Cary Matsuoka is used to facing criticism — it comes with the job.
The Santa Barbara Unified School District superintendent has felt his fair share of heat, particularly over the past year, much coming from Fair Education Santa Barbara — a nonprofit focused on advocating for “children, students and teachers in our public schools and universities.”
In a wide-ranging, one-on-one interview with the News-Press on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Matsuoka spoke on what seemingly has become a stalemate between Fair Education and Just Communities, another educational nonprofit organization utilized by the district.
Fair Education has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the district from working with Just Communities.
Mr. Matsuoka spoke directly about what he sees as the issue.
“(Just Communities) Executive Director Jarrod Schwartz has spoken twice now to Fair Education publicly, ‘Come see our curriculum. Come to our workshops. We’ll have a conversation with you.’ Now I’d spoke just recently with Mr. Schwartz. They have not taken him up on that yet,” said Mr. Matsuoka. “Mr. Schwartz, the district, we’re willing to come have a constructive conversation. The question to Fair Education: ‘Are you willing to come to the table and have an honest, balanced conversation about what Just Communities stands for and what we stand for?’ ”
Mr. Matsuoka understands that it has led to what feels like an argument with no resolution.
“So far, what comes to our school board meetings is the same continued criticisms from a distance without engaging, certainly with Just Communities,” said Mr. Matsuoka.
In recent years, the Santa Barbara Unified School District has launched innovative programs to boost inclusivity, but there have also been criticisms launched at the district as well.
Mr. Matsuoka became the superintendent of the district before the 2016-2017 began, and has since dealt with public outcry over Santa Barbara High’s MAD Academy, the delayed construction at Santa Barbara High’s Peabody Stadium and ongoing litigation with former San Marcos High principal Ed Behrens.
The latter came back into focus late last week when Mr. Behrens filed a lawsuit indicating that Mr. Matsuoka misled the public and school board with false information. Due to it being an active lawsuit, Mr. Matsuoka could not comment nor clarify.
He also knows that his replacement is due to deal with the lawsuits if they are not resolved over the next eight months — definitely an obstacle in a process due to start on Nov. 12, according to the district’s board president, Wendy Sims-Moten.
Mr. Matsuoka isn’t that far removed from his own process of relocating to Santa Barbara to extend his career in education — although his career plans did not always include an education administrator position.
Mr. Matsuoka graduated from North Torrance High School in 1975, attending University of California, Davis shortly thereafter. With a degree in nutrition science in hand, Mr. Matsuoka’s eyes were set on becoming a senior teaching pastor in a church.
Before pursuing that route, however, Mr. Matsuoka thought it best to gain some experience in life.
“I thought, ‘I don’t want to go straight from undergrad to seminary and be a 27-year-old kid telling people how to live their lives,” Mr. Matsuoka said.
And so, he got a teaching credential and taught for six years before starting seminary in Los Gatos. As he was pursuing his Masters of divinity degree, however, Mr. Matsuoka began doubting his career choice.
“I started questioning if being a pastor was the right fit,” said Mr. Matsuoka. After thinking it through, Mr. Matsuoka halted the train on the pastor track, but changing course from a goal that has been set for several years was not easy.
“I was pretty lost for a couple of years,” said Mr. Matsuoka.
After those couple of years, a new career path began to form, a path that was suggested to him by a friend. With that encouragement, Mr. Matsuoka embarked on his journey to attain an admin credential program.
“Twenty-three years later, here I am,” Mr. Matsuoka said.
These 23 years include several administrator positions such as assistant principal, principal and superintendent.
With retirement just around the corner, Mr. Matsuoka provided insight on a number of topics with the News-Press:
Do you and your wife Polly plan on staying in Santa Barbara as you retire?
So we will stay in Santa Barbara. This is the community in which Polly grew up. So it’s home for her, and it’s sort of home for me. I mean I married into the Millikan family, but I’ve been visiting here for 41 years. So I know it will, and I look forward to retiring a place in Santa Barbara.
Do you have plans on giving back to the education sector?
I have been reflecting on life after formal employment. I will certainly do some consulting work in education. I have obviously four decades of experience, a lot in the executive leadership role of superintendents. So some of the ideas that I think about is coaching and mentoring superintendents. I am very interested in the space of school design, both instructionally and from a facility standpoint. I want to get back to my cabinet making days, because I’m a carpenter so would love to just do some building and woodworking, get some more sleep, exercise more, but I will continue to work in the education sector. Probably at a combination of national, state and local levels. I will continue to support and invest in the education scene in Santa Barbara.
Do you see yourself coming out of retirement, either for education or higher education?
I don’t think higher ed because you really have to have a doctorate to work at that level. I think it probably is going to be more around, perhaps foundation work. Could be coaching and mentoring leaders. I’ve been spending the last decade thinking about how do we move our schools from 20th century models to 21st century models. Among the board of the Learning Accelerator, which is a national level organization thinks about blended and personalized learning. And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we need to change our educational model that’s more flexible and more personalized to what students.
Regarding education in Santa Barbara, what is currently working, and what should continue?
So what’s currently working is we have a very dedicated workforce. The majority of our workforce lives in Santa Barbara, which is atypical for a school district. It’s expensive, but the demographics, I believe, two thirds of our teachers live in Santa Barbara. What’s great about that is they put their kids in their schools. And so the sense of community is really strong. There is a level of entrepreneurs, and in Santa Barbara, that’s been incubated over a long time, our high school academies are second to none. We have some amazing academies and those need to continue. They should. I think the communities, engagement and investment in their in our schools is extraordinary. The amount of philanthropy, that comes from our local community, it’s much greater than Silicon Valley. For all its wealth in Silicon Valley they really didn’t invest local dollars whereas here there’s so many foundations that invest in our schools.
What can improve? What can be done better?
Well funding is foundational. You know I’m going to start speaking more about the financial needs…We are flat out underfunded as a public school district. Now, what I will be researching is, you know, what is the dollar amount that a public school district should receive. So there’s a lot of research about that, and I’m going to do some homework about what is that number…Money makes a big difference. So we need, we need more resources.