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One-on-One with Superintendent Matsuoka: Parents Have It Wrong on Principal's Canning

Editor's Note: On July 22, 2019, Superintendent Cary Matsuoka was questioned under oath in a deposition stemming from litigation former San Marcos High School Principal Ed Behrens filed against the Santa Barbara Unified School District. In the deposition, he acknowledged that several statements in this interview, which he stated in spring 2018, were not true. For an update on the matter, see this later post from Newsmakers).

A timeline tracking the controversial demotion of San Marcos High’s principal, constructed and disseminated by irate school parents, “is not totally accurate" -- and misrepresents what happened in the case, SB schools chief Cary Matsuoka told Newsmakers.

Matsuoka, in a sit-down interview at Santa Barbara Unified School District headquarters, said, however, that he couldn’t divulge what is mistaken in the document, which the parents have widely distributed to chronicle their understanding of the facts surrounding the ouster of principal Ed Behrens: “That’s going to get into personnel issues," the superintendent said..

“What I have to say is, this is mostly about personnel and evaluation statements,” he said. “The dates (in the timeline) are accurate. The statements about what happened on those dates is not totally accurate."

The timeline lies at the center of heated conflict between the school board and the angry parents, who have organized an ad hoc group called "Save Our Schools," for the purpose of evaluating ways and means of campaigning for the recall and ouster of three school board trustees who voted against Behrens behind closed doors.

The parents group is expected to vet candidates as possible replacements for embattled members Jackie Reid and Wendy Sims-Moten, if they decide to proceed with a recall; they may also search for insurgent challengers to run in the November election, in a bid to oust anti-Behrens incumbent Ismael Ulloa, along with capturing a fourth seat to be vacated by veteran Kate Parker's impending departure.

In the interview, Matsuoka said he has been surprised by the intensity of the political blowback from the large group of San Marcos parents – but, paradoxically, believes it might benefit the district in the long run.

“I would say short term, it’s distracting,” he said. “Here’s what I say to the long term: If the community, and I say that very deliberately, if the community were to decide that they wanted to vote on a recall then what a great opportunity to have a community-wide conversation about the issues and opportunities in our school district.”

Cary on key issues: Sporting a trademark floral tie, Matsuoka was low-key and painstaking in his language during an hour-long interview in the district's board room. as he addressed questions about the political storm now swirling around the San Marcos situation, over which he has drawn considerable public criticism. Among other matters, he:

  • Disclosed that there are no minutes, transcript or other written record of the school board’s “confidential conversations” about reassigning Behrens to a lower-paying, teaching position, because “none of that can be reported out by law anyway."

  • Praised the academic achievements and standards of high-profile “academies” at the high schools, a key issue amid the political controversy, but said changes are needed to address “unintended consequences” of the application processes for some of the specialized and advanced educational programs, to ensure equal access to all students.

  • Expressed concern that a new system of electing school board members, which the board recently agreed to take preliminary steps to implement, could produce some members “who only want to take care of (their) schools, (their neighborhood) – that’s not good governance."

  • Affirmed his strong support for ensuring public funds were available to pay for a law enforcement officer to keep watch on each of the district’s three schools, despite the opposition to such a policy by some groups representing interests of minority students, including People Organized for the Defense and Equal Rights of SB Youth, (PODER).

  • Provided a detailed account of the January “chat room” incident, in which a group of male students at San Marcos posted a video that demeaned and threatened some female students, setting off the chain of events resulting in the current dispute between the district and parents.

“There was a four-day delay in my cabinet team being informed so we could support, investigate, help with communication, get the word out,” Matsuoka said.

“When we get these kinds of serious incidents, I tell my principals, ‘your first call is to one of us,’ just so we’re aware' and, two, we always make these really quick assessments – is this like low medium, high?” he added. “I think this one, we would have said immediately, this one is a big deal and just assigned one or two of us to get on the ground and just help collect information.”

