Montecito Union School District board candidates, from left, Brett Matthews, Mary Morouse and Robert Kupiec debated a range of issues facing the single-school district, including Basic Aid, whether a principal <i data-recalc-dims=and a superintendent were necessary and even potential budget cuts.” width=“540” height=“249” />

Montecito Union School District board candidates, from left, Brett Matthews, Mary Morouse and Robert Kupiec debated a range of issues facing the single-school district, including Basic Aid, whether a principal and a superintendent were necessary and even potential budget cuts. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

The Montecito Union School District consists of just one elementary school with 415 students, but it has both a superintendent and a principal.

Funded solely through Montecito’s stratospheric property-tax rolls, the school, like many of its residents, is flush with money.

Whereas the annual budget of the average school district in California contains about $5,800 per child, at the Montecito district the amount is more like $23,000.

With this in mind, it may seem difficult to believe the district could have any challenges.

But all school districts have challenges, even the rich ones, and the three candidates for two seats on the Montecito school board touched on the issues of the day during a candidates’ forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters last week.

The candidates are Robert Kupiec, the lone incumbent (he was appointed) and an architect; Brett Matthews, founder and former CEO of Imagitas, which was bought out three yeas ago for $230 million; and Mary Morouse, a former business executive who has worked for companies such as and Microsoft, and who recently retired to raise her three young children.

Listening to the three candidates talk about the state of their local school is a little like eavesdropping at Harvard Business School. The school is referred to as a “physical plant,” or a “$10 million business.” There’s talk of “scenario planning,” “benchmarks” and of creating goals that are “measurable and actionable.”

But the candidates Thursday night offered the audience of about 40 people a range of styles and viewpoints.

Matthews stressed the importance of trust and transparency, referring to last year’s ugly round of salary negotiations between the teachers and administration. He also said the board needs to do a better job of following California’s open-meetings law, known as the Brown Act.

“I’ve been through downturns at my company, and they’re not fun,” Matthews said. The key to getting through them, he added, is fostering a “culture of trust and open communication.”

“If you have that,” he said, “people work together through any crisis. If you don’t, it really becomes a meltdown.”

Morouse warned against becoming too complacent, and invoked business consultant SMART Board, which is an inter-active white board.

“We do live in kind of a bubble; we are the school that has the budget that can do things,” he said. “I think we need to work extra hard so that our kids understand the world that’s outside of us.”

The 415-student Montecito Union School is at 385 San Ysidro Road.

The 415-student Montecito Union School is at 385 San Ysidro Road. (Kirsten Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo)

The three candidates are well aware of their school district’s good fiscal fortune. They also are keen to one potential problem: the state law that allows districts like Montecito to keep so much of its property-tax revenue could go away. Especially in these tough economic times, when Sacramento is starved of money and desperate.

The enviable financial status enjoyed by the Montecito district is known in school speak as Basic Aid, which graces only 6 percent of California’s nearly 1,000 school districts. Basic Aid kicks in when a district no longer needs help — or aid — from the state to meet its state-mandated minimum annual funding level, which, again, is around $5,800 per child. Not only this, such districts are allowed to keep the spillover, which in Montecito amounts to three times the minimum amount.

The first question for the forum was a kind of quiz, asking the candidates to explain Basic Aid.

Matthews pointed out that the state nearly took away Basic Aid in 2001, and he emphasized the importance of tapping key people in the community to lobby in Sacramento for keeping the law intact. If elected, Matthews said he’d see to it that such folks produce a month-to-month report, as opposed to “just getting information from a newspaper article.”

He added that it’s important to understand what it would mean for the district to lose Basic Aid: The budget would shrink to $2.4 million from the current $9 million.

Kupiec said it is his belief that Basic Aid will not last forever.

“I think as part of our strategic plan, it will be important to develop an attitude in the community about how we may in the future have to combat the loss of the kind of income that we have,” he said. But he added: “Twenty-thousand dollars (per child) is what we’re supposed to be spending for our kids. Not just here, but nationwide. And I think that we need to be the paradigm that other schools look to, to see how it’s supposed to be done.”

Morouse noted that not all Basic Aid districts are created equal. In fact, Montecito tends to be among the richest of the rich Basic Aid districts. She pointed out that while the Montecito Union district receives $23,000 per student, the adjacent Cold Spring district — also in Montecito — receives about $14,000; and Portola Valley, $11,000.

“So we have tremendous resources at our disposal,” she said. “But Basic Aid is a status that is constantly being threatened, and we need to be at work in Sacramento to protect that, and we need to be planning for the possibility — the real possibility — that that status might go away.”

One of the more interesting questions came from the audience: Does a one-school district need both a principal (Kris Bergstrom) and a superintendent (Dick Douglas)?

The candidate who answered most unambiguously on this was Kupiec, who said, in so many words, yes.

“If we can maintain those two roles in our schools, I think our children and teachers benefit,” he said. “It would be a Herculean task for both those roles to fall on one person.”

Morouse also seemed to lean towards a “yes,” saying that a superintendent and a principal have distinct roles.

The principal, she said, should be focused on matters such as curriculum, teachers and student-achievement standards. The superintendent, she said, should be “doing the nuts-and-bolts administration of the school,” as well as spending time in Sacramento to protect the district’s Basic Aid status.

She added: “Do we need both? I would have to answer that in the scheme of: compared to what?” she said. “We have a lot of things we don’t necessarily need. Is it nice to have both? I think it’s nice to have both, so that we get this energy directed at two different challenges.

“But … if we’re going to have both, we better be a lot more clear about what the division of responsibilities is, because what ends up happening is, you kind of have two leaders, and no one’s quite sure who to go to for what.”

Matthews seemed to lean closest to saying “no,” pointing out, for instance, that the two positions used to be filled by one person at Montecito Union, and still are at Cold Spring.

“Given our school district, I think it is a very ‘nice to have.’ Is it an absolute ‘need to have?’ If tough economic times do fall on us, we will have to look at that again.”

In a separate-but-related question, the candidates were asked what department they would cut from first, teachers or administration. All three went with the more politically popular choice: administration.

“I believe that a good teacher is the most important asset our children can have,” Morouse said.

Matthews said he would err toward administration, but added another option: “Everybody takes pay cuts, and all do it together.”

Kupiec, too, said he’d take a scalpel to the administration’s side of the ledger before the teaching staff’s.

The candidates were asked to weigh in on whether the district should open its own junior high school. MUS students feed into Santa Barbara Junior High, which is a part of the Santa Barbara School District.

Matthews said he would vote for it if it were clear that the community was for it.

Morouse said she liked the idea, “on the face of it,” but would need more time to review all the research that has been done.

“What I would then have to do is put the lens of today’s situation over that research to see if it makes sense,” she said. “I don’t think the fact that it was rejected in the past is a reason for rejecting it now, although I also don’t think you can just say I’d vote for it without having more information.”

Kupiec reminded the audience of an important caveat: Creating a junior high school would involve re-distributing money away from the elementary school.

“But I do think that having a junior high school in Montecito would be terrific — those two tender years are definitely tender years,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at