A negative social media video, produced and posted by a key group backing Ismael Ulloa and Rose Munoz, has introduced a sudden note of bitter acrimony into a school board race that has been singularly civil.
The 90-second online spot, put up by the political arm of the Latino advocacy organization CAUSE, targets the "Save Our Schools slate," rival board contenders Mark Alvarado and Kate Ford, who are backed by an alliance of parents often referred to as SOS.
The spot conflates several race-based education issues and an infamous episode of digital threats of violence aimed at female students, combined with some inaccurate information and misleading allegations, into a mix of insinuation about SOS and innuendo about its endorsed candidates. It has been shared widely on social media by allies of CAUSE Action Fund, including the local Democratic Party, since being posted on Facebook last week.
“We’re trying to make sense of a complex race that has a lot of layers – we just wanted to connect all those dots,” Frank Rodriguez, policy and communications associate for CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy) told Newsmakers, in defending the ad.
“We never addressed Mark and Kate,” he said, but added, “I definitely see how it can be taken" as directed at them.
You can watch the ad here. A line-by-line deconstruction of it is below.
Gauging reaction. Although the ad does not mention Alvarado and Ford by name, it refers near its beginning to the “Save Our Schools slate.” Through words and images, it then associates the slate with a host of right-wing attitudes, beliefs and policy positions – racism, misogyny, white supremacy and opposition to the concerns and rights of minority students and immigrants, among them.
“Dividing our community may win an election, but it will not bring Santa Barbara and Goleta closer to our goals,” Ford said in response. “We are proud to run a positive campaign and are proud of the support we have received from across the community.”
“I don’t want to go toe-to-toe to perpetuate the divisions,” Alvarado told us. “We’ve run a good, clean race and we don’t want to go down these dark roads.”
Ulloa and Munoz, the intended beneficiaries of the ad, both said they had nothing to do with its production and posting, but bobbed and weaved when asked directly if they would condone or renounce it as a tactic in furtherance of their campaigns.
At one point, the ad references the controversial demotion of former San Marcos High School principal Ed Behrens last winter. The move, set in motion by Superintendent Cary Matsuoka, followed a brief but turbulent period at the school, which began when a group of male students made violent threats against a group of female students in an online chat room. The Independent reported that one of the boys was convicted of making a terrorist threat.
Ulloa told us that he could not state a clear opinion about the ad because it referenced Behrens, who since has sued the school district in a wrongful termination action.
"I had nothing to do with the video (script, narration, production, etc),” he said in an email. “As part of this video has to do with a personnel decision and is connected to pending litigation, I can neither condemn nor condone this video or its message.”
Munoz also equivocated.
“It could have been done in a better manner,” she said, adding that she supported CAUSE's efforts in “making sure all the voices are heard.”
“I wasn’t involved in the making of it,” she said in a telephone interview.
Save Our Schools members unsurprisingly were livid about being tarred as racists and misogynists.
“This ad is full of falsehoods and misrepresentations,” said parent Marcy Wimbish, speaking for the group. "Negative campaigning has no place in local politics.”
Alvarado and Ford both signed a “Code of Fair Campaign Practices” promise, an option for candidates when they pull their papers, according to the SOS statement, which added that, “It’s unfortunate that the other candidates didn’t do the same."
Ulloa and Munoz both said that was untrue; each said they did sign the pledge, while Ricardo Cota, Jim Grimble, Bonnie Raisin and Jill Rivera, the other candidates in the race, stated that they did as well, in response to email inquiries.
To be sure, the eight hopefuls over the past two months have discussed and debated a host of issues, including those surfaced in the video, with unfailing civility and mutual respect in the campaign for a purportedly non-partisan office.
Alvarado and Ford, however, skipped a recent forum put on by the Santa Barbara Youth Council, because CAUSE was a co-sponsor and its action fund already was distributing campaign literature boosting Ulloa and Munoz; both them attended, as did Cota.
