Steve Venz
Santa Barbara Unified School District chief operating officer Steve Venz sees his job as the vital link between Superintendent Hilda Maldonado’s vision and the district’s departments. “It’s really just making sure that we are doing everything in the most effective way,” he says. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Less than a year ago, Santa Barbara Unified School District Superintendent Hilda Maldonado hired a chief operating officer, the first in the district’s history.

At a $200,000 annual salary, Steve Venz started the job July 1, and has slowly taken on more responsibilities. He recently assumed the role of COVID-19 manager, duties previously carried out by Frann Wageneck, who is retiring as assistant superintendent in June.

Maldonado, and the school board she reports to, did not undertake an outside search to fill the COO position but instead promoted Venz from within. He had been hired four months before as the district’s director of school performance and student outcomes.

To create funding for the job, Maldonado used general fund dollars and combined two positions: director of research and evaluation, previously held by Chelsea Guillermo-Wan, and director of secondary education, previously held by Anne Roundy Harter.

Before joining SBUSD last year, Venz had been with a national education nonprofit organization and previously worked as a principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where Maldonado also worked until she was hired as SBUSD superintendent in 2020.

“I did know Hilda, but it wasn’t like we worked together on any projects,” he told Noozhawk in an extended interview recently. “We knew each other informally.”

Now Venz and Maldonado are working together on a lot of projects. Among others, the district is still trying to get a handle on the coronavirus and its Omicron variant, as well as challenges of the achievement gap — or, as educators have recently begun to redefine it, the “opportunity gap” between white students and students of color.

“There’s this illusion outside of Santa Barbara that the Santa Barbara school district is fine because they have a lot of money and all the kids are upper middle class or upper class,” Venz said. “But when you really get down to it, that’s not the case at all.”

Prior to coming to SBUSD, Venz worked as the Chief Academic Officer for the nonprofit Little Kids Rock, a Montclair, New Jersey, organization that brings “transformational music programming to hundreds of thousands of students across 48 states.”

After his job was eliminated in a downsizing, he heard about the Santa Barbara opening. He said he didn’t talk to Maldonado about it because he didn’t want an appearance of insider help.

“She had no idea I was applying for the job,” he said.

A few months after his arrival, however, Maldonado did approach him about the COO position.

“She came to me and said, ‘here’s what I am thinking,’” Venz recalled. “We need someone to connect the various departments and to make sure they are running smoothly, but I need help in terms of implementing my vision and our vision as a board and a school district and to implement the details.”

Maldonado pointed to the COVID-19 crisis as the catalyst behind the COO job’s creation. Wageneck’s job responsibilities, she said, are already vast so shifting some of them to Venz makes sense.

Asked why she didn’t conduct a national search, she replied, “We want to start with the talent in our house, and grow our own leaders.”

She also cited a “sense of urgency,” asserting that Venz demonstrated “immediately so many of the skills needed.”

Venz said he sees his role as helping other district and campus officials do their jobs better.

“We have all these great departments,” he explained. “My job is to basically link them together so we can work more effectively, and then when we are working more effectively, then the schools, the administrators feel more comfortable.

“They are able to work on what is happening in the schools, the same with teachers.”

The 54-year-old Venz was born in Georgia and grew up with a passion for music, learning to play bass guitar along the way. At 19, he enlisted in the Air Force but eventually enrolled in the University of Georgia, attending on a music scholarship.

“I still play and make music,” he said.

He started teaching after college and eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for LAUSD for 19 years.

His résumé includes jobs as music adviser, music specialist and, from 2009 to 2014, principal at Quincy Jones Elementary School in South Los Angeles east of the USC campus.​ He eventually obtained a master’s in educational administration.

Later in 2014 he moved on to the Orange County Department of Education, where he served as visual and performing arts coordinator, before joining Little Kids Rock in 2019.

When the Santa Barbara opportunity came up, he jumped at it.

“There’s a lot of talk about equity, that’s like a key term that is used a lot, but I was noticing that it was coming up early in Santa Barbara,” Venz said. “People were aware of our emerging multilingual students so that is what I noticed, and I noticed there was a need to continue to improve that.”

Venz got the job last year. His wife, Susan Derwin, is a professor of German and Comparative Literature at UC Santa Barbara, and they have two adult children.

He joins the district at a time of transition, with extensive turnover in the past year. In addition to Wageneck, Guillermo-Wann and Roundy Harter, several key longtime employees have left or retired, among them public information officer Camilla Barnwell; project manager Fernando Garcia; fiscal services manager Meg Jette; Maria Larios-Horton, executive director of diversity, equity and family engagement; chief educational technology officer Todd Ryckman; and Steve Vizzolini, director of facilities and maintenance.

The creation of Venz’s new position has raised questions among district employees about why the district needs a COO, rather than hiring a couple of mental health counselors for the high schools, or to provide other services.

Further scrutiny was prompted by responses in a recent teacher survey that were overwhelmingly negative toward Maldonado and included skeptical comments about Venz’s qualifications.

Venz and some school board members have questioned the validity of the survey, which was sent to about 700 employees and returned by 316.

When asked about Venz, school board member Laura Capps was blunt in her criticism of a reporter and in her defense of the district.

“This story sounds like something being pitched to you by someone trying to be divisive in our schools,” she said. “As a parent and school board member, I am assured to know that a COO in a district with a budget over $150 million is helping to manage COVID safety protocols.”

Venz says he’s up to the challenge.

“It’s not that I am just keeping track of the balance of all this federal funding, all the state funding sources, and also our regular budget, right, I am also involved with developing the strategies and bringing in people to help communicate what we are going to do, does this work, how does this all work, and then to move forward with that,” he said.

“It’s really just making sure that we are doing everything in the most effective way.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.