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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Two Slates and Four Wild Card Candidates Shape SB's Wide-Open School Board Race

(Updated) In 2016, exactly three candidates -- 3, count 'em, 3 -signed up to run for three open seats on the Santa Barbara Unified School District board – and automatically won, without having to appear on the ballot.

Two years later, the race looks very different.

Now, a wide-open field of eight candidates is competing for two seats on the ballot, in what shapes up to be the most entertaining, consequential – and perhaps most expensive - local race of the November election.

Several key factors appear to have contributed to the sudden burst of interest in a thankless job that requires countless hours of work in exchange for a couple hundred bucks a month.

For starters, the board voted 4-to-1 last winter to back Superintendent Cary Matsuoka's move to sack popular San Marcos High School Principal Ed Behrens, in the face of fierce community opposition. Sparking outrage among parents at the school, the incident focused attention on the fact that not one of the board's five members had actually been elected; besides the three uncontested members, a fourth was appointed and the fifth also won without opposition, in 2014.

“The San Marcos situation was super emotional, and seems to have been a catalyst for a desire for change,” said school board candidate Kate Ford, a career educator who is running with the support of Save Our Schools (SOS), the ad hoc political group formed by San Marcos parents furious about the treatment of Behrens and the upset it created at the school.

Several broader issues, from the national plague of school shootings to the right-wing policies of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, also may have played a part.

“There also is a national trend that could be at play,” said incumbent board member Laura Capps, who is not on the ballot this year. “Given the national political moment with the Trump Administration, more people are running for more offices to try to bring about change at every level.”

State of play, Of the five board seats, two are on the ballot because:

a) longtime member Kate Parker is leaving to run for the SBCC board and; b) appointed incumbent Ismael Ulloa, who was selected by his colleagues in 2017 to fill the vacancy created when Monique Limon won a state Assembly seat, is running for the first time, for a four year term.

The remaining members are President Jackie Reid, Vice-President Wendy Sims-Moten and Capps, the three who put forth their unopposed candidacies in 2016.

Over the past several weeks, Newsmakers has interviewed all eight of the hopefuls. (We’ll also be presenting Newsmakers TV forums featuring the candidates in mid-September, of which more anon).

In our conversations, several key issues emerged, from student safety and how to prevent violent incidents; the gulf in achievement scores between white and Latino and between well-off and poor students; how best to manage the district's $161 million budget, among others.

Several candidates are openly critical of the incumbent board, arguing it does not provide strong oversight of Matsuoka, who has been knocked, not only for his handling of the Behrens matter, but also for the heavy turnover among principals and administrators under his watch, the controversial, over-budget Peabody Stadium project and other issues.

Nine weeks before the Nov. 6 election, four candidates are running with clear bases of substantial political support – two are backed by the local Democratic Party and two are endorsed by SOS. The other four contenders are campaigning individually, with smaller budgets and less elaborate campaign organization.

Here is how the race is currently shaped:

The party's choice. Consistent with its (vain) hopes of clearing the field by making early partisan endorsements for non-partisan offices like school board, the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party back in June voted to support Ulloa, a student adviser at City College, and Rose Munoz, a social worker and ally of Mayor Cathy Murillo.

In a Democratic town, this endorsement matters, both as a seal of approval for voters seeking political signifiers in a field of unknowns, and as a source of volunteers and other resources. The Dems decided their endorsements just days after the June primary, two months before the filing deadline and long before most of the other candidates had even signed up -- or in some cases, decided, to run.

Ismael Ulloa. “It’s funny to be the insider after being the outsider for so many years,” Ulloa (pronounced "oo-YO-ah") said. “Running for office has taken some getting used to – it’s taken me out of my comfort zone.”

As the son of immigrant parents, "Ish" spoke Spanish as his first language. He attended SBCC and advanced to a degree at UCSB, and said he has “never taken off my class ring,” because his college degree is “an accomplishment that allowed me to do other things.”

(Excloo: he also told Newsmakers that he attended one and only one IV party while at UCSB: “It was madness – I liked the orderliness of living with my parents.” But we digress).

The only incumbent on the ballot, Ulloa can expect to be the target of attacks from rivals that he is part of a “rubber stamp” board that does not challenge or stand up to Matsuoka, with the San Marcos meltdown serving as Exhibit A.

“I think he’s doing a good job,” Ulloa said of the superintendent, who was hired in summer 2016. “We are not a rubber stamp: sure we approve things that he proposes, but do we challenge things that come to us? Absolutely.”

His most recent campaign finance report, through June 30, shows he had raised just over $5,000 including $500 from Assembly member Limon, $150 from board colleague Reid and $100 from progressive UCSB professor emeritus Dick Flacks. However, Ulloa told us his goal is to raise $50,000 for his campaign, which would be an exceptional amount for school board campaigns in recent memory.