What happened when? Matsuoka’s explanation implies that Behrens, who received a formal reprimand over the incident, was largely at fault for what the superintendent acknowledges was the district's mishandling of communications about the episode; however, the San Marcos parents group, now organized and named “Save Our Schools,” takes issue with that narrative.

The group's timeline, which appears on its Facebook page and has been widely publicized, favors and defends Behrens.

Here is the text of the document:

Overview and Timeline of Events Regarding the Demotion of SMHS Principal Ed Behrens

  • June 30, 2017: SMHS Principal Ed Behrens receives a largely positive annual evaluation for the 2016-17 year.

  • January 19, 2018: SMHS administrators are made aware of a possible threat made online towards several students in the district. SMHS immediately contacts Assistant Superintendent Frann Wageneck and the Sheriff’s Office, who take control of the investigation. The families of those students directly threatened or involved are informed, and appropriate disciplinary action is taken.

  • January 24, 2018 & February 5, 2018: Two subsequent community meetings are held to address concern over district safety policies were conducted, first largely by Assistant Superintendent Frann Wageneck with Behrens in attendance and then by Superintendent Cary Matsuoka. A small group of parents continue to voice frustration with the district’s response.

  • February 7, 2018: Behrens receives a Letter of Reprimand from the district concerning the response to the online incident. The letter is highly critical, blaming Behrens for parent frustration, but makes no reference to reassignment. Mr. Behrens is given 10 business days to respond.

  • February 12, 2018: Matsuoka writes a Notice of Reassignment. It definitively stated that Behrens “will be reassigned for the school year 2018-19 from Principal to a social studies teacher position.”

  • February 19, 2018: Behrens submits his rebuttal and request to retract the reprimand.

  • February 22, 2018, Behrens receives a negative evaluation for the 2017-18 year, dated February 22, 2018, yet Matsuoka had written his Notice of Reassignment 10 days earlier.


  • Principal Behrens and his team took immediate action and made the right decisions related to the online chat room incident. No one was injured, the threat was immediately identified as non-credible, his team followed best practices in addressing the situation, including communicating with the then-known affected students’ families, and with senior District personnel.

  • Superintendent Matsuoka’s February 12 decision to demote Ed Behrens could not be based on the February 2018 review because at the time the decision was made, the June 2017 review was the most recent on record. Additionally, the Superintendent did not even consider Behrens’ response to his Letter of Reprimand prior to his decision to demote.

  • Furthermore, from June 2017 to February 2018 (only 6 months of school), his performance review ratings unbelievably went down in 5 of the 6 performance categories used by the district. There is no credible explanation why a 20-year accomplished administrator’s performance would suffer such a drastic collapse.

  • The reality is that the February 22 evaluation is a pretextual, trumped-up attempt to justify Mr. Matsuoka’s decision to oust Principal Behrens as a means to deflect blame from senior district management, including Mr. Matsuoka himself.

Why it matters. As a political matter, the parents’ timeline is significant because, if accurate as presented, it undercuts Matsuoka’s take by showing a) his fate was decided before Behrens had a chance to respond, as required by law; b) the principal did not receive a new performance review until more than a week after his demotion letter already had been signed.

The parents put forth the timeline as evidence that the incident was used as a pretext to reprimand, and ultimately demote, Behrens in part because, they believe, Matsuoka has a broader agenda to change the direction of, and increase his control over, a network of academically high-powered academies at all three high schools, in the name of diversity and "equitable access."

“Clearly the (Behrens performance) review was trumped up,” stated Matt Fay, a leader of'Save Our Schools, at a recent meeting of the parents group.

“The February 12th decision could not have been based on the Feb. 22nd review,” Fay said. “It was trumped up to justify the ouster of Ed Behrens.”

He said the timeline demonstrates that the principal “took immediate action and made the right decisions (according to) best practices” during the chat room affair.

Fay also said that he has reviewed Behrens’s personnel file and found nothing previous that would justify his ouster on performance grounds: “There’s “no smoking gun – there’s nothing behind the scenes that we don’t know about.

“His demotion was not about performance,” Fay said, but rather, “the special interests of board members and the superintendent.”

