Santa Barbara Unified Picks New Leader to Take Charge Amid Pandemic

The School Board Unanimously Selected Hilda Maldonado as Superintendent

Newly selected Superintendent Hilda Maldonado and one of her two sons, Joshua, during the Santa Barbara Unified School District's virtual board meeting on May 26, 2020. Maldonado is taking over the position from Cary Matsuoka, who is retiring after four years.

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The future of the Santa Barbara Unified School District is in new hands — the hands of Hilda Maldonado.

Maldonado was unanimously selected to be the district’s new superintendent in closed session Tuesday after the district spent months headhunting for the perfect leader. She is taking over the position from current Superintendent Cary Matsuoka, who is retiring after four years and is making upwards of $350,000 a year in pay and benefits at the time of his departure.

The switch in leadership comes amid a global pandemic that has forced all the district’s campuses to close, and nine weeks into remote learning the district is still grappling with how to  continue school in the fall. It also comes at a time when the district has been under fire for a slew of controversies, mostly from the administration level, in the year before the pandemic hit.

“Our hearts are full of hope, this is indeed a new era of education,” Board President Laura Capps said. “You are helping us, leading and ushering it in with us tonight.”

The rest of the board shared similar sentiments, with Boardmember Jacqueline Reid calling Maldonado a “beacon during this unprecedented time” and all five women expressing general excitement to have a woman at the helm.

“This is also historic because it’s incredibly rare to have an all-women board working with a woman superintendent,” Boardmember Kate Ford said. “I don’t mean to sound sexist, but we are going to do great things.”

And Maldonado has a history of doing just that. She is leaving her position as the Associate Superintendent of Leadership and Partnerships in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where her career began 34 years ago as a bilingual teacher before she worked her way up to her position today. 

As a Mexican immigrant who came to the United States at age 11 as an English-learner, she said working with underserved students and building systems of equity for all students is one of her top focuses, which aligns with the district’s. In the LAUSD, she led the expansion of multiple dual-language programs and English learners have seen higher progress under her leadership. This experience seems especially crucial, as the SBUSD recently adopted a multilingual teaching plan and converted McKinley Elementary into a full dual-language immersion program.

“Public education delivers more than academics,” Maldonado said. “It changes lives. It improves society. It creates opportunities for students to thrive and in some cases like mine it provides a way out of poverty. As I promised during my interview, I’m ready to lead with my equity and excellence lens.”

She said her priorities are student safety and achievement, including access to devices and all other resources students need; collaboration with the board, parents, students, and the community; and maintaining a professional environment with teachers. She emphasized that the district — and the world — is in a crisis that will have a lasting impact on education, but that she feels prepared to meet the challenges head on.

Because the meeting was over Zoom, Maldonado introduced her husband, Kamran, and her two sons, Joshua and Ari, over the webcam session. Both of her sons are currently in college but they are sheltering in place with her during the pandemic.

“I look forward to leading this district as we collectively navigate an education system that ensures all students are prepared for life, college, and a career,” she said. “Public education made a difference in my life journey and I wish the same for all of our students.”

Maldonado will earn a $250,000 annual salary and officially begin her role July 1, 2020.

OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW

Maldonado was not the only new addition to the district on Tuesday. 

The school board also unanimously appointed Jennifer Balaishis as its new Coordinator of School Climate and Safety. 

Balaishis will report directly to Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Frann Wageneck and her main role involves assisting Wageneck with planning and implementing child welfare, residency and attendance, discipline procedures and law, specific grant funded programs, school security and safety, and evaluation of assigned personnel, among other duties. 

The district also bid farewell to Raul Ramirez, who is leaving his six-year post as the SBUSD assistant superintendent of elementary education for a bigger one  — superintendent of the K-8 Mesa Union Elementary School District in Ventura County. Ramirez earned upwards of $230,000 in pay and benefits at the time of his departure.

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