Listening to Santa Barbara school board member Bob Noel talk, it’s hard to believe that, at one time, the retired UCSB professor was a drag-racing aficionado, a class-cutting swing dancer and a high school dropout.
Or maybe not.
Although the 76-year-old political science expert speaks with professorial eloquence, few would deny he has a rebellious streak.
Depending on whom you ask, the seven-year board member and doctoral graduate of Northwestern University is either a staunch fighter for open governance or an intellectual bully.
Either way, for the second time in several months, he is at the center of a conflict. This time, it’s between him and his four colleagues on the board, and it has gone from tense to downright ugly.
Mr. Noel, who hasn’t decided whether he will run for re-election in November, has initiated a review by the county district attorney into the school board’s practices. He suspects that the board may have broken the law by discussing, in secret, matters that should have been discussed publicly. But what really infuriated his fellow board members — and the school’s superintendent — was his open letter to the public, saying he believes that the board may have improperly discussed, behind closed doors, politically sensitive matters such as budget cuts and school closures, to avoid controversy.
His latest actions have drawn cheers from his supporters — many of them well-heeled Montecito residents, but also advocates of disabled students — and eye rolls from detractors, such as parents at progressive schools and, most notably, the other school board members.
Joan Esposito, founder of the Santa Barbara-based Dyslexia Awareness and Resource Center, credits Mr. Noel’s vigilance and responsiveness.
“He is the only one up there who will ask questions; he doesn’t go with the status quo,” she said. “Bob is the only one that meets at my office with the parents, that responds to parents’ phone calls.”
But Eric Pedersen, a parent at the K-8 Open Alternative School — which Mr. Noel has publicly criticized — said he can be too hungry for controversy.
“My experience in watching him is that he tries to kind of ruffle things up,” he said. “I think he’s barking up the wrong tree right now.”
School board member Lynn Rodriguez said that when she was elected in 2002, she was looking forward to being part of a governance team.
“So it’s frustrating when one member of the board doesn’t want to be part of the team,” said Ms. Rodriguez. She said she is leaning toward not running for re-election in November, although she hasn’t yet decided. “That doesn’t mean we can’t have disagreements,” she added.
Even before the now-infamous meeting on April 11, local school board watchers could detect his colleagues’ anger by reading the meeting’s agenda. One item declared that Mr. Noel’s disclosure of confidential information was “unauthorized” — implying that he may have broken the state’s open meeting law himself.
This set the stage for Mr. Noel to display his gift for confrontational eloquence, and he didn’t disappoint. But this time, embedded in his flow of words was a trace of a legal threat.
“There is an item, E2, what I would consider to be an escalation of a conflict between the author of the agenda — you — and me,” he told school board President Annette Cordero. “Your escalation is an invitation for me not to roll over, but to defend myself. And then I would wonder if you had given any thought to how I might defend myself. And then I would ask even further whether you’d given any thought to the implications of a public airing of that dispute for the welfare of this district as a public body.”
Thus began a four-hour bout of pent-up handwringing: Mr. Noel felt he was being blasted for whistle-blowing; his colleagues felt wrongly accused — not only about this issue, but also on many other topics that have led to his trademark inquiries.
Three months ago, it was Mr. Noel who put a ballyhooed swimming pool project in jeopardy by questioning whether the board was spending too much voter-approved bond money on athletics at the expense of building classrooms. (The project was approved.)
On more than one occasion, his style has caused new watchers of the school board to glance at one another and mouth, “Who is that guy?”
BLUE SUEDE SHOES
Mr. Noel is a Southern California native. His father was a Hollywood still-shot photographer and Canadian immigrant; his mother, a homemaker and daughter of Scottish immigrants.
Born in Pasadena on Nov. 14, 1929, Mr. Noel spent his young years pursuing flight-of-fancy interests. In a sense, he owes his eventual path to academia and local politics to an institution he acutely disliked: the military.
