Santa Barbara school board superintendent Cary Matsuoka takes home the Newsmakers (all rise) Biggest Political Loser of the Week Award, for a non-speaking role in the district's big debacle over the GATE program.
During two hours of emotional testimony by several dozen parents angry about the district’s sudden, clumsy attempt to effectively dismantle the Elementary Gifted and Talented (GATE) magnet program at Washington Elementary School, Matsuoka did his best imitation of a guy who's just waiting for a bus, as opposed to someone pulling down $354,000 year to provide leadership.
Wary Cary sat on the dais without a word, choosing to let assistant superintendent Raul Ramirez, who presented the plan, take all the heat, and the fall, for the ill-conceived plan. School board members, all but blindsided by the proposal, piled on in defense of parents and the program.
“I think (Ramirez) learned a lesson tonight,” several witnesses reported hearing Matsuoka say after the spectacle, which ended with the anti-GATE plan being rescinded.
Seriously dude? Talk about tossing someone under the bus.
Matsuoka by all accounts is talented and skilled when it comes to the internals of executive management. But being schools supe, a job that requires out-and-about seeing and being seen, is more than a matter of team building and process mapping at Santa Barbara Street HQ.
With a tin ear for public messaging, and apparently lacking a political gene, Matsuoka since being hired in 2016 has kept a low-profile posture, which ill-served the district in this and other controversies. An education chief executive more attuned to, and better known in, the community would have picked up – or even foreseen – the simmering outrage over the policy change, before it blew up.
Beyond that, the unfortunate tendency to look for and finger a fall guy – hello Ed Behrens! – Instead of taking responsibility when things go south is the opposite of a buck-stops-here leader.
Our Biggest Political Winner of the Week Award meanwhile, also comes from l'affaire GATE and goes to financial analyst James Fenkner, who has quietly emerged as the effective leader of a moderate faction of parents unhappy and uncomfortable with the progressive direction of the school district.
Co-chair of a new non-profit called Fair Education Santa Barbara, which among other things has sued the district over contracts to provide anti- “implicit bias” training, Fenkner helped organize the big turnout that led to the retreat over GATE. His best moment came on a separate issue earlier in the evening, however, when he pulled a Perry Mason move on Matsuoka.
One of the group’s activities has been to document problems with school physical facilities, then to file formal complaints about them through what is known as a Williams Act process.
They recently succeeded in getting some overdue improvements at Dos Pueblos High and, more recently, submitted photos of problems at Santa Barbara High, including some very janky-looking bathrooms.
Fenkner referenced the rest room photos during public comment on Tuesday night (“bathrooms…worse than any truck stop you can imagine anywhere in the world,” he called them, without a hint of hyperbole) before noting that after recent complaints, “the Williams complaint form itself has vanished from the (SBUSD web) site” and asking that the link be restored.
As Fenkner returned to his seat in the audience, Matsuoka started searching on his laptop. With a gotcha’ smile, he leaned over to show his screen to board president Wendy Sims-Moten, then announced that the link to the complaint form was, in fact, still on the site.
“Click on it – does it download?” Fenkner called out.
“We’ll need to fix that,” the superintendent said, now grinning widely. "We'll get that fixed immediately."
Maybe Fenkner should think about running for school board himself, when three seats come up next year. We might pay to watch those meetings.
Correction: The first edition of this post incorrectly reported the number of SB school board seats on the ballot next year. There are three, not two, and these seats currently are held by board president Wendy Sims-Moten; vice-president Laura Capps and former president Jackie Reid.
Images: Matsuoka (Santa Barbara Independent); Fenkner (Facebook).