“They’re focused on the marginalized to the detriment of the other 95 percent” of students, he added.

When Matsuoka was handed a copy of the timeline, he responded: "The timeline’s accurate – I will agree to that. But the statements here, I beg to differ.

“Some of it is just operational – okay he receives a letter. But evaluative statements about what went into those, I take issue with what’s put out," he added.


Images: Cary Matsuoka, when he was introduced as the SBUSD's new superintendent in 2016 (Paul Wellman, Santa Barbara Independent); Matsuoka, confronted by a group of parents at San Marcos High School earlier this month; Ed Behrens, deposed SMHS principal; Matt Fay, a leader of Save Our Schools.

Here is the full transcript of Newsmakers’ April 5 interview with Superintendent Matsuoka. It has been lightly edited for clarity.


Q: There has been a lot of political fallout from the demotion of Ed Behrens, including the threat to recall school board members. Did you expect that much blowback, or was that a surprise to you?

A: I expected some reaction. I didn’t expect this large a reaction, so I would say I was somewhat surprised with the volume of the disagreement with the decision.

Q: To what do you attribute it? Why do you think it happened, that people reacted so aggressively?

A: Personnel decisions by law have to be held in confidence. We can’t disclose all of the factors that go into making a decision like this. And I know that’s frustrating for the community, for parents.

What I will say to this is: the (Human Resource) process in Santa Barbara Unified is thorough, it’s thoughtful and it’s long term. So some of the questions are, 'Superintendent Matsuoka, you’ve only been here a year-and-a-half, how could you reach such a, quote, quick decision'”?

Well, here’s how I listen in my job. Yeah, I listen directly to people, but I have to listen through a lot of channels. Superintendents, you have to be collecting input almost every five minutes in this job. So I hear from a lot of sources in this job and I would say the district has listened to a multi-year process of all of our leaders and so what I would say about our district process around supervision and evaluation of our leaders is that it’s thoughtful, it’s long-term, it’s not a quick decision.


Q; What impact will the recall, the political controversy, have on the business of the board? Would you characterize it as a distraction, a disruption?

A: It’s a great question. I would say short term it’s distracting, Here’s what I would say to the long-term – if the community, and I say that very deliberately, if the community were to decide that they wanted to vote on a recall then what a great opportunity to have a community-wide conversation about the issues and opportunities in our school district.

So if there’s a recall vote then, okay, let’s talk about what are we recalling for? What do these school board members stand for, and actually community, Santa Barbara community, what do you want in your school board? Who do you want leading your school district?

And for me, it’s serving every kid, it’s about equity, it’s about a vision for the future and what I would say to the parents concerned about, you know, is the superintendent going to dismantle all these great programs:

Look, I’ve been a high school teacher my whole career. I taught Advanced Placement Computer Science, I taught Honors Chemistry, and I worked at some of the highest performing high schools in our state so I know how to nurture high achieving kids and programs.


Q: That leads to a question about the academies. Some of the parents I've talked to believe you have a hidden agenda on the academies.

A: The academies here are second to none. I’ve been around almost every high school in the Bay Area and we don’t have academies in the Bay Area like we do in Santa Barbara. They are exceptional places of learning.

My issue with the academies is equitable access to the academies, and the demographics in our academies, they’re very challenging. And some of that is you know, the design of the academies, the standards that we need to have in those, but we’ve got to figure out the access question.

My other concern about the academies is, now that this is my second spring, watching the applications and then the selection and then the notification of families and now I hear stories about, these are eighth graders, who didn’t get into an academy and it’s like they’re crushed.

And I just want to say to the students and the moms and the dads,'it’s okay – we’re talking high school. '

I think one of the unintended consequences of the academies, as great as they are, it’s created this – if you’re in an academy, fantastic, but if you didn’t get into an academy it’s like, 'oh, I guess I just go to regular school.' That’s such an upside down perspective

I’ve been part of schools, ninth grade schools, and we go to Cupertino High. We all go to Cupertino High as an entire class of 2022 and our academies have started to divide our schools into these…it’s almost like, into these divided places.

