It took one hour and 10 minutes before an audience-posed question about sex education in junior highs and high schools turned an otherwise subdued schools forum into a few moments of energy.
“Face it, kids are going to be talking about sex and gender, and it’s better to have curriculum about it and be able to ask a teacher about it and have an open discussion,” said Rose Munoz, a Santa Barbara Unified School District board member who is running for re-election. “It does also emphasize healthy relationships. It’s very inclusive.”
Her opponent in the contest, Phebe Mansur, opposes the district’s chosen curriculum,”Teen Talk,” because she said it is too graphic.
“If I were on the board, I would vote to remove Teen Talk,” said Mansur, who quoted both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Confucius during the forum. “I don’t think it is age-appropriate. It is difficult enough to be a young child. Adding sexualized content on top of everything else, it makes it difficult when you are growing up. I don’t think that’s helpful.”
It was one of the only moments of disagreement during the 90-minute forum that attempted to wrangle the views of 10 candidates for the Santa Barbara and Goleta Union School District boards on a variety of topics.
Munoz and Santa Barbara school board candidates Gabe Escobedo and Dan La Berge agreed with the Teen Talk sex education curriculum, while candidates Mansur and Efigenia Bañales opposed it.
The event was moderated by journalist Jerry Roberts and longtime political watcher Lanny Ebenstein.
In addition to the Santa Barbara school board candidates, Goleta school board candidates included Caroline Abate and incumbent Richard Mayer, who are running against each other in District 1; and Christy Lozano who is running against Emily Zacarias in District 3 for an open seat.
A third District 3 candidate, Bert Haley, told Noozhawk that he only received an invitation in the mail on the day of the event, and already had a commitment. He said he did not receive any electronic invite.
Ethan Bertrand is running unopposed for Goleta district 3.
It took 20 minutes for the candidates to get through opening statements. That left time for about four questions on the topics of whether the candidates supported neighborhood schools and safe storage of guns.
Another question was whether the Goleta candidates would support a joint-use agreement between the Goleta Union School District and the city of Goleta.
The final moderator-asked question was whether the candidates supported offering the same electives at all junior high schools, rather than leaving it up to the sites.
There were no questions from the organizations hosting the event about equity, inclusion, diversity or about closing the achievement gap. One of the audience-related questions, however, asked about whether the candidates supported the ethnic studies curriculum for ninth-graders.
“Ethnic studies courses are key to building critical thinkers,” Escobedo said. “This is where we talk about systemic racism, where we talk about globalism, where we talk about the climate crisis we are under.”
He said that’s how students get a more accurate and fair perspective of the history of the nation.
“Having those discussions is not because we dislike the nation we are apart of,” Escobedo said. “It’s because we love our nation and we want it to be better. The only way we can do better is by having these discussions.”
One of his opponents in District 1, La Berge, also supports the ethnic studies curriculum.
“I think ethnic studies and exposure to other cultures is vital to create perspective and hopefully continue to erode or displace barriers between cultures,” La Berge said.
In Goleta, Lozano comes into the campaign with name recognition. She was just on the June ballot when she ran unsuccessfully for the Santa Barbara County superintendent seat.
One of the audience-asked questions was what the candidates would do if a parent had a question about a book at the school that they felt was inappropriate.
“Any parent that has any concerns about anything can come and talk to me, and we can have a conversation about it,” Lozano said. “I have an open door policy, anytime, to come and talk about any books. I want a transparent curriculum. I want parents to be able to see what their children are learning. To hide curriculum, that is what I have a problem with.”
Zacarias also said she would listen to the parent, and find out if the book is just available in the library or is a textbook.
“I think we trust our teachers and administrators to select the curriculum based on their expertise and based on the list of curriculum that is approved by the state of California,” Zacarias said. “I am definitely not for censorship or banning of books, but I do want to know if it is offensive to people. I do want to hear that and discuss it with the cabinet and the other board members, and see if it something we can get an agenda item on.”
The most spirited candidate in the forum was Abate, a conservative activist looking to unseat Mayer.
She railed against the question of how she would handle inappropriate textbooks or books in schools. She said the district has lost its way.
“The heart and mind of a child are very delicate,” Abate said. “We have to be very careful what we teach them. How unfortunate is it that we have to worry about the content of what kids are seeing in public schools. Just the fact that we have to ask and answer that question shows something is very, very wrong in our schools, and it needs to change. That is a big, big problem.”
She said schools are public places, just like a park, library and shopping mall and movie theater.
“Let’s focus on the academics and take the focus off the inappropriate content in our schools, and get our test scores back up where they should be,” Abate said.