If elected to a full term, Ish said he would like to continue the district's ongoing effort to build a school safety model built on national best practices, from on-site security to expanded mental health and social outreach to students who “are a danger to themselves or others,” and also work to achieve "equity" for students of color in gaining access to educational opportunities, while further improving “language access” for Latino parents.

Rose Munoz. Munoz is a case management social worker at CenCal Health, which manages Medi-Cal in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, who also has worked in the schools with migrant students and high school moms.

“As a social worker, what I bring is my familiarity with underserved communities," she said.

“I’ve thought about running since my kids were in high school,” said Munoz, who has two older daughters. “Now my kids are grown, I’d like to give back to the schools and the children – they’re our future.”

She said she has "been a volunteer for the Democratic Party for as long as I can remember" and "shares many of their values."

Based on her observations of the school board, she said that the incumbent “members seem pretty independent” in their oversight of Matsuoka: “As far as I know, the school board is on the right track,” she said.

On the San Marcos situation, Munoz said, she thought that "the community had a chance to express their concerns" and that even though the board did not agree, the important question now is, "how do we move forward from that?"

She hopes to raise $10-15,000 for the race, but did not report any fundraising on her first campaign finance statement.

On the board, Rose said, she would like to “increase (the district’s) communications, especially with underrepresented groups,” by having more resources for Spanish-speaking parents, such as after hours and off-site board meetings.

She also is concerned that volatile immigration issues be kept away from students: one reason she cites of the need for more Spanish-language services is that some parents are afraid to sign forms and documents required for school lunch programs because of anxiety over Trump's immigration crackdown.

The Insurgents. Amid last winter’s sturm und drang at San Marcos, pro-Behrens parents said they planned to launch recall campaigns against board members who disregarded their wholehearted efforts on behalf of the departed principal. However, they later changed their strategy, choosing instead to concentrate on electing two favored candidates for the seats on the November ballot.

They selected veteran community activist Mark Alvarado and retiring educator Kate Ford, both of whom criticize what they view as passivity among the current board, call for more aggressive efforts to close the achievement gap and propose increased funding for arts and music education in public schools.

Mark Alvarado. At 6’6” Alvarado was a serious jock at Santa Barbara High and, later, at Allan Hancock College, where he ran track and played hoops; he's also a musician. The father of a 10th grader in an SB school, he is a former PTSA president; now a homeless assistance coordinator in Oxnard, he previously worked for the city of Santa Barbara and several grassroots, Latino advocacy organizations, including the now disbanded PUEBLO (People United for Economic Justice Building Leadership Through Organizing).

Alvarado at times is sharply critical of the current board, describing them as "cheerleaders" rather than overseers of Matsuoka: “The main question is, what do they actually do? Aren’t they supposed to be asking questions?"

For example, he expresses concern about what is happening with Peabody Stadium: "Go by there and it looks like Fred Flinstone's rock quarry," he said. "Where is the public dialogue about this?"

He is equally outspoken about what he sees as the unfair demotion of Behrens, portraying the former principal as a fall guy for the bungled handling of last winter's infamous "chat room" incident involving threats to freshman girls by upper class boys:

“They messed with his dignity, messed with his character. You need to treat people better than that – that’s not Santa Barbara.”

Alvarado last week filed required documentation of $12,500 in recent large campaign contributions, mostly from San Marcos parents or boosters who attended a SOS fundraiser on behalf of him and Ford last month, including $2,500 from Sandra Hirsch, President and CEO of Isolite Systems, and $2,500 from Lori Cappello, spouse of high-profile litigator Barry, whose firm is representing Behrens in a wrongful termination suit.

On the board, Mark said, his top priority would be addressing what he terms “the achievement Grand Canyon – not the achievement gap, the Grand Canyon,” citing large percentages of students who graduate with poor proficiency scores in math and language on achievement tests.

Kate Ford. More than any other candidate, Ford has experience grappling with policies facing public education. A former teacher and longtime executive director and principal of Peabody Charter School in SB, she also managed education grants to charter management organizations for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is retiring as superintendent of the 11 Aspire Public Schools in Los Angeles.

Ford told us she got into the school board race, in part, at the enthusiastic urging of friend and city council member Kristen Sneddon:

“I’m a school marm at heart,” she said, “When Kristen called, I said, 'oh my God, this is perfect timing and a perfect match for me.' I love board issues, I love board politics, and I want to give back to the community.”

Like Alvarado, Ford sometimes finds the current board insufficiently aggressive, and said her understanding of often bewildering education statistics and data would be an asset:

“I’m like Nancy Drew – I’m good at asking questions and demanding answers,” she said. “I’m not yet convinced that the board is asking tough questions and demanding clear answers.”

