Saturday, March 24 , 2018, 10:41 am | Fair 58º


Tensions, Tempers Flare at Santa Barbara School Board Meeting

Talk of special-education shortcomings and the superintendent's request for a contract extension prompt one member to walk out in protest.

Less than a week after the abrupt resignation of the Santa Barbara School District‘s special-education director, tension reigned supreme at the school board meeting Tuesday night, in which one board member walked out in protest, parents of students with special needs showed up in force to talk about enduring problems, and one parent sharply criticized Superintendent Brian Sarvis for trying to get a one-year extension on his three-year contract — six months into it.

The brouhaha occurred in the wake of Friday’s resignation of special-ed director Anissa McNeil, who, just six months into the job, became the focus of repeated criticism at board meetings by parents who were frustrated by what they said was the department’s failure to provide their children with adequate service. McNeil is the district’s seventh leader in about as many years.

Among the parents’ complaints were that their children — many of whom have autism — often were not paired with properly trained aides, and that the district was breaking the law by not providing substitutes on the days the aides were absent.

On Tuesday, Sarvis’ comments about how he plans to address the turmoil in the special-education department touched off a quarrel between school board member Bob Noel and his four colleagues.

Sarvis said he intends to bring in an interim director as soon as possible, with an eye toward hiring a permanent leader by spring. He said he has begun meeting with parents, and plans to continue to do so, and will include them in some sort of committee or task force on special-education issues.

He also said he is demanding a thorough evaluation of the department, and will hire a permanent special-education director only after coming back to the board with a long-term strategy.

Lastly, he vowed to move quickly to address the district’s apparent lack of a policy on substitutes for special education. “Some of these things cannot be done immediately,” he said. “That’s one that does need to be done immediately.”

Noel, who is often at odds with his four board colleagues, said he was troubled that Sarvis’ plan for an evaluation didn’t seem to involve third-party experts from outside the district.

“The review that has to be done has to be done independently of the superintendent, because indeed he may be part of the problem,” he said.

At this, school board President Laura Malakoff said his comments were making her uncomfortable, because the item was technically listed on the agenda as a “superintendent’s report,” and so could not be discussed by the board. She asked that he be brief.

Her comments prompted an outburst from Noel. “I know you don’t like it when I’m direct, but I happen to be a very direct person,” he said, turning to face her.

An attorney who serves the district interjected to confirm Malakoff’s concerns, saying that “per the agenda, there is to be no board discussion on the superintendent’s report.”

The attorney advised that the discussion be curtailed and brought back to the board as a “conference agenda item” at a future date.

After more bickering, outgoing school board member Nancy Harter tried to defuse the tension by making a motion to give Noel one minute to speak his mind. Her motion died for lack of a second.

Later, Noel and the rest of the board butted heads again.

The conflict involved the board’s decision to pull from the agenda an item asking the board to vote on whether to extend Sarvis’ contract by one year.

Harter made a motion to pull it, saying the board hadn’t finished evaluating Sarvis’ performance earlier in the night, during a closed-session meeting. (Performance evaluations of public employees are typically closed to the public.)

Noel objected and asked the attorney to weigh in. When the attorney concurred that it can be done, Noel announced he was walking out, gathered his papers and left the room. The board voted 4-0 to pull the agenda item.

Later, one of the dozen or so parents who showed up to speak about the special-education department criticized the board for pulling the item, and Sarvis for requesting the extension.

“You can’t possibly have good evaluation knowledge of his three-year performance six months into a three-year contract,” Cory Bream said. “As a person in the special-ed world and as a mommy of one of these kids, it isn’t working. It hasn’t worked. I’ve only been in the district five years, and I think you’ve been the superintendent the whole time. It isn’t working … and it’s just been worse of late.”

The only official to respond was Harter, whose term expires in December. Harter said she was surprised by the request for a contract extension “because the contract was extended six months ago. So, this board will complete the evaluation process, and I imagine that then it will be turned over to a future board, because I certainly won’t be here.”

Parent Christy Holm said the district hasn’t followed through with a legally binding plan to provide her second-grade son with two sessions a week of speech therapy.

“This is the 14th week of school. He should have received 28 sessions so far,” she said. “To date, he has only received three. That is unacceptable. This is in noncompliance with his (individual education plan) and is illegal.”

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