Democrats qua Democrats. Although Ulloa and Munoz both said that CAUSE Action Fund operated independently of their campaigns in posting the ad, the video has been shared on Facebook by other of their prominent backers, including the Democratic Party of Santa Barbara County, and some of its leaders and elected officials, including Daraka Larimore-Hall, a longtime local chair who is now vice-chair of the California Democratic Party, and SBCC Trustee Jonathan Abboud.
In posting the ad, Abboud was particularly enthusiastic about attacking the SOS slate, calling them "dangerous and privileged."
"EVERYONE in southern Santa Barbara county needs to watch this video about our school board election," he wrote on his Facebook page. "A dangerous and privileged slate with a dog whistle of a name “Save Our Schools” is trying to win a majority on the board."
Rodriguez, in stating that his group did not intend to vilify Alvarado and Ford, said that, “If they get elected, we want to work with them."
One irony of the campaign controversy is that Alvarado, Ford, Ulloa and Munoz all are liberal Democrats, with few substantive differences among and between them on education policies.
A number of SOS members, including some contributors to Democratic candidates and causes, are similarly inclined.
Which makes the dissemination of the attack ad seem like an online version of the famed Democratic circular firing squad.
Clarification: The headline and first sentence of this post were revised to refer to the 90-second social media spot as a "video," rather than an "ad," after CAUSE Action Fund contacted Newsmakers and said they had not spent money to distribute or place it outside of their own social media platforms.
Images: Frame grab from CAUSE Action Fund video; Frame grab; Kate Ford; Mark Alvarado; Rose Munoz and Ismael Ulloa; Save Our Schools logo; Jonathan Abboud; The circular firing squad.
Here is a scene-by-scene deconstruction of the CAUSE Action Fund ad.
1-Image: An SBUSD logo and the words, “What’s going on with the Santa Barbara Unified School Board Election?”
Narration: “So why is the school board race the most controversial local election in Santa Barbara this year?”
2-Image: Headlines from three news organizations about the online threat incident at San Marcos High School.
Narration: “Death threats, rooted in misogyny and racism, were posted online against female students, and the school district’s response led to a larger debate about Santa Barbara schools.”
Factual analysis: Education sources familiar with the content of the infamous online chat room video say that the hate speech and threats in it not only were misogynistic, but also characterized by anti-Semitism, including one student who used “swastika” as an online handle, rather than anti-Latino racism.
Allegations of anti-Latino racial bias swirled around the school board around the same time, however, in a controversy about uniformed law enforcement School Resource Officers (SROs) being assigned to public high schools. Some advocacy groups expressed great concern this would result in racial profiling of students.
3-Image: Former San Marcos principal Ed Behrens, sitting with supporters who are wearing red t-shirts at the meeting in which the school board voted 4-to-1 to support the superintendent’s demotion of him.
Narration: “Ed Behrens, whose demotion as principal at San Marcos High because of the incident rallied parents to form the Save Our Schools slate…”
Analysis. Superintendent Matsuoka last winter and spring indicated that Behrens was not demoted specifically because of the chat room incident. While declining to discuss a confidential personnel matter, he confirmed to Newsmakers the substance of an SOS timeline showing that Behrens received a Letter of Reprimand because of the matter.
Matsuoka, however, also indicated that Behrens' demotion, affirmed by a 4-to-1 school board majority, stemmed from a broader, “multi-year” performance review process that he characterized as "thorough, thoughtful and long-term."
A group of San Marcos parents adopted the “Save Our Schools” name in the immediate wake of the Behrens incident. By the time they began interviewing candidates for their candidate slate, however, their numbers had grown and they had organized around a broader set of concerns involving transparency in decision-making by the current board, which they say has been too much of a rubber stamp for Matsuoka.
Alvarado and Ford had nothing whatever to do with the group at the time of the Behrens affair, and became the SOS “slate” only a few months ago, after the group had interviewed a series of candidates, including Munoz.
4-Image. A photo of the incumbent school board with Ulloa smiling in the foreground.
Narration. "…calling to oust Superintendent Matsuoka and recall a majority of the school board members.”
