More than a third of Susan Epstein’s life has been dedicated to improving the lives of K-12 students. As she steps down from 16 years of service on the Goleta Union School Board, Epstein’s legacy will continue on in her push to better public education.
“I’ve been on the Goleta School board for 40 years and never come across a boardmember like Susan,” said Boardmember Richard Mayer. “She studies up on whatever we’re working on, and she shows up to help the rest of us understand the issues. She is always very evidence-based, and we’ve all come to rely on asking her about the material.”
But Epstein didn’t always see herself as playing this role. Her journey began nearly two decades earlier, when a group of parents approached her and asked if she’d run. At the time, her two kids were in pre-kindergarten, so she had little involvement with the district. She had just moved to Santa Barbara from San Francisco, where she had been a teacher and started her own nonprofit, Our Schools, Our Media. She did not envision herself as an elected official.
But the district’s morale was low. One of the Goleta schools had recently been closed following intense community backlash. “I really thought of myself as a nonprofit director at that point, I was shocked to be approached to run for public office,” Epstein said. Nonetheless, she made time to walk each campus with their respective principals. She went to parents and heard their concerns. Before she knew it, she had a laundry list of issues to tackle and a mission to get elected.
“Every single issue on that original list has been solved now,” she said. “Some took the whole 16 years, but most issues were solved much earlier than that.”
Right away Epstein got to work. “In my first month I brought up the idea of getting rid of pesticides on all campuses,” she said. “I kinda just thought that anything that’s good for my kids is good for all Goleta kids. We didn’t use pesticides at home, so I didn’t want them in the schools.”
It was a massive win for Epstein, and shortly after the City of Goleta followed suit and banned the use of pesticides as well. As it turned out, Epstein seemed to have a knack for getting the board to come to a consensus on issues like pesticides, which was initially a split issue.
Nutrition in the schools is another excellent example of her ability to bring consensus.
“I was more of a fiscally responsible, conservative candidate than Susan was,” said Valerie Cantella, a former boardmember who worked with Epstein for eight years. “School nutrition was one of the several areas that we didn’t agree on from the beginning. Susan wanted us to provide organic food made from scratch, and I was like, there is no way we can do that because it’s too expensive.
“But she is an amazing researcher and analyzer,” Cantella continued. “Susan gave the board all this information about it. I’m so glad now that she was able to provide all of that, and I can admit I was wrong. Now our kids have nutritious lunches, and I wouldn’t have thought it was economically possible before.”
Epstein used her research skills to find consensus among boardmembers, but she used her ability to listen to find consensus among parents in the community. Goleta Union has, for the most part, been controversy-free for the better part of Epstein’s 16 years. There were times of upset, though, and Epstein showed she could lend an ear and make all constituents feel heard, even when they were divided.
“During the last year of my tenure in 2016-2017, we shifted some principals around to new schools, and there was one principal in particular that the community was very upset was reassigned,” said past superintendent Bill Banning. “The board’s role there was to make the parents feel heard, and Susan did that. I don’t see her in the position of standout leadership because she worked together with her board to get everyone listening.”
Epstein reflected on these times, too. Although she said there was very little strife overall, she “almost wanted to quit” the first time the board had to approve letting an employee go. “It was so hard not being able to explain to these upset parents why their beloved principal or whoever was no longer with the district, but I wasn’t allowed to discuss those matters.”
She also recalled another time around 2012 when the board couldn’t give out raises to district teachers. Placards that read “GUSD Board, Respect Goleta Educators” popped up in response on parent and teacher vehicles everywhere, even when Epstein was going to drop off her own kids at school.
Overall, Epstein is proud of the board’s accomplishments during her tenure. Some of the highlights include the adoption of a strategic plan, the number of preschool classrooms tripled, the achievement gap was reduced overall, and there is now a psychologist at every school — a very uncommon practice toward strengthening socioemotional learning.
Now, Epstein is handing over the reins to Vicki Ben-Yaacov, the newly elected boardmember in her place. “I feel great leaving the district in really talented hands. I believe Vicki and the other four boardmembers together will guide the district in the right direction,” said Epstein. They will have to tackle welcoming students back to campus and one of Epstein’s larger worries, learning loss.
Epstein, however, will be getting involved in national policy work — particularly educational technology. She also still has her management consulting practice, Susan Epstein & Associates, and wants to focus on education technology, thoughtful use of artificial intelligence, and climate change.
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