On Dec. 2, Santa Barbara School District board member Bob Noel spoke at public comment before a closed-session school board meeting to discuss Superintendent Brian Sarvis’ annual evaluation, a basic board responsibility. In a brief speech at the podium, he called for Sarvis’ resignation and then abruptly left the meeting.

Nancy Harter

Nancy Harter

Noel’s comments were the equivalent of a verbal hand grenade lobbed into the room while he dashed out the door and refused to participate in the closed-session discussion. He delivered a follow-up attack in the Sunday edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press, just to be thorough. 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.

While Noel would like to convince the public that his bold call for Sarvis’ resignation is related to issues in special education or student achievement, it’s really a much more personal matter. On Oct. 31, his American Charter High School petition was withdrawn from consideration by the state Board of Education. The state Department of Education staff report on the petition was a devastating assessment. The petition fell short in 57 percent of the necessary categories. The vigorously pro-charter Advisory Commission on Charter Schools offered the petitioners the face-saving option of withdrawal rather than sending a negative recommendation to the state board.

How convenient that special education issues started to rear their head during this same time frame. It provided the perfect front for retaliation against a superintendent who allegedly obstructed his charter plans.

And what of Noel’s demand for Sarvis’ resignation? Here’s a reasonable scenario: Sarvis has already indicated he will not resign voluntarily. So, Noel must convince a board majority to release Sarvis from his contract, requiring a buyout of at least 18 months of salary and benefits — and perhaps some legal fees. The board would engage the services of an interim superintendent at a premium while simultaneously engaging a search firm to lure a replacement to a district roiling in controversy. Accomplishing this feat in a year’s time would be nothing short of a miracle. In the meantime, it’s likely that other district employees would have worked out their own exit strategies, leaving key positions vacant and district progress at a standstill. How does this scenario benefit students?

Noel has served on the board for 10 years, and despite regular changes in board membership, he’s never been able to muster a majority for his “out of the box” proposals. His “watchdog” governance style has resulted in countless hours of wasted staff time and turnover, as well as large legal fees. He has railed against fellow board members as lacking in vision, yet he refuses to adhere to even the most fundamental principals of leadership and participation. Now he’s squandering an opportunity to reach out to new board members by igniting a controversy at the start of their terms.

Instead of calling for the resignation of the superintendent, Noel should step down from the school board himself. He would still be able to criticize the district with impunity as a member of the public. He might even be more effective than he is in his current role. But he’d no longer be able to hinder practical, reasoned and civil solutions to serving our students.

Nancy Harter served two terms on the Santa Barbara School District Board of Education, from 2000 to 2008.