Ford also recently reaped several large contributions from the SOS fundraiser, including $5,000 from longtime community volunteer and health care executive Katina Etsell, $2,500 from Lori Cappello and $1,000 from former Hope School District member Chris Gallo.

On the board, Kate said, she would work to demystify and make more transparent the district’s operations and decision making – “It’s difficult for me to find out through board meetings and their website what’s going on” – concentrate on helping to complete and implement the crucial, state-mandated Local Control Accountability Plan and “peel the onion” on data in an effort to bridge the “disparity between student performance” on behalf of “students of poverty and students of color.”

(Update: After this post published, Alvarado and Ford both informed Newsmakers that they are returning the $2,500 contributions from Lori Cappello, in order to avoid any possible appearance of a conflict of interest that could arise from Barry Cappello's law firm representing Behrens in his lawsuit against the school district.

“I never met” Mrs. Cappello, Mark said in an email. “Her donation is via a third party. The Behrens case is in litigation and the donation opens up a can of perceptions and unwanted attention regarding the case.”

In response to a call, Kate left us a voicemail message saying, “I just don’t want to have that donation be any kind of an issue.

“I wasn’t really aware of what the conflict could possibly be, and I don’t want any conflict when, fingers crossed, I’m on the board,” she added. “So it seemed like an easy decision to make").

The wild cards. Although these four candidates enjoy an early advantage in fundraising and organization, a quartet of other candidates in the race bring a range of intriguing perspectives.

Ricardo Cota. Cota is a Santa Barbara native who works as a middle school teacher in Santa Paula and served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, including two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, where he described his job as "door kicker."

“This is another way to serve,” he said of his decision to run for the school board. “I want to make a positive difference for children – whatever decisions are made, should be made in the best interests of the kids.”

He is especially concerned about “ignored populations and students who are marginalized," adding that he knows from experience with his own students that it is crucial for districts to craft policies ensuring that students are able to read by the third grade. His top priority is school safety, not only creating a secure environment but also “making sure students are comfortable in school – not being bullied, for example.”

“My students are not scared because they know I’m a veteran,” Ricardo added with a smile.

Bonnie Raisin. Raisin is a third generation Santa Barbaran whose grandfather was the first city attorney and, she said, helped write the city's first book of ordinances.

Now retired, she had a long career in real estate and also worked as an alcohol and drug counselor. She ran unsuccessfully for city council in 2009 and is endorsed by the embattled SB County Republican Party, which carries considerably less clout than the Democratic nod.

“I’m a fiscal conservative – I want to focus on resources and how they’re applied, which should be for the children and not the administrators,” she said in an interview.

“But I don’t like the partisan politics when it comes to non-partisan offices,” she quickly added. “The less bias you come in with, the more open you can be to the needs of students.”

“I want to represent the entire community,” she said. “We’re all Santa Barbara.”

Jill Rivera. Rivera, manager of account development at American Express locally, came to Santa Barbara as a student in 1983 with $500 and a VW bug and both built a successful career as a banking executive, and raised a family. She is the mother of three boys, the last of whom is graduating from public high school this year.

“I’m passionate about kids,” she said. “My last child is graduating this year, and this is about giving back.”

Rivera, who also is backed by the GOP and has served as a volunteer and PTSA member in the schools, said that her professional expertise would be a plus for the board: ”My financial skills are beneficial in providing guidance for policy makers."

“My goal is to improve the quality of education for all students to better prepare them to compete in the global economy," Jill said.

“I think I have a unique contribution to make, but I’ll go there with a humble heart,” she added. “I’m going to stay in my lane.”

Jim Gribble. Gribble is a graduate student researcher at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UCSB, has worked as an elementary school teacher in San Francisco, San Jose and London, written a children’s book and started a tutoring service to teach kids computer coding skills.

He is currently in Finland “designing and researching a video game for children with exceptionalities," he said.

In an email interview, he said he is running because he is "an expecting parent and want good schools for all children in Santa Barbara" that prepare them to "compete in a global economy." He added that he has "taught kindergarten and 2nd grade for eight years - I know the ropes."

On the board, Jim said, his top priorities would be "technology curriculum and computer coding professional development for teachers; carefully reviewing all charters with a particularly close eye/scrutiny on networks; not firing beloved principals."

Images: SBUSD logo; Incumbent school board: (L-R) Ismael Ulloa, Laura Capps, Wendy Sims-Moten, Jackie Reid, Kate Parker; Ulloa; Rose Munoz; Mark Alvarado; Kate Ford; Richard Cota; Bonnie Raisin; Jill Rivera; Jim Gribble.

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