Q: So it sounds like you do have changes in mind,

A: The academies, I want to preserve the quality programs that are in all of them. The instructional design and experience, it is fantastic. I’ve visited all of them and again they are second to none.

But there are some unintended consequences, you create something great over here and it’s not a resource issue, it’s not really a money issue. It’s a, spend so much energy promoting academies – we used to call it the Academy Showcase. Which, again, good intentions, good thoughts. But again how do we help people know about the academies and apply for them?

We don’t promote the programs that support 75 percent of our entering ninth grade class across our district.

Q; Are San Marcos academies different than Dos Pueblos or Santa Barbara High?

A: They’re actually all pretty similar when it comes to the admission process. You know, kids apply, there’s some variation of the screening selection process. Each of them has their nuances about admission and I have concerns about the whole academy admission process.

We’ve started to address it; we’ve taken a light touch. I’m not going to come in and just make a policy statement, you know, we have to do it this way, because that would be too disruptive. But we’re working with the directors of each of these academies saying,' 'look you’ve got to work with us because you and I really struggle when families don’t get in and say, -‘well sorry, there’s not enough room.’"

We’re a public school district. When we start out saying just flat out, ‘no,’ it’s a hard place to stand.

Q: Are you saying that the status quo, the processes, are underserving Latinos?

A: What I would say to that question is, if you look at the demographics in our academies, the answer to that question is the breakdown of students in our academies is very light on the Latino student experience.


Q: On the Behrens matter, some of the parents have complained it was kind of a star chamber proceeding. Like you were the district attorney before the grand jury - everybody knows district attorneys can indict a ham sandwich. Did you indict a ham sandwich? Are you required to be present when the board considers such a matter?

A: (Laughs) In my entire career, when it comes to personnel issues in closed session, I’m always present – otherwise how would a board be able to ask questions and make a decision?

So yes I’m present. Am I like a district attorney? My job is to present a recommendation, reasons, but to give a board space to make their own decision. And what I would say for this school board – they spent three hours in closed session making a decision. I can tell you this board was very thoughtful, very deliberate, and very patient with making that decision.

So regardless of whether you agree or disagree, you have to respect the amount of time the board took to make that decision.

Q: There have been questions about transparency. Is there a transcript, minutes, is there any record of what happened?

A: No, we do not take minutes in closed session for this very reason: it’s all confidential conversations. I don’t take minutes in closed session because none of that can be reported out by law anyway. So therefore we don’t take minutes.

Q: Are you aware of any cases in California's school systems where the subject of a personnel action could waive his right to privacy, and everything would be made public?

A: There are two sides to that question. So could an employee waive their rights around privacy of their half of the process. They can – like their personnel file, what’s there. As far as the other half, the proceedings of the school board and the conversations in closed session, that actually would be a violation of law, of the Ed Code, to release anything that’s discussed in closed session.

So we don’t have that luxury. We can’t.


Q: Was the chat room incident handled properly, or not properly, by the school and the district in the immediate aftermath of the discovery of what happened?

A: Our systems kicked in gear really quickly. We collected our information, we determined responses. So with regard to the response and communication, we did the right steps.

Where we were, I would say, at fault, we just didn’t get that information out to the parents so they heard it from us, and not from the media.

I understand and appreciate and respect the parents’ complaints about that. They should not hear about school incidents that involve their sons and daughters through six o’clock news. I said that at the big town hall meeting – I own it, as the school district.

I mean there were issues with the communication process where we found out, at the district, I think it was about four days from when this first unfolded.

Q: Here is a copy of a timeline put out by the San Marcos parents. Would you take a look at it and tell me if there is anything inaccurate?

A: (Reads the timeline). So the dates are accurate. The statements about what happened on those dates are not totally accurate.

Q: Can you be more specific?

A: That’s going to get into personnel issues because what I have to say is, this is mostly about personnel and evaluation statements.

And so the timeline’s accurate – I will agree to that. But the statements here I beg to differ.

