A week after Santa Barbara school board member Bob Noel publicly called on Superintendent Brian Sarvis to step down, a contingent of local luminaries and former school board members launched a counterattack Tuesday, calling on Noel to do the same.
A group of six attended Tuesday night’s board meeting to speak in Sarvis’ defense — and to criticize Noel. They included Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce President Steve Cushman, United Way of Santa Barbara County CEO Paul Didier and recently retired Santa Barbara City College President John Romo.
“I’ve sat on 100 nonprofit boards and commissions in Santa Barbara — a hundred,” Cushman said. “I have never seen a board member attack a director of that board in public. I find it offensive.”
He added: “I think Brian is a dedicated administrator. I think he does everything he can for the children in this community. … If anybody should leave the board, it should be Bob Noel.”
Last week, Noel, speaking to the board as a member of the public, called on Sarvis to resign, then left the building before the beginning of the closed-session portion of the meeting, during which the rest of the board evaluated Sarvis’ job performance.
Noel’s announcement came during a time of turmoil in the district’s special-education department, whose leader recently resigned amid criticism from parents.
On Tuesday, joining the call for Noel’s resignation were former board members Nancy Harter, Laura Malakoff and Lynn Rodriguez. (Harter did not attend the meeting, but rather sent an op-ed piece to Noozhawk.)
They accused Noel of seeking retaliation against Sarvis for the failure of Noel’s proposed charter school. After being rejected by the board a couple of years ago, Noel and the school’s other backers recently accepted an offer by the California Department of Education to withdraw their appeal. Harter called it a “face-saving option.”
They also said that Noel’s inquiries have cost the district money in legal fees. His questions a couple of years ago about a potential violation of the state’s open meetings law were dismissed by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney. In a related settlement, however, the district was forced to record its closed-session meetings.
Noel, who didn’t respond to the speakers during the public-comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting, could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
Noel has said that the turmoil in the special-education department was just part of why he called on Sarvis to resign, citing a financial crisis in the summer of 2007, stagnant test scores among socio-economically disadvantaged students and Sarvis’ leadership style.
Sarvis, Noel said last week, discourages disagreement among staff members, and looks for “tactical advantage, rather than areas for accommodation and compromise.” Noel added that teachers fear him.
Meanwhile, Harter, in a commentary published on Noozhawk today, said Noel’s comments were the “equivalent of a verbal hand grenade lobbed into the room while he dashed out the door.”
“This is the kind of atmosphere that he thrives in — strike out at others for perceived shortcomings, assign blame, and defy established procedures and processes for problem solving,” wrote Harter, who served the last meeting of her two-term tenure on Dec. 2, the day of Noel’s announcement.
On Tuesday night, Malakoff, who also served her final meeting Dec. 2, said she would be willing to work to recall Noel.
“I hesitate because it will cost the district much-needed funds,” she said. “However, if Bob Noel continues to cost this district in money, energy and time, a recall would be best for the district.”
Also speaking in support of Sarvis was Mark Ingalls, manager of the Camino Real Marketplace and co-chairman for two successful school ballot measures in November.
Ingalls said the passage of Measures H and I — parcel taxes for the K-12 schools — is an indication that the public supports the job Sarvis is doing.
“We didn’t win by just a majority, we won … with nearly 75 percent,” he said. “I think they told us what sort of confidence they have in our superintendent and our staff.”
Didier of United Way said Sarvis is the most universally loved superintendent he has worked with in his 35 years in the community.
“You’ve got a terrific leader, you’ve got a terrific team — use that,” he said. “This other style isn’t going to produce what you’re after.”
A couple of people came to Noel’s defense Tuesday night. One was Lourdes Uribe, a parent in the district. She recalled an instance in which a girl had asked Noel, who had come to an education event she had attended, for advice on how to deal with a problematic principal. Uribe said Noel took the girl’s complaint seriously, and talked with her extensively.
“I never thought I was going to see the day when somebody of authority would come and say — would express support — of the feelings in my heart,” she said.
Nestor Hernandez, president of the local chapter of the League of Latin American Citizens, said many feel that the Latino community has been very low on the priority list for the district.
“One thing we saw with Dr. Noel is we might not agree with him,” he said, “but he was a process person.”
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