Cary Matsuoka | Credit: Paul Wellman/file photo

Superintendent Cary Matsuoka announced his plan to retire Tuesday night, following months of public scrutiny surrounding his performance. The besieged leader made it clear that his decision has everything to do with family and nothing to do with the hundreds of public comments criticizing him in the past year.

“As I share my story with you, it will be clear my decision to retire has nothing to do with public comments over the past six months,” Matsuoka said. “This will conclude 40 years of education for me. … There has been public comment in the past that ‘this is not personal; you should just resign,’ and I agree, it’s not personal. I don’t take the criticism personally.”

He listed his aging, 87-year-old widowed mother and his three sons as main reasons for retirement. 

“My identity as a person is not tied to my job performance, what you think about me, or your approval of me,” the superintendent said. “I know who I am and nothing you do or say will move me off my identity, integrity, or how I do my job.”

The nearly 150 people in the audience cheered at the announcement, which was given in the Marjorie Luke Theatre at Santa Barbara Junior High to accommodate the large crowd. The five school boardmembers took turns congratulating Matsuoka on his decision to end his four-decade career and commending him for his accomplishments. Board President Wendy Sims-Moten reiterated that “the board did not ask [Matsuoka] to make this decision.” 

His decision comes at an extremely tumultuous time for the district. Over 800 people signed a petition asking Matsuoka not to extend his contract, and packed board meetings have been a regular occurrence since the previous school board controversially voted to demote Ed Behrens, the then-principal of San Marcos High School, in March 2018, resulting in an explosion of supporters flooding the board room in protest. 

Since the demotion, the district has endured one high-profile controversy after another, which Matsuoka’s critics have been quick to assign him the blame for. Members from Fair Education, a nonprofit group of about 300 community members and district parents, regularly attend board meetings and publicly call out Matsuoka for the issues. They again filed a lawsuit against the district for its partnership with Just Communities, a nonprofit that provides implicit-bias education at the district.

“I would like to thank Superintendent Matsuoka and wish him well on his retirement,” said James Fenkner, one of Matsuoka’s loudest critics and Chair of Fair Education. “I hope you are prepared for a world that is yet to be created.” Fenker’s comment was a final jab at the superintendent, as he has frequently chastised the district’s new mission statement: “Preparing students for a world that is yet to be created.”

Multiple principals took to the public comment podium to support Matsuoka. 

“Principals don’t often speak during public comment. In my 23 years working for the district, this is my second time speaking at public comment,” said Elise Simmons, principal of Santa Barbara High School. “Tonight I stand here speaking for our district’s community. The Fair Education group is working hard to dismantle the hard work of our educators every day.” Simmons voiced her unwavering support for the superintendent and for Just Communities, which was adopted under Matsuoka’s leadership.

Matsuoka has been with the district since 2016, and his contract ends June 30, 2020. The board gave him a performance evaluation over several closed sessions, and Sims-Moten said the process for the evaluation will be shared with the public at the next November 12 board meeting.


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