Some of it is just operational – okay, he receives a letter. But evaluative statements about what went into those, I take issue with what’s put out.


Q: Can you walk me through the incident and talk about where the district's process broke down, if that's the right phrase..

A: January 19th, a Friday – that’s when the school first started catching wind of this. My cabinet team was not informed about this until Tuesday January 23rd, Late afternoon is when my cabinet team started to become aware of the depth of the incident.

So there was a four-day delay in my cabinet team being informed so we could support, investigate, help with communication, and get the word out. When we get these kinds of serious incidents I tell my principals, your first call is to one of us, just so we’re aware and, two, we always make these really quick assessments – is this like low, medium, high?

I think this one, we would have said immediately, this one is a big deal and just assigned one or two of us to get on the ground and just help to collect information.

But then more importantly, writing communication statements to assist our principals. Because this stuff moves super fast and I love the days when media cycles were 24 hours, and then it dropped to four hours and now it’s seconds.

Our principals are busy running schools. We’re busy running a district, but we have more space and time so whenever there’s something that’s going to require high level communication, we get on the ground and we help write statements, or we let the principals write their statements and just kind of coach them through.

Q: So was there difference between the threat level with which you viewed it, and apparently with which it was viewed at the school, at the beginning? Was there a category difference?

A: Looking back on it, it’s easy to say, 'yeah this turned into a very high threat level.' If we had been informed on Friday, we could have just done the threat assessment together. School administration, superintendent and cabinet. And we probably would have realized, this thing’s going to escalate really fast. Let’s get on the ground, let’s figure out what messages we need to get out to parents so that they hear about it from us and not through other channels.

Looking at how this had played out, this was a really hard experience for the targeted students. Even if we had gotten the message out Friday I think managing the threat of physical and emotional safety to these freshman girls would have been a very difficult environment, regardless. But it would have been better if we had gotten to them first.

Q: So everybody knows it about it at the school on Friday, basically, but no message goes out, so there’s the whole weekend to chop it up and go on social media before there’s any official response?

A: My sense is it was fairly quiet over that weekend but then Monday things started to get out. And once a small group of students starts talking about it, it spreads in probably minutes.


Q: There is some controversy about stationing School Resource Officers, law enforcement officers, at the high schools. Talk about where you are on that.

A: We presented a report with data that we could collect as a school district and there was a pretty compelling data point in there.

So the question was, what impact does an SRO have on suspensions, expulsions? The data that we don’t have is what crimes were committed that led to citations, that would come from the Sheriff’s office and SBPD.

But there were three years where Santa Barbara High School did not have an SRO. And Frann Wageneck, our assistant superintendent, was there as an assistant principal, she lived it and she said it was harder. And the data showed it. They had some high numbers of suspensions. And so not broad scientific, but it points to, an SRO is helpful.

I’ve been around leading high schools for, well, 22 years actually, starting as an assistant principal, principal, been a superintendent of three districts, been a part of being around 13 or 14 high schools – SROs are good, they are helpful.

So there are the two sides, you know. They bring safety but there are also the concerns from, you know, those who experience law enforcement differently, in a hard way.

So what the board landed on is, we’ve got SROs at the two high schools; we really should have an SRO at the third high school. They gave us direction to get an SRO in place as soon as possible.

Q: Why is San Marcos currently without one?

A: The county has historically paid for the SRO at San Marcos and also up in North County. But the county budget situation has progressively gotten worse and worse and worse, and they got to the point where they couldn’t fund it for school districts.

And so, I’m not crazy about spending teaching and learning money on a police officer, but we understand the county has a pretty serious budget issue, and the community has asked us to step in and so the board has given us direction, let’s get somebody in there for the rest of the school year, immediately. And so that officer should be there by next week.

That person won’t be formally trained and selected as a school resource officer. That process actually takes about two to three months through the sheriff’s department, but they’ll get a deputy assigned.

Most students don’t interact with a police officer on campus. I mean during this year, we call 911; we call dispatch when we have an issue, so public safety is still there. It’s just not formally assigned to an officer having a relationship with the school.

