Santa Barbara Unified School District Board President Laura Capps | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

This interview is part of an ongoing series of candidate profiles ahead of the General Election on November 3, 2020. Stay tuned to our Election 2020 page for all of our latest profiles and election coverage.

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Santa Barbara Unified School District Board President Laura Capps is one of three incumbents running for reelection in an eight-candidate school board race, a stark contrast from four years ago when the incumbents were appointed to the board with no challengers. The crowded race isn’t bothering Capps, who is returning with four years of experience and accomplishments under her belt as a foundation to build on.

Currently the only board member with a child in the district, Capps’s familiarity with the district goes deeper than her four-year board term. She also grew up in Santa Barbara, attending district schools herself. Some of her main initiatives on the board have included championing a food service program that serves nutritious, free meals to low-income students year-round and pushing for sustainability through installing microgrids on campuses.

The Independent sat down with Capps to talk about her reelection campaign and reflect on her first term. The following is a condensed version of the conversation.

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Can you talk about your leadership on the board the past four years and what voters can expect if you are reelected?

When I first ran in 2016, I got a good piece of advice from a friend who works in education. It sounds super basic, but he said if you always put the kids first, your vote will be the right vote or your actions will be the right actions. It is a simplistic lens, but I’ve used it many, many times. For example, with the food-service workers and the efforts by the previous superintendent to lay off food-service workers. Certainly I wanted to protect their jobs during the pandemic; these are our lowest-paid workers and they work really hard. But fundamentally I was thinking to myself that we have really hungry kids, and this is not the time to be cutting back on an essential service that we need to explore ways to reach more students in need with. I feel proud that I can say that I’ve put the kids first every time, in little ways and in big ways.

Santa Barbara Unified has had its fair share of controversies in recent years over a number of different topics, usually involving a change or end to a program that parents disagreed with. Do you feel like these issues were handled appropriately by the board, or would you change your approach in future disagreements?

What I would do differently is be even more adamant that we need to be transparent. What I do for a living in my day job is communications strategies, and that’s what’s allowed me to be an effective board member. We need to tell a story. So for the GATE example [a controversy over the magnet program], the plan wasn’t even to bring it to the board. It was just being handled in communications to parents after the fact, and I was the one who said, “Wait a second, time out.” When there is a change being made, we need to bring it to the board, and when I say bring it to the board, I mean bring it to the public. We are that link. I am a voice of five for the community. Going forward with four years under my belt, I just know even more the importance of transparency.

Elementary schools in the district are now eligible for the reopening waivers that could allow them to reopen before the county is off the state’s COVID-19 metric watchlist. As a mom with an elementary-aged son and an incumbent boardmember, are you advocating for reopening elementary schools if the state allows?

It’s all about safety. I believe that the best place for students is with their teachers in the classrooms, but it has to be safe. As much as I want my son to be back in class, I also understand the importance of him feeling safe and the routine. We also don’t want to get into a situation where we do open back up and then have to close down.

… I’m an advocate of outdoor education even before the pandemic. Living here in Santa Barbara and having the ability to do so 12 months out of the year and knowing what nature instills in me as a person and in children, it’s just even more now with the pandemic. Outdoor education was a reliable solution during the last pandemic in 1918 and in other epidemics, so I’ve been pushing our staff to be as bold and forward-thinking as possible. I’ve gone as specific as asking for funding for outdoor canopies and tents at each campus, and I was told by a few principals that that is really happening.

Many critics of the district have called for literacy reform and have chastised the district for students’ low reading and math scores across all schools. Do you feel that the current reading models are functional?

Literacy is a top goal, and we need to do much better. The hiring of Hilda Maldonado [as superintendent] is a major affirmation that the board, myself, understands that need. Her expertise is in English-learner education. She is an English learner, and that’s the bulk of so many students who are challenged with literacy.

The second part to that is I’m all about upholding solutions that are working, so I constantly sing the praises and give as much support as I can to Franklin Elementary, where they’ve seen such an amazing rise in their test scores with a principal and teachers and staff who are creative and outside-the-box thinkers…. I’m constantly looking at, what’s the secret sauce? How can we export that secret sauce to other schools? … Trying to cut through the bureaucratic reasons of why that can’t be magnified in every school.

It’s also another reason I want to stay on the board. I believe I have more work to do to push and advocate to see a greater impact when it comes to literacy, language arts, mathematics, and all of our core subjects.

Can you respond to criticism that you don’t put core subjects at a high enough priority and instead focus “too much” in other areas, like your commitment to relieving child hunger and pushing for renewable energy on SBUSD campuses?

I’ve gotten complaints that I just care about solar and I don’t care about literacy. To that, I’m like, “Okay, do you want another $1 million for literacy programs? Let’s try not spending extraneous money on electricity.” Our water bills are so high…. To get to 100 percent renewable energy means massive cost savings, which will fund literacy programs. That’s the way it works.

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