Saturday, March 17 , 2018, 8:38 am | Fair 47º


Candidates Tackle Tough Topics at Santa Barbara School Board Forum

The diverse group has stark differences on key issues, including the achievement gap, cell phones and gangs.

The six candidates for three open seats on the Santa Barbara school board participate in a debate Wednesday at the Santa Barbara Public Library.
The six candidates for three open seats on the Santa Barbara school board participate in a debate Wednesday at the Santa Barbara Public Library. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

On a night when the two presidential hopefuls were debating before a national TV audience, the six candidates for three open seats on the Santa Barbara school board sat down at the Santa Barbara Public Library on Wednesday for an intimate debate that was chock full of substance and healthy disagreement on serious local issues.

It also showcased a truly diverse group of people, from Jacqueline Inda, who as a reformed gang member and product of local poor neighborhoods considers herself a representative of many disaffected families, to Ed Heron, a successful businessman with deep ties to the real-estate and nonprofit worlds who moved to Santa Barbara 60 years ago with his family from Michigan.

At the forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Santa Barbara Youth Council, the six candidates delved into the heavy topics, such as the city’s gang dilemma and the academic achievement gap separating the test scores of white and Latino students. They also discussed a few issues that are more populist in nature, such as athletics funding and the recent ban on cell phones. 

In addition to Inda and Heron, the other candidates are Annette Cordero, a Santa Barbara City College instructor and the race’s lone incumbent; Susan Deacon, a former SBCC journalism instructor and current president of the South Coast Community Aquatic Center; Kate Smith, a local activist and a regular at many school board meetings; and Charlotte Ware, immediate past president of the Dos Pueblos High PTSA and a former engineer.

The Achievement Gap

The achievement gap is arguably the toughest issue the school board faces on a regular basis. A recent report by the Santa Barbara School District shows that the gap in scores in math between white high school students, whose proficiency rate hovers around 70 percent, and Latino students, whose proficiency rate is more like 30 percent, hasn’t really changed since 2003.

Of this stubborn gap, Cordero made the boldest statement.

“Unfortunately, we see that it really permeates the achievement of ethnic groups, regardless of their language abilities or socio-economic status,” she said. “So we need to be — No. 1 — brave enough to acknowledge that, so that we can address it, and we need to look at a system-deficit model rather than a student-deficit model, so that it is not something that is wrong with the students. It’s something that is wrong with our system.”

Cordero has long contended that not enough academic counselors encourage Latino students to take high-level courses, and on Wednesday she reiterated her belief that the district needs to take a hard look at this.

Deacon said the achievement gap is what prompted her to run for office. Quoting the son of a family friend who has joined Teach For America in post-Katrina New Orleans, she said, “His recipe was really simple. He said, ‘Smart teachers, and great principals.’ I guess it’s kind of like, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’”

The district, Deacon said, needs to do a better job of hiring and retaining good teachers, and it hires too many teachers on a temporary basis, which she says is bad for morale. She also suggested that the district consider some cutting-edge practices being adopted around the nation, such as Saturday school, a longer school year and mandatory after-school programs.

Heron said it’s important, when talking about narrowing the achievement gap — which he acknowledged was a serious problem — not to reach this goal at the expense of the top students. All students, he said, need to improve.

“We have 16,000 students … they are our assets; they are not liabilities,” he said. “Don’t close the gap by bringing down the top students. We close the achievement gap by raising them up.”

Ware said that not all schools are equally guilty of showing large achievement gaps, and that the district should look to adopt the practices of the schools that are more successful.

“Something is being done right,” she said. “Our junior highs are low in their math for their English language learners and the socio-economically disadvantaged, but our high schools are fine. So what do we need to do at our junior highs?”

Inda, the handpicked candidate of a new advocacy group to stem gang violence called Esperanza, said the achievement gap is one of the group’s highest priorities. She said there are schools in Los Angeles with poorer populations than Santa Barbara’s that are doing a better job of closing the gap.

Smith, who has acknowledged that she is running illegally because she lives outside the district’s boundaries, used this question and others as a launch pad to rail against issues she brings up regularly at school board meetings. In the case of this question, Smith talked about what she views to be a local system of “institutional racism” that inappropriately plucks students with learning disabilities out of the classroom and places them into “jail schools.”

“It criminalizes the students that are struggling in school,” she said. “It’s called the schools-prison pipeline. Please, learn that. … It’s our No. 1 societal issue.”

Teacher Housing, Athletics and Cell Phones

With the exception of Smith, the candidate who most frequently walked out of step with the others was Deacon.

For instance, on the notion of using at least one of two vacant parcels of district-owned land to build housing that is affordable for teachers, only Deacon expressed unequivocal support. The others said, in so many words, that getting into the development business isn’t the role of the school district.

Smith said she’d like to fire Superintendent Brian Sarvis and divvy up his $205,000 salary among the teachers. “I want all the administrative money to go to the teachers who are doing the work,” she said.