Q: Given the recent episodes when the sheriff's department scrambled officers to the school, it makes more sense?

A: The school was a bit on edge at that point, and I think the sheriffs were just being proactive. The big reason why I believe SROs are helpful is they get to build a relationship with the student body, with the school administrators, the counselors, and so when you call somebody to deal with an issue we know them and they know us. We stay in our roles, you know, we do the school discipline side and they do the, you know, the penal code side but you get the right person in there, it just leads to some really good outcomes for discipline. And sometimes for intervention, before it turns into an issue.

Q: PODER, among other advocates, oppose the idea of SROs and say they single out minority students.

A: I respect the data that they have cited from a national perspective, that the presence of law enforcement in some schools in some settings leads to more suspensions of students of color, more negative interactions with law enforcement.

Now what I would say to that, I mean, I’ve worked with a lot of police departments in my career, probably five or six. To paint all law enforcement as having a bias against students of color, that’s being biased in a whole other way. We have to look at every individual person and so my observations of both SBPD and county sheriffs are that they are good officers. They respect all ethnicities.

I understand the life experience of some students of color. My observation here is that our sheriff’s officers are good. And here’s the other thing, as we work with the sheriff’s department, if we have an SRO that starts exhibiting evidence of bias we talk to them, we’ll talk to the officer, we’ll talk to the supervisor, the commander, and say, you know, there’s a bit of an issue here and we need to talk about how we view people.

Q: Where will the money come from?

A: The board asked us to essentially start a negotiation with the county about next year and there were some directives from the board – we want some training about implicit bias, that that officer is part of our training experiences. I really appreciated that.

We’re certainly going to try to negotiate price. Is it 10 months, is it 12 months? I don’t want to pay for July and August because they can put that person back out on the streets. So there are some details that we need to work out but we’re going to start that contract negotiation with the county. We’ve already started it.

Q: When will this come back to the board?

A: The decision about next year will come back to the board some time in the next two months. We’re headed into our budget development for next year, so the timing is right.


Q: What is happening with the demand by the District Elections Committee to change the system of electing members of the school board?

A: I met with Jackie Inda and Lanny Ebenstein…We heard the request for election by trustee area, and so we’re ready to start the research and investigation process. It’s not fast but, you know, I understand the intent of the Voting Rights Act.

I had some concerns about how would that work in Santa Barbara. But as I’ve been educated, the demographic study actually looks at where the voters live and they create voting districts that try to balance ethnicity.

And so I felt better about it after I heard that because if you carved by sort of the natural school district geography, if it was Montecito/Cold Springs and then downtown, Westside and then Goleta, I would worry about the kinds of districts we would end up with.

Q: There's an argument that a district board would be more focused on their individual districts than the system as a whole.

A: One of my observations of districts that have trustee areas is that the trustees only care about one-fifth of the district or one-seventh of the district. And I think one of the things to really design into the process is that regardless of how trustees are elected they have a responsibility to the entire district, to every kid who lives everywhere.

If it gets into I only want to take care of my schools, my neighborhood, that’s not good governance.

Q: The committee is talking about changing over as early as this year.

A: When I talked to both Jackie and Lannie, we’ve been talking about it at the county superintendent meetings, it takes a long time, because the demographic study requires time, and you also have to figure out when to transition the current board seats. You actually have to time it – it’s not going to come in 2018, even 2020 is too fast because the demographic study, as I’ve heard it, takes a while.

So probably the earliest we could do it is 2022.

But we have not started that conversation at the board level, but we need to very soon. (Note: at the board meeting following the interview, the members agreed to take the first step towards putting a district system in place, eyeing the 2022 election). .

The commitment (to go forward) takes the form of a resolution that the board would adopt, saying that the board would commit to a review process, an investigation process that leads to a future decision about elections by trustee area.

Q: When will this happen?

A: I need to get this first on a board agenda. I could see it happening some time this year.

Q: Thanks for your time.

A: You're very welcome.

Image: Deep in the weeds guy.

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