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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

SBUSD Race: Sex, Bias, Prayer & Deals

In their most spirited exchange of the campaign, Santa Barbara school board candidates on Wednesday night uncorked simmering resentments among liberals over allegations of political machinations, while displaying sharp ideological differences on volatile social and cultural issues.

The eight contenders, gathered at a forum organized by Casa de la Raza, generally agreed, however, on perhaps the most important matter in the purview of any school board: the performance of the district superintendent, over whom they exercise hiring and firing power.

In surprisingly critical comments, every candidate expressed concerns about Superintendent Cary Matsuoka, who was portrayed repeatedly as distant, isolated and deficient in communicating with the community.

"He needs to understand Santa Barbara better," the liberal community activist Mark Alvarado said of Matsuoka, who has been on the job here since 2016.

"If he got to know us, he'd probably like us," cracked banking executive Jill Rivera, who is running with the support of some conservatives.

There were only a few dozen people at the Eastside event, which was moderated by local leaders Sylvia Uribe and Luis Villegas. However, it was covered by two community media outlets, which will offer it to voters repeatedly on their channels until the Nov. 6 election:

KZAA LP, the low-power community radio outlet operated by Casa de la Raza at 96.5 FM, will air it daily from 1-3 p.m, according to station manager Daniel Ramirez. And staffers from TVSB (shout-out Lizzie and J.P.!) compiled a video recording, to be broadcast on Santa Barbara's public access channel.

Here are eight takeaways from the lively event.

A hairy night for Cary. Surprisingly, the first criticism of Matsuoka came from Ismael Ulloa, an appointed incumbent running for the first time, who often supports the superintendent as a board member: The superintendent "needs more presence in the schools," Ulloa said, adding that, ”he has great ideas but needs to improve his communication to the community,."

While Rivera suggested Matsuoka was “sequestered in an ivory tower,” career educator Kate Ford invoked a school grading scale to say, “He does not meet the standard at this time."

“He can do better and he will have to do better,” if she is elected, added Ford, who is a former school superintendent in L.A.

A clash of world views. The tone of the discussion remained respectful and civil throughout the two-hour forum, but good manners could not paper over stark distinctions on a series of social and cultural matters.

These arose largely in response to written questions submitted from audience members, one of whom sported a "Trump" button, that expressed conservative opprobrium about the incumbent board over policies ranging from sex ed to ethnic studies.

Posed to the candidates by moderator Uribe, one of the audience questions read this way:

“Many people feel our tax dollars pay for public school programs that are harmful and discriminate against Christian beliefs, are inappropriate and do nothing to teach academics. These programs are 1) the ethnic studies requirement; 2) sexual education programs; 3) “Just Communities” teaching hateful curriculum; 4) re-writing textbooks in history and social studies that have a liberal Democrat agenda and are not truthful.

“How will you stop this unfair waste of taxpayer dollars?"

It was on.

Sex in schools. Each of the candidates tried their best, given a one-minute time limit for answers, to dissect the complexities and political cross-currents implicit in the dauntless question.

"I am a progressive," said social worker Rose Munoz, who referenced her experience in counseling pregnant high school students and teenage moms in defense of district policies she described as "proper teaching of sex education that is age appropriate."

Rivera, however, associated herself with “people in our community who embrace Judeo-Christian values” to assail current sex ed practices, saying that she has examined sixth-grade teaching "materials (that) are completely not age appropriate -- it’s so graphic, it’s appalling."

"I would like to be the voice in my kid's head on this," she said after the forum of her views on sex ed, "not a sixth-grade teacher."

The role of religion. Education grad school researcher Jim Gribble said he was "offended" by the question, which he denounced as violative of the constitutional separation of church and state: "God has no place in public schools," he said, recalling that as a teacher he had refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because it contains the words "under God," and had advised students to do the same.

On a related matter, another audience member requested that the candidates offer a yes-or-now answer to this question: “Would you support a Bible study program in our public junior and public high schools?"

Ford, who said earlier that "religion has no place in our public schools," said no, and was joined by Alvarado, Gribble, Munoz and Ulloa; as expected, retired realtor Bonnie Raisin and Rivera both said yes, although it came as a surprise that middle school teacher Ricardo Cota also agreed with them.

In follow-up comments to Newsmakers, Cota clarified that he would "allow a 'Bible club,'" given that many other clubs are allowed on campus. "Because of the separation of church and state, the district wouldn't be allowed to purchase or support any kind of curriculum supporting religion anyway," he said in an email. "So, yes to the Bible club and no to anything else related to religion."