Deacon was also the only candidate to answer yes to a question about finding a way to more adequately fund athletics. She said if the district can find money, as it recently did, to pay for gang outreach, then, she said, it should direct some of that money toward intramural sports.

“We know there are kids needing something to do after school,” she said, “and what better way to spend your time than getting some physical exercise.”

However, Cordero pointed out that although she comes from a sports-immersed family, as a member of the board that recently slashed $4 million in programs, she is all-too familiar with the school’s budget realities. As a result, Cordero said she would be loath to dedicate more money to sports.

“I would like to say yes,” she said. “But if I say that, it means I’m also saying I’m going to take some money from something else. … I don’t think that would be a responsible thing to do.”

One of the most spirited debates came from a question posed by students on the Santa Barbara Youth Council: the board’s recent ban on the use of cell phones during the school day.

On this, a majority of candidates distanced themselves. Inda said she believes the schools had bigger fish to fry, Cordero reminded the audience that she voted against the ban, and Heron — who has based much of his platform on improving technology in the classroom — said he was dismayed to see a plethora of “no cell phone” signs posted around one of the district’s junior high campuses.

“If I did that in business, if I put up signs all over my office of what people can’t do, I’d be shut out,” he said, adding that he understands that cell phones shouldn’t be used in the classroom. But cell phones, he said, are “today’s communication tool. And when students are communicating, we need to applaud it and let them communicate.”

Deacon once again bucked the majority opinion on this question, saying the board made the right decision.

“You can tell students that they can’t have cell phones on campus, but the reality is, they are going to come out while (teachers) are trying to teach,” she said.

Ware, too, voiced support for the ban, saying she wished it was enforced with equal vigor on every campus. She said on the one high school campus that has decided to enforce the policy — she didn’t specify which — the culture has changed for the better.

“(Administrators) have seen, within a couple of weeks, they are not out anymore,” she said. “The ear buds are not in their ears. … Students are talking in the halls, things are much more friendly, there’s lots of conversations going on, the teachers in the classroom are finding it easier to enforce the policy.”

Gangs and Truancy

On gangs, the candidates didn’t disagree with one another so much as display a broad range of approaches to the addressing problem.

Inda and Cordero talked about honoring the culture of the children.

Inda said local schools need to do a better job of making students feel connected, thereby preventing them from joining gangs in the first place. She credited a program at Santa Barbara High School for achieving a sense of connectedness among Latino students called the Don Riders. The program allows students to customize their bicycles, oftentimes in the low-rider style.

Echoing Inda’s enthusiasm for the Don Riders, Cordero elaborated on the program’s benefits.

“In addition to connecting them to school, one of the things that it does that I think is vital is that it honors the culture that they come from,” she said. “It doesn’t debase or criminalize the things that they find attractive and that they find engaging.”

Deacon advocated a deeper commitment to sifting out and replicating hidden gems already embedded in the schools, citing, for example, coaches and teachers who work with children after school.

“I’d like to see us look internally to this solution,” she said.

Deacon was also the only candidate to criticize the board’s recent decision to hire gang outreach specialists to work directly with youths involved in gangs, saying the district has revealed too little about their job description.

Drawing on his experience as the immediate past president of the nonprofit Partners in Education, Heron called for partnerships between schools, cities and nonprofit organizations that would treat the gang dilemma as a regional problem.

He praised a recent effort over the summer spearheaded by a task force of officials from the city, schools and area nonprofit groups in which 80 students involved with gangs were interviewed and counseled. The group wound up finding jobs for 10 of the youths, and produced reports on the 52 school-age youths for the administrators at the schools they attend.

Heron said he found a recent presentation put on by three of the caseworkers to be “heart-wrenching.”

“They put their heart and soul into giving each of these students hope that there is a different life than gangs,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about, is giving them hope.”

Ware said the schools already seem to be well-equipped to deal with the problem.

Although she acknowledged the seriousness of the issue in Santa Barbara, Ware said she doesn’t think the violence has bled onto the school campuses. For this, she credited many systems already in place, such as the school resource officers at some campuses, as well as youth counselors who provide one-on-one counseling. She also credited truancy coordinators, although the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors this week voted to cut the program.

Later, when a question asked how the loss of the truancy program should be dealt with, only Ware expressed absolute support for the program, rattling off statistics indicating that the program has been successful in getting the overwhelming majority of truant students back into the classroom.

“I would work to have that funded,” she said.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Inda said she’s glad the program was cut.

“It gives us the opportunity to restructure a program that has not worked for the Latino community,” she said, adding that the truancy program has unfairly branded students and families as failures.

Cordero said that while she would never be glad to hear the district is losing a program bankrolled by another agency, the truancy program was unnecessarily sowing seeds of fear and resentment in the Latino community.

“We have the perfect opportunity now to re-examine this program, and to redevelop a program that doesn’t stigmatize children and doesn’t frighten the daylights out of parents, and doesn’t put the district at odds with the community,” she said.

Heron expressed ambivalence about the program itself, but said the bottom line is simple: “We need to keep them in class one way or the other.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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