Laura Capps, the only Santa Barbara school board member who opposed the unpopular demotion of San Marcos High School Principal Ed Behrens, nevertheless says she stands against the grassroots effort to recall her colleagues, who voted him out.
In her first public comments on the policy and political controversies that have followed the March 13 firing of Behrens, on a 4-to-1 board vote, Capps on Monday told Newsmakers that in deciding her vote, she gave “an enormous amount of weight” to the strong public support that parents demonstrated for him.
“I understand their immense frustration,” she said in an email interview.
“It is terribly unfair that the law prevents transparency on how personnel decisions are to be handled,” she added. “However, I strongly support my colleagues and believe that a recall will only further the divisiveness.”
In the second year of her first term on the board, Capps said she would advise the burgeoning parents movement that has organized around the Behrens affair to focus on the November election, when two board seats will be on the ballot.
“Our focus now should be on moving forward,” she said.
Capps won her seat by default in 2016, along with board president Jackie Reid and vice president Wendy Sims-Moten, because no other candidates stepped forward to run. She called the sudden burst of community involvement and engagement in school board “one bright spot” in the Behrens episode.
This is the last in a recent series of posts featuring Newsmaker interviews with the school board members at the center of the recent controversy. On Saturday, we published comments from Parker and Ismael Ulloa, whose terms are up this year and, on Sunday, heard from Reid and Sims-Moten, who are the focus of the recall maneuvering. Here is the transcript of the interview with Capps, lightly edited for clarity. You can find background and bio material on her here, here and here.
Q: You disagreed with all four of your board colleagues in voting Cary Matsuoka's proposal to demote SMHS Principal Ed Behrens.
As a political matter, do you think their votes on that issue justify being voted out, either through recall or direct election? If asked would you support the recall, or back your colleagues against the recall?
A: While I disagree with the outcome and take issue with the process, I have respect for my colleagues, their integrity, and their commitment to our schools. They are the kind of genuine and dedicated people we want in public service.
The hundreds -- thousands - who supported Mr. Behrens did so with sincerity and passion, and backed by an impressive array of data and personal experiences.
I understand their immense frustration; it is terribly unfair that the law prevents transparency on how personnel decisions are to be handled. However, I strongly support my colleagues and believe that a recall will only further the divisiveness.
Let’s remember, there is an upcoming school board election in November. A voting process with qualified candidates is the best - and less fracturing - approach. Our school community is under so much pressure – heightened issues of safety, recovering from the worst natural disaster in our history, in addition to the everyday realities of making sure our children have the tools they need to succeed. Our focus now should be on moving forward.
Q: Tell us how much weight you gave the turnout, lobbying and passion of parents who pleaded with the board to save Mr. Behrens's job in making your decision?
A: I give an enormous amount of weight to the viewpoint of parents, since my job is to represent them and their children.
And I was - and am - impressed by the overwhelming community support for Mr. Behrens’s leadership -- from staff, teachers, parents, and students – as well as the upward trajectory of student achievement at San Marcos High School. There is much that gives me hope that even those who disagreed with the outcome like I did will work towards supporting the future of such an amazing school.
Q: A lot of parents have brought up the point that the three members who joined the board in 2017, including you, did so by default, because of the lack of other candidates who filed to run.
What do you say to people who argue that your formally non-elected status undermines your authority and that of the board?
A: I ran for the school board because I believe our public schools are the heart of our democracy.
I was disappointed that in 2016 more people chose not to step forward and run, though I understand this is often the case since the time it takes to serve on the board is difficult to manage with a full-time job. A campaign with forums, neighborhood gatherings and press coverage would have given the community more opportunities to learn about our qualifications and get to know us.
Many people do tune into our board meetings, either on-line or in person – twice a month on Tuesdays and invite us to meet. In recent weeks, I valued being able to listen to hundreds of positive and detailed experiences from students, teachers, parents and staff -- especially from the parents who clearly care above and beyond.
If there is one bright spot in this whole situation it is the heightened engagement by the community which I am hopeful will lead to even more constructive involvement in our schools going forward. Our students -- and the parents, staff and teachers that support them -- give us so much to be proud of here in Santa Barbara.
Q: Is there any alternative, possibly involving legal waivers of confidentiality, to the closed-door process the board used for this action, one that would offer some transparency about it?
A: Our school board is governed by the same laws that every school board in California is governed by.
I am not aware of alternative processes, but I’d explore any approach that fosters more transparency. I can completely see why the process has been frustrating for the community-- I share that frustration - and I’d be happy to meet with anyone who would like to talk about it and any ideas on how we best move forward. My email is Lcapps@Sbunified.org.
Q: Why have you asked for major changes in the school safety protocols that were presented to the board?
A: There is nothing more important – and lately more daunting -- than keeping students safe at school.
The daunting part is how the dangers evolve and escalate, such as the rise of cyber bullying, and thus safety protocols need to be evaluated on the latest best practices.
Many factors are out of the control of schools – such as laws that allow access to guns. Our nation is experiencing an epidemic of mass shootings and perversely schools are the second most common location for active shooter scenarios. The Washington Post reports that since Columbine more than 187,000 students have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours.
I’ve made school safety a top priority because I am a mom to a student in our schools and I believe it is incumbent that our plans reflect the latest expertise from law enforcement and nationwide best practices.
I’m glad that recently the board voted to fund a safety coordinator, these plans have been updated to more specifically address active shooter scenarios, and district staff have launched a school safety task force to prioritize safety challenges and address them more holistically.
I will do what I can as a board member - and a parent -- to keep school safety front and center including supporting the valuable social and emotional education programs we have in our schools. The challenge is enormous and everyone -- parents, law enforcement, mental health professionals, and public officials – needs to be part of making our school communities as safe as they can be.
Full disclosure: Laura Capps is a regular panelist on Newsmakers-TV on TVSB. She'll be on the panel in the show we're recording Thursday night, talking more about the recent controversy surrounding the school board.
Images: Laura Capps; Capps sworn in by her mother, former Rep. Lois Capps, in 2016 as son Oscar looks on (KEYT); (l-r) Capps, Wendy Sims-Moten and Jackie Reid, who joined the school board together in 2017 after no other candidates filed to run for three open seats; Sheriff's deputies on campus during a March 12 lockdown at San Marcos High School (Paul Wellman/SB Independent).