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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Cary in the Lion's Den: School Supe at SMHS

Santa Barbara public schools chief Cary Matsuoka went to San Marcos High on Monday night to ask parents what qualities they want in their new principal.

What he mostly heard: We want the old guy back.

In a sometimes tense, 90-minute session with 120 people packed into the school library, Matsuoka was forced to scrap his prepared presentation, as a series of San Marcos parents demanded to know why the superintendent led the school board into canning Ed Behrens, the school's popular longtime principal.

“We had a leader who was the glue that held us together,” said parent Marcy Wimbish. “And we feel unglued now…we’re falling off the ship right now.”

It was the latest twist in the months-long San Marcos saga, which has been shaped by a series of school safety episodes, the March 13 demotion of Behrens - despite a huge demonstration of support by parents, students and alums - and angry political pushback, including threats to recall school board members who backed Matsuoka’s move against the principal with a 4-1 vote.

Two of those – Wendy Sims-Moten and Jackie Reid - sat in the back of the room without speaking. Along with their colleague, Laura Capps, who voted to keep Behrens, they stayed silent in order to avoid running afoul of California's Brown Act, which prohibits a majority of the five-member board from effectively convening a meeting without prior public notice.

Floral centerpieces and markers. Trying hard but in vain to put the Behrens matter behind them, Matsuoka and his cabinet had planned the session as a “Parent Input Meeting,” using the “World Café Method” a touchy-feely, collaborative consensus-building process aimed at developing criteria for Behrens’s replacement.

Drawing eye rolls from some parents, district officials had arranged to fill the library with scores of small tables for four, each draped with a white tablecloth, festooned with a floral centerpiece and equipped with miniature legal pads and markers for participants to take notes and swap ideas.

It instantly became clear that Matsuoka had misread the mood of his audience.

“We don’t agree with that format,” parent Jody Neal piped up, speaking over Matsuoka as the superintendent still was explaining the process.

“We spoke loudly and publicly” in favor of Behrens, Neal added. “This is nothing but a show to cover up what you’ve already decided.”

“How do we know this not a charade,” asked Wimbish.

“Why was there a change?” demanded another woman wearing a red San Marcos t-shirt, the political signifier for the large pro-Behrens faction. “What it gets down to is the trust issue.”

Only a few in the audience disagreed with such sentiments, at least publicly.

“It’s really important to move on, “ insisted one parent, who argued unsuccessfully to get the event back on the World Café track.

Amid a flurry of questions about why, specifically, Behrens had been given the Hobson's Choice of resigning or teaching in a junior high school, Matsuoka repeatedly said that he could not discuss the matter because of legal requirements that personnel matters remain confidential.

“I’m not going to go there,” he said.

About a half hour into the mission, however, the superintendent gave up on the (sheesh) World Café and agreed hear out the parents.

To his credit, he cooled off the heated atmosphere while facilitating a broader conversation that not only allowed wide-open opportunities for venting but also a handful of statements from parents and teachers who want to close the book on the Behrens affair.

“Ed is not the only one who has made this school successful,” said Lara Wilbanks a longtime teacher. “Let’s talk about all the things that make San Marcos great.”

Wading into the weeds. A former teacher, principal and superintendent from Silicon Valley, the 61-year old Matsuoka has been in Santa Barbara less than two years – and thus remains a virtual stranger to many of those in the audience.

“Who are you?” a voice called out from the audience at one point.

Matsuoka offered an account of his career and educational philosophy, which began a substantive conversation about policies that he sees as crucial in the SB’s Unified School District forward.

Among the issues:

Academies. Many parents are suspicious that Matsuoka’s ouster of Behrens reflects a hidden agenda to break up or take over the structure of specialized "academies" and other intensive study programs that Behrens has installed at San Marcos, and that also feature at Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara High schools.

These include DP's Engineering Academy, the Multimedia Arts and Design Academy at Santa Barbara High and the Entrepreneurship Academy and Program for Effective Access to College, plus a special Leadership Program at San Marcos, among others.

Matsuoka insisted he is not planning to “dismantle the academies,” which he praised.

However, he quickly added that “we’ve got to figure out the access piece,” a reference to his belief that admission to academies should be open to everyone, rather than based on formal applications. Some Latino parents and advocacy groups have expressed concerns that the process for admission to some academies unfairly favors white students.

“I’ve got an attorney briefing on this that says if we get sued on this we would lose,” he said.

Race. In a related issue, Matsuoka talked about “the equity issue,” a reference to the goal of ensuring that minority and low-income students have sufficient earmarked resources and programs to address disparities in academic achievement, drop out rates and standardized tests between races and economic groups.

Some parents fear such policies could result in a kind of reverse discrimination that results in reduction or loss of academic opportunities for the highest achieving students, often white and wealthier.

Personalized education. Matsuoka said the entire district needs to move “with urgency” away from traditional teaching and scheduling practices, which he compared to “a 20th Century factory model” in favor of more flexible “personalized education,” to allow each student to graduate by using their own learning style and pace in an age of rapidly changing technologies.

“This is what is emerging in education,” he said.

Bottom line. By the time the meeting ended, Matsuoka candidly acknowledged the harsh feelings towards him.

“Our relationship is not good – you don’t trust me,” he said, in something of an understatement. “I have a long way to go to earn your trust and respect.”

After the meeting, none of a half-dozen parents interviewed by Newsmakers said they’d changed their minds about their concerns about the secretive process used to fire Berhens, although several said they appreciated learning more about the still-new leader of the school system.

One specific beef: Matsuoka was asked at one point about his intention to include at least a few San Marcos parents in the search committee and process for selecting a new principal.

Although the application deadline for would-be San Marcos principals passed on Tuesday, and interviews are set to begin in two weeks, he surprisingly seemed unprepared to answer the obvious question, saying he would “have to get back to you” on the matter.

People’s politics. We hear that pro-Behrens parents who have said publicly they plan to recall board members are regrouping and still debating strategy for the 2018 election..

Among the issues under discussion: the likelihood that a district election system will replace at-large election of the school board, as Newsmakers previously reported (our take: as a practical matter, having districts in place for the November election would be an extremely tough slog; it is more plausible that the system would change after completion of the 2020 census).

Word is, some among the staunch pro-Behrens faction now are mulling a tactic set forth by Capps – focusing on capturing two board seats that will be on the November ballot rather than a recall.

Auribus Teneo Lupum.

P.S. KEYT ace reporter Tracy Lehr, aka "Woman of the Year," also covered last night's event. Her report is here.

Images: SB Unified School District Cary Matsuoka addresses parents in San Marcos High School llbrary; School board members Wendy Sims-Moten (l) and Jackie Reid listen to the discussion on Monday night; Deep in the Weeds Guy; School board member Laura Capps (center) sits among the San Marcos parents.

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