanimously approved after a motion by Laura Capps and a second by Kate Ford, would be carried out.
An effort by district lawyers to revisit the part of the agreement allowing him at school potentially could unravel the entire settlement — including Williams’s assent to retirement.
A California Teachers Association attorney has represented Williams; perhaps the single most powerful special interest in Sacramento, the CTA is responsible for winning passage of a body of law providing teachers strong protections against discipline and dismissal.
This may explain why board lawyers agreed to allow him to return to work, in exchange for his retirement and in lieu of a protracted and expensive legal fight.
Nonetheless, parents hailed the school board’s move.
“This is a great first step toward protecting and prioritizing students,” said Tami Sherman.
A version of this story is cross-posted on NewsmakerswithJerryRoberts.com.