Six months into his tenure with the Santa Barbara Unified School District, Superintendent Dave Cash is optimistic about his new job. His enthusiasm shines through despite the grim reality of deep spending cuts proposed to close a $5.8 million budget gap for the next school year.
Cash is no stranger to the South Coast. Before stints as superintendent of the Clovis and Claremont unified school districts, he served as principal of Dos Pueblos High School and Goleta Valley Junior High. He also taught at Peabody Charter School.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Cash said. “All three communities have huge support for public education. There is a recognition that the future of our economy and the future of our democracy depend heavily on the success of our public education institutions.”
He paused, and added, “I’m hopeful that our state government realizes that soon and stops cutting us.”
Cash says his return to the district has been smoothed by the relationships he had when he left.
“Most all of those people are still here working on behalf of children, so that’s really good,” he said. “I also think that leaving ... has given me a great opportunity to be able to view the district as kind of an inside/outside person, which I think is ultimately beneficial for any organization to grow.
“I would have to say the overwhelming majority of my experience so far has been very, very positive.”
He said he has noticed some differences between now and then.
“Probably the most significant changes have to do with the incredible support from outside of the community, outside of the traditional stakeholder groups — parents and kids and staff — with the nonprofits and community service organizations that really have stepped up and done a lot,” he said.
“It’s not that people didn’t care when I was here before,” Cash continued. “I know personally that they did. It just wasn’t as organized as it is now.
“It’s very exciting and I think it will give our district the opportunity — once we develop a strategic plan — to capitalize to an even greater extent on all of the goodness of the people who live in Santa Barbara.”
Cash is hopeful of having a draft of the strategic plan to the Board of Trustees this summer.
“In the time that we’re in right now, where we are in our sixth straight year of huge revenue loss, I think having a sharper focus and making sure we are aligning our resources become even more important for us,” he said.
Cash acknowledges the challenge of trying to plan when the financial outlook is in chaos.
“The last two budgets by Gov. (Jerry) Brown are very frustrating for schools because we have to plan as if Armageddon is going to happen with the hope that it won’t,” he explained. “Planning right now to cut $370 per student, which is about $120 more than what they said to plan for last year, those are just big numbers and they affect the lives of teachers and they affect the lives of our classified staff and most important, ultimately, they will affect the lives of the children.
“To have to plan for that, and then at some point in the middle of the year find out whether our planning was necessary or not — it’s frustrating to say the least.”
Cash says one of his priorities in his first year is to get a good look at the district so he can assess what needs to be done objectively.
“This year was really a year for me to just listen to people and talk to as many people as I can,” he said. “And to try to get a good understanding of where our district is, what are the things that we need to continue to do, what are some of the things that we should probably consider discontinuing.”
He also has spent a lot of time focused on technology and student discipline, and expects to introduce a restorative justice pilot program in one of the junior highs in the fall.
“We have not done a good job ensuring that we give children an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” he explained. “Restorative justice is an opportunity for schools and communities to recognize that children make mistakes; oftentimes they act in a manner that’s inconsistent to their own best interest.
“Children are constantly learning, we expect children to grow, to become more mature and develop emotionally. As a school system it’s really our job to help them along the way to do that — along with their parents and the community.
“Restorative justice ... gets off of the idea that if a child makes a mistake there’s only one way in which to respond to that,” he said. “Instead, it looks at a whole host of ways for a school to respond to a poor decision or a mistake that a child makes.
“We want to get away from excluding kids from school. If that is the first approach we take either through suspension or expulsion, we run the risk of continuing to get kids who are disengaged from school, who drop out. And we don’t accomplish what everyone wants to have happen and that’s that kids are going to come to school every day and feel safe and be successful.”
Cash is a family man at heart. His wife, Heather, teaches at El Camino School in the Goleta Union School District, and he has a daughter in second grade at Brandon School and a son at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park.
“I don’t think anybody wants a superintendent who doesn’t recognize how important his or her family is first,” he said. “I try to do that. There are probably, to be very frank, times when Heather would disagree that I have actually done that, but that is clearly my intention ... At least one morning a week I walk our daughter to school, which I think is really important.”
In his free time, Cash — a diehard Los Angeles Dodgers fan — likes to surf, play golf, or go to the beach or play tennis with his family.
“It’s an unfortunate irony that oftentimes when people in education get to positions of leadership like this there might be a tendency to be more involved in their work as a educator, as opposed to staying in touch with their own children’s world as a student,” he said. “I always say — and I mean it — that my son has provided me with a tremendous amount of insight as to what works and doesn’t work for students like him. That’s very helpful to me to listen carefully to him, and his friends, and ask questions.”
Asking questions is a big part of Cash’s management style.
“I spend a lot of time in classrooms,” he said. “I’m going to get into every classroom in the school district several times this year. ... The goal in having a job like this is to try to be as balanced as possible and remembering that. I could literally be out every night until 10 o’clock, seven nights a week, if I didn’t make balance a priority.”