Debating ethnic studies. Or not. On Tuesday night, the school board took the first step towards a requirement that high school students be required to take at least five units of ethnic studies in order to graduate. Josh Molina explained the policy in this piece about the meeting.

Raisin, the most conservative candidate in the contest, criticized the move, comparing the program unfavorably with basic instruction in “reading, writing and arithmetic,” and adding that “ethnic studies should not be mandatory.” Rivera took a more nuanced view, saying that the key factor was that the district "share the curriculum with the public," so that parents could make an informed judgment about the matter.

Alvarado, however, said that the new program does not go nearly far enough, proposing that ethnic studies “has to be broader” and should be ingrained in curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Cota also backed the idea, saying that history as previously taught was "Eurocentric" and that ethnic studies provide a necessary “alternative view of history.”

JUST...stop... The forum also reopened a debate that recently was before the school board, as it approved a quarter-million contract for the left-liberal group Just Communities to provide "implicit bias training" to teachers and staff.

Raisin, among others, has charged that the program enables racially divisive views about "white supremacy,"

Ulloa, who voted for the Just Communities contract, however, insisted on Wednesday that, “These projects named are not anti-white."

“These projects are going to help our students," he said in comments echoed by Ford ("I absolutely disagree with the premise of the question"); Munoz ("Just Communities is not racist") and Alvarado ("I'm offended (that) this alludes to some form of reverse racism" that he said does not exist).

“Santa Barbara is divided by these issues and we need to be united,” he added.

All politics is local. The other big disagreement of the evening came when an audience member asked some candidates to explain why they had not attended an event earlier in the week that was organized by student members of the Santa Barbara Youth Council, and co-sponsored by the Future Leaders of America and CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy).

Ulloa, Munoz and Cota were the only candidates among the eight who showed up for the event at the Louise Lowry Center; afterwards, some of the students involved complained bitterly on social media about those who did not turn up.

Before the event, several of the no-shows suggested the Youth Council was a set-up on behalf of Ulloa and Munoz because they have been endorsed by the CAUSE Action Fund, the political arm of the organization, and their names and photos are displayed on the fund's campaign material. Also, Ulloa is on the board of Future Leaders, while its executive director, Eder Gaona-Macedo, is his campaign manager.

“Eder had nothing to do with that event,” Ulloa told us. “The questions came directly from the students.”

Cota said the inquiry about attendance was "a loaded question" and declined to comment, even though he attended. Raisin said she was "uncomfortable under the circumstances," while Rivera said she had "a personal conflict."

Alvarado and Ford both expressed regrets about having missed the event.

“Upon reflection, I wish I had gone,” Ford said, adding that her concerns about the behind-the-scenes politics of the forum should not have outweighed her desire to hear from students.

“I don’t rest easy with my decision,” to skip the event, agreed Alvarado. “The adults did this and the children suffered,”

Nonetheless, he also countered Ulloa's argument that the non-profit CAUSE is a separate organization from its political action fund.

“Fundamentally there is no difference” between the two," said Alvarado. “They have a symbiotic relationship.”

On the gears of the machine. Gribble said he skipped because he wanted to participate only in "unbiased neutral forums" and then raised another inside baseball concern - the endorsement of party favorites Munoz and Ulloa by the local Democratic apparatus.

The Democrats staged their endorsement process just days after the June primary, months before the filing deadline for the school board, consistent with its strategy of endorsing candidates early in hopes of establishing them quickly as front-runners, if not clearing the field.

Gribble charged it was an unfair move by the “Democratic Party machine” and that he and others never had the chance to make their cases.

Munoz objected to his remarks, but was denied a chance to rebut them by the moderators in the interest of time.

A close ally of Mayor Cathy Murillo, Munoz insisted to Newsmakers later that the party provided adequate notice about the endorsement by posting a note about the process on its web site.

There were no injuries.


Images: A SBUSD logo; Mural with the KZAA LP logo; Cary Matsuoka; Kate Ford; Forum moderators Sylvia Uribe and Luis Villegas; Rose Munoz; Jill Rivera; Jim Gribble; Bonnie Raisin; Mark Alvarado; Ismael Ulloa; Ricardo Cota; The candidates at Case de la Raza (L-R) Alvarado, Ford, Gribble, Munoz, Ulloa, Raisin, Rivera, Cota.

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