Factual analysis. There is no record of SOS calling for the ouster of Matsuoka, and neither Alvarado nor Ford has done so.
Soon after Behrens' demotion, the parents group held a public meeting and actively discussed recalling school board members Jackie Reid and Wendy Sims-Moten because of their opposition to the former principal, as well as backing candidates against Ulloa and for the seat that will be left open after veteran board member Kate Parker steps down.
SOS dropped the recall idea a few months later, in part because of the political difficulties involved, but in endorsing Alvarado and Ford, have followed through on their plan to run candidates for the two seats on the Nov. 6 ballot.
5-Image. Text: “Achievement Gap”
Narration. “They say Santa Barbara Unified has special interests, taking away funding from academies because too many resources are being put to solve the Achievement Gap between Latino and white students…"
Factual analysis. Contrary to the assertion, the debate over high school academies is not an either-or question of resources; to a considerable extent, many academy activities are financed through private fundraising. A key issue has been the nature of their application processes, amid criticism that some academies’ admissions unfairly favor high achieving, mostly white, students and blunt equal access to lower achieving, often Latino, students. The school board recently changed its policies on academies.
No candidate in the school board race has downplayed the importance of addressing the Achievement Gap; it has been a central topic of discussion. Alvarado and Ford have put forth ideas for solutions, with him often calling it “a grand canyon, not a gap” and her discussing the considerable experience she has had as a teacher, principal and superintendent in confronting the problem.
6-Image. Text: “English Language Learners.”
Narration. “…particularly funding English Language Learners and implicit bias training to support disadvantaged students and erase the racism and misogyny that hinders student success.”
Factual analysis. The implication that Alvarado and Ford have opposed "implicit bias training" is untrue. Both have spoken in support of a school district contract with the liberal group "Just Communities," and also set forth ideas for addressing special problems of English Language Learners.
7-Image. A wide shot photo of a student demonstration at the Courthouse, with several participants prominently pictured holding signs that say, “Toxic Masculinity Kills” and “White Supremacy Kills.”
Narration. “Now more than ever progressive students, parents and teachers in Santa Barbara are committed to addressing the severe inequality in our community..."
Factual analysis. The use of a photograph featuring the language on the signs inaccurately and unfairly links violent and deadly right-wing movements to SOS.
8-Image: Photo of student demonstrators marching.
Narration. “...to make sure all of our students have the resources they need to succeed...
9-Image. A red sign reading “Ethnic Studies Now” with a clenched fist in the middle.
Narration. “…to teach the history and literature of all of our cultures…
Factual Analysis. The SOS slate of Alvarado and Ford both have spoken in favor of a new ethnic studies program in high schools. Alvarado has gone further, saying such studies should begin in kindergarten.
10-Image. A demonstration, with a protester holding a sign reading “Si a la Educacio no a la Deportacom" (Yes to education, no to Deportation).
A quick cut to another sign -- “Defiende DACA" (Defend DACA) in support of so-called Dreamers, immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents as children, when the adults came illegally, who enjoyed protections under President Obama which have been dissolved by Donald Trump.
Narration. "...to support immigrant students working to learn English as a second language and give a fighting chance to our youth struggling to be the first in their families to go to college.”
11-Image. Logos of the CAUSE Action Fund, the political arm of the organization; the Democratic Party of Santa Barbara County; the Democratic Women of Santa Barbara County and the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee.
Narration. “That’s why the Democratic Party, CAUSE Action Fund, the Women’s Political Committee and other progressive groups…"
12-Image. Ulloa and Munoz standing together in a school auditorium.
Narration. “...endorse Ismael Ulloa and Rose Munoz for school board…"
13-Image. Two dozen students wearing yellow t-shirts with the CAUSE logo on the front, along with Munoz and Ulloa sitting in the front row.
Narration. “…to stand up for the progressive values of our community.”
14-Image. Text: “Ish and Rose”
Narration. "Remember to vote November 6 for Ish and Rose."