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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Six Takeaways from the MAD Saga

We hear that outgoing MAD Academy Director Dan Williams was not on campus Wednesday, one day after the Santa Barbara school board ordered their lawyers to bar him for what’s left of the school year.

Although the decision does not end the controversy that’s plagued the academy for several months – besides law enforcement’s examination of the matter, there’s the search for a replacement to step into Williams’s post, not to mention the considerable political fallout from the affair – it does provide a break in the action after several weeks of fast-moving developments and non-stop conflict.

Here are six key takeaways from the story to date.

What’s the future for academies? In a recent newspaper interview, a pro-Dan Williams MAD parent, perhaps inadvertently, let the cat out of the bag about some special track academies in the three high schools: “It’s like having a private school within Santa Barbara High,” he said. Um, okay…

Except: is the purpose of taxpayer-financed education to cosset a warren of scholastic hidey holes where blessed, lucky or connected parents reap the considerable ROI benefits of sending their kids to private school for free? Amid Ed Behrens’s ouster at San Marcos High -- an earlier community brawl underpinned by conflict over operations of an elite school-within-a-school -- administrators moved to make academy admissions and policies more fair, but it remains a gnarly issue.

The Shermans are heroic. Mark and Tami Sherman, parents of one former and one current student at the MAD Academy, cracked open the scandal with moving and courageous public comments at the May 14 board meeting, giving the community the first look at the basic facts that lay beneath the secrecy surrounding the retirement of Williams and the resignation of ex-operations director Pablo Sweeney – their elder son’s thwarted attempt over a year ago to stop being harassed at school.

“We should not have had to put our family’s name in the newspapers. We should not have had to spend hours and hours on painful emails, text messages, social media posts and reporter interviews in order to get you to do what you should have done immediately,” Tami told Superintendent Cary Matsuoka and the school board this week. No, but thanks for the guts and decency it took to step up and speak out.

The Laura-Kate Show rocked. Like most institutions controlled by a bureaucracy, Santa Barbara’s Unified School District in this case operated from fear, specifically the fear of being sued, so it’s no surprise that the superintendent and top advisers slow-walked complaints about the MAD Academy, closely following the advice of veteran attorneys they pay to keep them out of trouble.

So it was refreshing and heartening to see Laura Capps, with her political chops, and Kate Ford, with her mastery of education policy, stand up to internal pressure and lead the charge that finally cast some transparency onto the whole mess, and to watch at least two of the five board members who purportedly serve the public interest actually do so.

The 2020 School Board campaign started Tuesday night. As public attention increasingly focuses on SBUSD affairs, it’s not too early to ponder the fact that a majority of school board seats will be on the 2020 ballot, and with them, the balance of power of how things go in the district.

Capps, Jackie Reid and Wendy-Sims Moten all took their seats by virtue of the fact they were the only folks who signed up to run for them in 2016, but it seems unlikely there won't be a competitive campaign next time out, regardless of whether or not the incumbents choose to run; listening to the Tuesday night crowd, it’s not hard to discern what a key issue will likely be: Do Santa Barbara’s schools need a change of superintendents and leadership? – Discuss and debate.

Keep an eye on Tuttle. Like the Shermans, Justin Tuttle is a parent who poured energy into bringing pressure to bear on the MAD matter while balancing his day job and raising kids with his third hand, beginning when he released the “Yack and Rally” social media video that shows Williams with four students, a bong and a bunch of weed.

Tuttle has made no secret of his desire to run for school board next year, and based on his poised and forceful public presentations to date, he could be a contender.

The district really needs a flack. Newsmakers doesn’t take it personally that no one at district headquarters returns our calls, because we know that Cary and the Cabinet have lacked the counsel and services of a public information officer since the departure of the amiable and responsive Lauren Bianchi Klemann some months ago.

Would having had on hand a staff member who understood not only the importance of communicating to the public through the media, but also how the news business works, helped the supe and his senior advisers avoid the public relations disaster that the MAD saga turned into? It sure couldn’t have hurt.


Images: SBUSD poster; MAD Academy; Tami and Mark Sherman (Paul Wellman/SB Independent); Laura Capps; Kate Ford; They're Off!; Justin Tuttle; Spokesman shirt (Amazon).

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