Mr. Noel grew up in a lower middle-class household until his parents got divorced when he was 11. Then he lived with his mother and brother. He worked the graveyard shift at a factory to help make ends meet.
Now, although Mr. Noel isn’t exactly wealthy, he enjoys a rambling home in the Eucalyptus Hill neighborhood with sweeping views of the ocean and city. It was a one-bedroom house when he and his wife, Leila Jacobson Noel, purchased it in 1984 for $240,000.
Over the years, he and Leila, an attorney, have added several rooms, including three bedrooms — one for each of their two sons, plus a study — and a hexagonal sunroom with a glass window in the ceiling.
Mr. Noel either strongly embraces the trait of being professorial, or just happens to epitomize the word.
At meetings, he adheres to strict standards of decorum, frequently addressing, in a sonorous voice, the school board president as “Madame Chair.”
Physically, with his gray hair and eyebrows, he’s more Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan, preferring turtlenecks and cardigans to suits and ties. But politically, the registered Democrat is more Kissinger real-politick than Clinton idealism, often rallying against education reforms, which he refers to as “fuzzy math” and “fuzzy English.”
Sitting in his sunroom this week, Mr. Noel recalled his history.
“I was supposed to have graduated in 1947 — I did not,” he said. “I was very busy with cars and dancing.”
Mr. Noel owned a pair of blue suede shoes, and he traveled all over Southern California to dance the Lindy Hop at the feet of Big Bands such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman or Count Basie.
In 1946, he took second place in a Southern California roadster race; his ’32 Ford reached the now-unremarkable speed of 116 mph. “Some rich guy from San Marino took first,” he said.
Meanwhile, his studies suffered.
“My colleagues (at UCSB) once got ahold of my high school transcripts,” he said. “They had a ball with it. (One report card) had three D’s, four F’s — it was awful.”
Mr. Noel didn’t cause too much trouble, although he was suspended once for making brass knuckles in foundry class. His brother, Tom Noel, was another story. After getting kicked out of several elementary and middle schools, he wound up at a military high school, where they strapped leg irons on him to keep him from running away. It didn’t work.
“He was really bright — he had an encyclopedic mind,” Mr. Noel said. “If he had parents and teachers who knew what to do with the I.Q., who knows what he could have accomplished.”
But if there was one thing both brothers had in common, it’s that the military helped them find their talents.
Tom, who died in the early 1990s, honed his skills as an expert mechanic. Bob, who served in the Korean War, was exposed to friends with college degrees and genteel tastes, such as classical music. And in his trademark outsider way, he learned that he disliked the authoritarian culture of the military. He was behind the front lines, working as a radio operator, but the ear-popping bang of artillery blasting from the heavy guns behind his bunker woke him up every night. He said it sounded like car crashes.
“What I got out of Korea, aside from getting out alive, was a very intense dislike of war,” said Mr. Noel, who lost a friend to a land mine. Without a trace of irony, he added: “I decided to devote my life to preventing war.”
When he returned, he signed up for community college classes in Pasadena.
From then on, his academic apathy dissolved. In a few short years, he blazed through three schools — UC Riverside, Claremont Graduate School and Northwestern — winding up with a doctorate in political science. Ultimately, he was head-hunted by the chair of UCSB’s political science department. He worked there for nearly 30 years, retiring in 1994.
The genesis of his involvement with the school board can be summed up in two words: Fuzzy math.
Mr. Noel learned that his son didn’t have a math textbook at Cleveland Elementary. Instead, the school had adopted a curriculum known as “Mathland,” which was a workbook accompanied by visual tools such as plastic pie-charts.
“That led to an investigation — an inquiry — on my part,” he said.
Mr. Noel asked a UCSB math professor to come to his house and explain the concept of “Mathland” to him and a group of concerned parents.
“The more I looked into it, the more I didn’t like it.”
In what would become the first of a large body of pithily titled reports, he penned a 20-page missive: “The New New Math.” The News-Press ran a story headlined: UCSB professor gives ