Santa Barbara School Board Shocker: Kate Ford Won’t Seek Reelection

Announcement Sets Off Scramble for Successor to Fill Her Seat on the SBUSD Board of Education

Kate Ford | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

This story first appeared at Newsmakers with JR.

In a political surprise, career educator Kate Ford has decided not to run for reelection to the Santa Barbara Unified School District board of education, she told Newsmakers on Wednesday.

Ford was elected four years ago on the strength of her four decades of deep experience at every level of education; in public and behind-the-scenes, she has been the intellectual leader on the five-member school board, both during the troubled close of former Superintendent Cary Matsuoka’s tenure and the first two, unsettled years of the term of incumbent Hilda Maldonado.

As word of Ford’s decision spread through the local political community on Wednesday, there was a sudden scramble among insiders and education advocates to find a successor candidate around whom her backers and base could coalesce, with considerable speculation and buzz surrounding city Planning Commission chair Gabe Escobedo.

This year’s election marks the first time SBUSD board candidates will run under a new district representative scheme.

Ford, holding the Eastside District 1 seat, was considered a shoo-in for a second term. Now, her unexpected exit could trigger a competitive race: county elections office records show that at least one other candidate — Efigenia Banales, who has worked as a classroom assistant in the district and been active in community politics — on Wednesday already pulled papers to run.

What she was thinking. Ford described her decision as a tortuous one. Both in a telephone interview, and in a 368-word written statement she told us she wrote to clarify her thinking for herself (posted below), she cited reasons “both personal and professional.”

At age 70, Ford said, she realized that after jumping into the maelstrom of school board politics four years ago, immediately after finishing a 43-year professional career, she really hasn’t “experienced retirement and the freedom that I imagined it might bring … to travel, try new things, and basically wander away from education and commitments for a while.”

Also, at a time when COVID, school shutdowns, racial antagonisms, and tribal politics increasingly generate an atmosphere of anger, rancor, and hostility at board meetings, as members and district administrators routinely become the targets of belligerent verbal attacks, and frequent recipients of hateful, vicious, and threatening emails and other messages.

“I’m not a natural political animal,” Ford said. “I feel strongly about the way that people should interact, and I don’t believe, at this point in my life, that I need to tolerate being accused of various misdoings as well as being called every name in the book. Or ignore stupidity. Or accept cruelty.”

A real loss. In a local election season featuring school board races from Lompoc to Carpinteria, Ford’s withdrawal from the electoral arena represents a significant loss for public education in Santa Barbara. Thoughtful, prudent, and well-informed, she possesses vast institutional knowledge and historic context about the full array of teaching, learning, administration, philosophic, and pedagogic issues confronting public education, here and across the nation.

As a matter of governance, her departure particularly is a blow to Maldonado; along with the election of Ford’s board colleague and close ally Laura Capps to the Board of Supervisors, the embattled superintendent is losing her two strongest supporters.

Their exits come at a time when Maldonado is the focus of harsh criticism and censure from some teachers union factions; faces ongoing fallout from the resignations or retirements of virtually every key, veteran executive at district headquarters; and the stiff challenge of assembling and managing a new team of top administrators, many of them new to Santa Barbara.

Although the deadline for filing candidacy papers is Friday, it is expected that will be extended by five days, to August 17, because there now is no incumbent in the race.

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Here is the text of Kate Ford’s written statement explaining her decision not to run again:

It took me a long time to make this decision, but I had a revelation last night when reading Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s newsletter reflections on Serena’s retirement. He noted that it is pretty tough to move away from something that has brought so much personal and professional satisfaction, along with facing the troubling feeling that in doing so, people might feel let down and disappointed. I think that reality also definitely kept me from saying thanks but no thanks.

However, I have decided not to run for school board again, even though there have been numerous wins, lots of opportunities to use my experience and expertise, and many chances for growth through often daunting and sometimes painful challenges. My reasons are both personal AND professional.

On the personal side, I just don’t feel that committing four more years at my age and stage in life is the right thing for me. I went straight from 43 years in education to running for school board and then serving on the board for four years…. So, I really haven’t experienced retirement and the freedom that I imagined it might bring…. to travel, try new things, and basically wander away from education and commitments for a while.

Professionally speaking, many of the realities of being on a public school board are not really in line with my own sensibilities and style. Things I have always valued and made a hallmark of my career, namely collaboration, honesty, kindness, and fun just aren’t there, almost by design. There is a built-in stiffness and formality that has been difficult for me. I’m not a natural political animal. I feel strongly about the way that people should interact; and I don’t believe, at this point in my life, that I need to tolerate being accused of various misdoings as well as being called every name in the book. Or ignore stupidity. Or accept cruelty.

The bottom line is that I believe that I can help in other creative ways by coloring a bit outside the lines and more in line with my personality and skills.

So, there you have it, I remain, once and for all, a schoolmarm looking for something else around the corner.

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