Thursday, July 19 , 2018, 4:12 pm | Fair 77º


Santa Barbara School Board Member Calls On Superintendent to Resign

Bob Noel's comments precede the board's closed-door session to discuss Brian Sarvis' job performance.

Citing a need to restore credibility, Santa Barbara school board member Bob Noel called on Superintendent Brian Sarvis to step down on Tuesday night, just before the start of a closed-door session during which the board evaluated Sarvis’ job performance.

Noel’s comments, which other board members later criticized as unfair, came during a time of turmoil in the district’s special-education department, whose leader recently resigned amid criticism from parents, a handful of whom were at Tuesday night’s short meeting.

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Bob Noel
Noel delivered his comments as a member of the public, then left the meeting before the closed session began. He said he has heard from a “broad sample of Santa Barbara citizens” that Sarvis can’t be a part of the solution, because he is part of the problem.

“I concur,” Noel said in his comments. “I have become ever firmer in the belief that Dr. Sarvis has neither the moral authority nor the temperament for the task. For the sake of the children and the institution, Dr. Sarvis, it is time for you to step aside.”

Reached on his cell phone after the meeting, Sarvis said he has no plans to step down.

“Bob Noel has run off too many superintendents,” he said. “I am committed to this community, and I have no intention of leaving.”

The past month and a half have been tumultuous for the school district. The trouble started brewing in mid-October, when parents of children with special needs began showing up to board meetings to complain about a shortage of aides. It came to a head Nov. 21, with the resignation of special-ed director Anissa McNeil.

The tension remained a week later, when Sarvis was criticized at a board meeting by Noel and a parent of a child with autism for a request to extend his three-year contract by a year. (Sarvis later said it was board president Laura Malakoff who put the item on the agenda.)

Speaking by telephone after Noel made his comments Tuesday night, board members Annette Cordero and Kate Parker came to Sarvis’ defense. (Tuesday night marked the final meeting for the other two board members, Malakoff and Nancy Harter. Next week, new board members Susan Deacon and Ed Heron will be sworn in.)

The newly re-elected Cordero said she found Noel’s comments to be “mean-spirited, unprofessional and inaccurate.”

“I think calling into question Brian’s moral authority is really unfair,” she said. “It’s one thing to question whether someone has made a wise choice … it’s another thing to question their moral authority.”

Cordero, who often is at odds with Noel, added that she believes Sarvis is doing a “good job.”

“I have confidence that Dr. Sarvis can do the job of superintendent,” she said. “I think in our evaluation we certainly identified areas where there is room for improvement, but we also identified areas where we felt there has been improvement.”

Parker said she was disappointed that Noel chose to boycott the closed-session evaluation.

“He didn’t choose to communicate with board members anything beyond a 90-second sound bite,” she said. “I really feel like he was letting the board down. If he really felt strongly about that, he should have come into closed session and sought to convince other board members.” 

Parker added that she doesn’t believe Sarvis should resign. “I think Brian will be the first one to say the district has a long way to go and there are challenges,” she said.

Noel has long been a go-it-alone member of the board. For years, his lone no vote has been a regular occurrence. Noel is also known for criticizing the board in public, often in the form of letters to the editor. 

A retired political science professor at UCSB, Noel believes that there is a tendency for many government bodies — and this one in particular — to become insular, thereby stifling dissenting views.

Despite his unpopularity among his board colleagues, Noel has been popular among the electorate. In 2006, he was elected to a third term.

On Tuesday night, after leaving the boardroom, Noel said he had no intention of taking part in an evaluation by the current board, which he views to be in lock step with Sarvis.

“This is my evaluation of the superintendent,” he said.

Reached at home later in the night, Noel elaborated on the reasoning behind his statements, saying the turmoil in the special-education department was just part of why he called on Sarvis to resign.

“This crisis follows on the financial crisis,” he said, referring to an embarrassing discovery in the summer of 2007, when the district’s newly hired financial director found $5 million, several weeks after the board cut millions of dollars worth of programs. (The director and his No. 2 man stepped down shortly after, and some programs were reinstated. The district later hired the director’s replacement, Deputy Superintendent Eric Smith, whose skills have been widely praised.)

Noel also said he believes that Sarvis has failed as an instructional leader. As an example, he said that the district’s high schools, when compared with similar high schools around the state, are among the lowest-scoring schools for socio-economically disadvantaged students.

“We’re among the highest-scoring schools for the white subgroup,” he said. “Other schools have managed to do the job with disadvantaged students and Latino students, and our schools are very, very poor.”

Noel also elaborated on his statement about Sarvis’ temperament, saying he doesn’t believe that Sarvis welcomes disagreement among staff members.

“He looks for tactical advantage, rather than areas for accommodation and compromise,” Noel said, adding that his thoughts are mostly the product of his gut impressions, as well as his conversations with others.

Noel said many parents and staff members have told him that they want to speak out against certain district policies but are afraid to do so.

“The fear is of Brian Sarvis,” he said. “I’ve been through other superintendents, and I’ve never seen it like this.”

Ironically, in 2004, when Sarvis — then the district’s director of research and technology — was applying for the position left vacant by Debbie Flores, Noel was Sarvis’ strongest supporter on the board.

On Tuesday night, Noel acknowledged that fact.

“He did a terrific job in that role,” Noel said. “I’ve heard many people say, ‘What happened to the old Brian Sarvis? He changed.’”

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