More than 150 parents pledged time and money Wednesday night to a campaign to unseat four members of Santa Barbara’s school board, as the political fall-out from the ouster of San Marcos High School’s principal mushroomed.
Despite the rain, an standing room only crowd packed the Goleta Valley Community Center, and took the first steps to shift their failed bid to save the job of principal Ed Behrens into a broader political effort to remake the school board, which they dubbed “Save Our Schools.”
“What happened last week was an abomination of public service,” said Matt Fay, a leader of an ad hoc steering group of about 15 San Marcos parents.
They organized a 500-person turnout on behalf of Behrens at the March 13 school board meeting.
“I walked out of there concerned about who’s leading our schools,” he added.
In a near unanimous show of hands, the crowd displayed their support for a proposed $250,000 plan to launch formal recall campaigns against Jacqueline Reid and Wendy Sims-Moten, and to replace Ismael Parades Ulloa and Kate Parker, whose seats already are on the November ballot.
Despite the show of popular support for Behrens last week, all four of these board members voted behind closed doors to back Superintendent Cary Matsuoka’s effort to remove him as principal and offer him a teaching position with a large pay cut. Laura Capps, the fifth board member, voted for Behrens and against Matsuoka, and notably was spared criticism at Wednesday's public community meeting.
As a political matter, the Goleta gathering was an impressively organized demonstration of local grassroots populism, as those who led and lost the fight for Behrens worked to transform the energy of that battle into a broader struggle for control of public school policy.
Six key takeaways:
1) Behind the scenes. Using power point, Fay presented a timeline that for the first time set forth a clear and detailed narrative of how and why Matsuoka moved to demote Behrens, who has served for 20 years, first as an assistant and then as principal at San Marcos.
Fay, who termed the removal a “trumped up” move by the superintendent, said he and others had access to, and reviewed, Behrens' district personnel file, which the ex-principal provided to the steering group.
It showed, Fay said, that Matsuoka gave Behrens a formal reprimand on Feb. 7, for his alleged mishandling of a widely-publicized January incident in which several male students cyber-threatened a large group of female students.
Matsuoka, who has said district officials legally may not discuss personnel matters publicly, dumped Behrens, Fay charged, because a) he wanted to install his own principals at all three district high schools -- “He was clearing the decks for yes men” - and b) he needed a scapegoat after being personally “clearly embarrassed” at an emotional Feb. 5 public meeting of parents upset over the online threat incident.
Seeking to knock down rumors that district officials know something confidential about Behrens’ conduct unknown to the public on which they based their decision,, Fay said,“There’s no smoking gun…there’s nothing behind the scenes that we don’t know about."
Matsuoka's formal letter supporting the move to remove Behrens as principal read as follows, according to the timeline presented on Wednesday night:
“I reached the conclusion that a change of leadership at San Marcos High School would be in the best interest of the school and the district…based upon the exercise of professional judgment.”
2) Education policy. As a substantive matter, the San Marcos parents believe that Behrens' removal is the first step in a Matsuoka move to take control over, and possibly dismantle, a structure of specialized "academies" and other intensive study programs that Behrens has installed at San Marcos. They also warned that similar programs at Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara High schools could be at risk.
These include an Entrepreneurship Academy, a Computer Science Program, a Culinary Academy, a Program for Effective Access to College and a special Leadership Program, among others.
Because the district cannot afford to fund many of these activites, Behrens helped found and lead the “Royal Pride Foundation,” a group of parents, alums and community supporters who have so far raised over $3 million to help finance these activities.
3) Cui bono? Many of the San Marcos parents also say that Matsuoka, along with what Fay termed three "extreme left" board members -- Reid, Sims-Moten and Ulloa - have an aggressive agenda to shift resources to benefit underperforming and poor students at the expense of higher achievers.
“They’re focused on the marginalized to the detriment of the other 90 to 95 percent,” said Fay. He added, however, that the parents group fully supports the goal of improving academic performance for all students.
Chris Gallo, a parent and former member of the Hope school district, presented a series of charts to argue that the two goals have not been mutually exclusive at San Marcos: The data shows that graduation rates, standardized testing scores for English and academic performance of economically disadvantaged students all have improved and exceeded district averages in recent years.
4) Recall campaign. During the meeting, members of the steering group handed out questionnaires to every member of the audience, soliciting financial commitments and pledges to work in volunteer or paid campaign staff positions.
After the meeting Fay told Newsmakers that the steering committee will take “24 to 48 hours” to review questionnaires to determine if there is financial and organizational wherewithal to launch the campaign.
After discussing the political landscape with Sacramento political consultants with experience in recall campaigns, the parents group believes that a successful effort in Santa Barbara will need to raise "$100,000 to $250,000, in order to feel confident.," Fay told the group.
He also announced that the parents steering committee, while wanting to step back from leading a recall-and-replace campaign, is pledging $30,000 to launch the effort.
“We’re not going to do this if we don’t think we’re going to win,” he said.
5) The Capps factor. Throughout the evening, board member Capps was the recipient of props and praise for a) her willingness to meet with the parents' group; b) her tough criticism of proposed school safety protocols at the last board meeting; c) her vote in favor of Behrens.
Taken together, the comments suggested that she likely would not become a target of the recall.
Full disclosure: Capps appears regularly on Newsmakers TV, alongside other volunteer panelists, including Nick Welsh, Kelsey Brugger, Josh Molina and Dale Francisco.
Plenty of free parking.
6) Documents. The timeline of Behrens removal, and other documents relating to the San Marcos controversy are available on the SMHS Supporters of Ed Behrens public Facebook page here.
Images: Matt Fay; Ed Behrens; Superintendent Cary Matsuoka; Chris Gallo; Laura Capps; Save Our Schools logo.