Santa Barbara Unified School District
After two years of virtual meetings, the Santa Barbara school board welcomed back the public for Tuesday’s in-person meeting. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Members of the public returned Tuesday night to the Santa Barbara Unified School District board meeting — and just like before the COVID-19 pandemic, the tensions in the room were thick.

At one point, Goleta resident Greg Hammel criticized the district’s longtime relationship with the nonprofit organization Just Communities, saying it had failed to help close the achievement gap or heal racial differences among students. Hammel then told board member Wendy Sims-Moten not to put her hand to her face while he was talking.

“Please respect me and don’t put your hand like that,” Hammel told her. 

Sims-Moten responded, “Can you just continue speaking?”

“No,” Hammel responded, and then mimicked her demeanor.

“Listen! Listen!” Sims-Moten said. “We can conclude your comments at this point.”

Hammel responded, “Nope,” and continued to read his statements.

Later, speaker Brian Campbell engaged in a similar shouting match with Sims-Moten.

Campbell criticized the district’s recent $8,000 contract with the organization Coffee With a Black Guy, to work with families involved in a recent racist video posted on TikTok.

“Eight thousand dollars? where are his credentials?” Campbell asked of the company’s founder, James Joyce III. “Honestly, nice little gimmick; because he’s Black you said, ‘Let’s have him’ and because he lost the mayoral election, let’s hire a Black guy?”

Sims-Moten then tried to stop Campbell — who ran unsuccessfully in two recent elections for the Santa Barbara City Council and the Santa Barbara school board — stating that there was a racial undertone to his comments. Campbell then blurted, “Coffee With a Black Guy three times in a row,” while noting that he didn’t come up with the name of the organization.

Sims-Moten later tried to calm down the crowd.

“This country for many years has not wanted to deal with this,” she said. “If we don’t want to continue to repeat history, or being circular on it, then now is the time to talk,” Sims-Moten said. “But be respectful, in that you have your perspective, and I want to hear that, but I can’t hear that if it is being shouted or demanded, or disrespectfully said. Until we come together to hear each other’s side we are going to continue to have this.”

Throughout the pandemic, a consistently vocal group of parents and activists regularly blasted the board members through Zoom about the COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates. They have also been critical of the district’s cultural proficiency and racial bias training.

Tuesday offered the first time for many of the critics to return and face the board. Some speakers during public comment also urged the district to reduce the amount of screen time that students have with district-issued devices, such as iPads. 

The hostile tone of some of the public commentators highlighted a meeting that also focused on COVID-19, the status of student and teacher absenteeism, and STAR testing for students.

Chronic absenteeism in the district in the current school year was at 24.4% as of April 1, according to district officials. That’s an increase from 11.9% in the 2019-20 school year. Between Jan. 14 and April 1, the chronic absenteeism rate declined, and 16 of 18 schools saw a drop in their chronic absenteeism rate from January. 

“Chronic absenteeism, outside of an obvious reason such as a pandemic, is an initial indicator of dropout,” said Fran Wageneck, the assistant superintendent. “Even in elementary school.”

The number of teacher and staff absences also increased.

“The increase in staff absences resulted in students missing out on instruction from their classroom teachers,” Wageneck said. “We know nothing is more important than having our highly qualified and valuable teachers with our students.”

Wageneck said suspension rates have dropped by 55% since 2020.

As of March 13, 2020, the district has suspended 482 students. This year, as of April 1, the number of suspensions was 203 students. The district also presented data that showed, according to STAR testing in the winter, that about 80% of white students in grades 3 through 6 met or exceeded reading standards for their grade. About 79% of Asians in those grades met or exceeded the standard, while only 35% of Latino students met or exceeded the standard and 22% of Black students met the reading standard.

In math, 67% of Asians in grades 3 through 6 met or exceeded the standard, followed by white students at 59%. Black students were at 33% for those grades, followed by Latinos, with only 19% meeting or exceeding math benchmarks in grades 3 through 6.

Another slide showed that 619 students, as of April 7, have been considered “emergent language learners” for at least six years. Board member Virginia Alvarez asked why there were so many students who were still learning English after six years. 

Superintendent Hilda Maldonado responded that there needs to be a change. 

“Since I arrived here, I noticed there is a need for us to improve English-language development,” Maldonado said.

Alvarez responded: “It’s just so sad. If you don’t have the language, it’s hard to do the math. If you don’t have that language, you are not going to be successful in math. You are just not. That’s just the reality.”

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

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at