With the long-term fate of the bilingual Cesar Chavez Charter School still in question, the Santa Barbara school board on Tuesday night made its first official attempt to turn the struggling school around, hiring a retired principal from one of the city’s most successful schools — Peabody Charter School — to spend the remainder of the year at Cesar Chavez as a consultant.

At a cost of $40,000 — or about $1,000 a day — former Peabody Principal Pat Morales will advise the school’s teachers on instructional effectiveness, particularly as it pertains to English learners.

The move also marks the first time the district has officially exercised its newfound authority over the Eastside elementary school, which has been under threat of closure this year because of low test scores.

But the tone of Tuesday’s meeting was decidedly more congenial — and low key — than that of other recent meetings.

“The effort going into this, and the optimism — and just the energy — is really something,” school board member Ed Heron said.

Most notably, while the last school board meeting drew so many people that it had to be held in the Santa Barbara High School auditorium, Tuesday’s meeting brought no more than a handful of Cesar Chavez advocates.

Still, the school isn’t out of the rough.

Typically, charter schools, though financed by public tax dollars, enjoy broad autonomy, with parent-dominated boards making major financial decisions. But for Cesar Chavez — a dual-language immersion program where students spend half their time learning in English and the other half in Spanish — that all changed three weeks ago.

In essence, Cesar Chavez was up for its five-year charter renewal, and the Santa Barbara school board was told by district administrators that the school’s test scores were too low to qualify.

However, instead of denying the charter — and effectively closing the school — the school board in late November took the middle road, opting to keep Cesar Chavez open until the end of the school year, but under certain conditions.

Foremost among them was the understanding that Cesar Chavez’s parent-run governance council will come back to the school board with a plan for restructuring by the end of the school year. If the board doesn’t like what Cesar Chavez comes up with, the school could still close this summer. Another condition of approval was that the school board would gain some control over the school, so that a consultant could be hired to improve student achievement.

Moreover, the school board in late November decreed that Cesar Chavez would pick up the $40,000 tab for the consultant, who turned out to be Morales.

On Tuesday night, though, the school board softened its stance somewhat on the money issue, offering to pay $4,000 of that amount to cover Morales’ travel expenses and health benefits.

That came after Cesar Chavez teacher Michael Macioce questioned those extra costs, noting that teachers at his school had recently suffered a 5.7 percent pay cut.

“Why aren’t we negotiating directly with the consultant and paying for the consultant ourselves?” he asked.

Morales’ hiring comes at a time when Cesar Chavez is leaderless. Last month, shortly after learning that the school board was considering school closure, Cesar Chavez’s governance council fired Principal Eva Neuer. Parents and staff at the school have declined to cite a reason for her dismissal, citing personnel confidentiality laws.

Meanwhile, Morales’ duties will not include evaluating the school’s dual-immersion program or helping the governance council create a restructuring plan. Such aid to Cesar Chavez will be carried out by others from the school district. It appears the school’s survival will depend on its ability to write a new charter altogether.

As an administrator, Morales has been credited for her leadership of the San Roque neighborhood’s Peabody Charter School, which shares some similarities with Cesar Chavez. Peabody, for instance, also offers second language instruction in either English or Spanish, although its language program is not as comprehensive as Cesar Chavez’s.

Test scores at Peabody are the second highest of the district’s 10 elementary schools, behind Washington Elementary, a GATE magnet.

Morales will spend the bulk of her time at the school during January, February and March. Superintendent Brian Sarvis said this is because the school needs immediate intervention.

“If changes need to be made, they need to be made now,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.