The Santa Barbara school board Tuesday selected the consulting firm that will conduct an independent analysis of the district’s troubled special-education department, which has had seven leaders in eight years, and whose most recent director resigned amid a surge of parent complaints.

Called Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, or FCMAT, the consulting company chosen by the board was not the same one favored by some of the parents in the audience.

Marcia Eichelberger and Cathy Abarca — both parents of special-education students, and both instrumental players in the recent parent uprising — preferred a smaller firm, Lou Barber & Associates. They preferred Barber’s firm in part because his expertise lies in the evaluation of programs, while FCMAT’s primary focus is fiscal. They also expressed concern that the Santa Barbara school district’s No. 2 man, Eric Smith, was culled from FCMAT a year ago.

“I’m just looking for a truly independent analysis, somebody that has no stake in the Santa Barbara school district whatsoever — but that didn’t happen,” Abarca said after the board vote. However, she added that she believes FCMAT will do a good job.

The cost estimate for the FCMAT study was about $57,000; for Lou Barber, $65,000.

The long-simmering problems boiled over in mid-October, when parents of children with special needs began attending board meetings to complain about a shortage of trained instructional aides, a failure to follow through on legally mandated education plans created for their children by educators, and, above all, a lack of responsiveness from the district about their concerns.

The dispute came to a head Nov. 21 with the resignation of special-ed director Anissa McNeil, who had been hired just six months before.

The controversy continued to grow, however, with school board member Bob Noel demanding the resignation of Superintendent Brian Sarvis, and supporters of Sarvis — some of them former board members — calling on Noel to do the same.

But tensions eased earlier this month with the hiring of two interim special-education directors, and Alan Hilton, formerly the director of San Luis Obispo County’s Special Education Local Plan Area, and Ric Nargie, formerly a director from the Ventura Unified School District.

Hilton was at Tuesday’s meeting, and Nargie is set to start in March.

On Tuesday, the tension between Noel and Sarvis and the rest of the board seemed all but gone. On one occasion, an opportunity for divisiveness presented itself, with Noel commenting that he was leaning toward voting for the parent-favored consultant. But in the end, Noel — frequently a go-it-alone voice on the board — voted with three colleagues in favor of FCMAT. (Board member Susan Deacon was absent.)

Most board members said they favored FCMAT because it seems to have more experience studying special-education departments, and is also better equipped to analyze the convoluted funding structure of Santa Barbara’s department.

Also on Tuesday, the board balked on a unique recommendation from top administrators to hire an “ombudsman” to serve as a liaison between parents and the special-education department.

Board members noted that the proposed salary for the position — $15 an hour — was out of synch with the complexity of the job requirements, which, as written, include an understanding of state and federal laws relating to special education.

“Fifteen dollars an hour — that’s not very realistic,” Noel said. “It sounds to me (like a job worth) $50 to $75 an hour.”

Board members added that the position should require fluency in Spanish.

Abarca, who is a member of a special-education task force that will soon begin meeting every other Tuesday evening, said the idea of the ombudsman was well-received by parents at a recent meeting between parents and administrators. But somewhere along the line, she said, the message about the job description became garbled.

“It was supposed to be a parent liaison,” she said. “We’re looking for a parent to talk to parents.”

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— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at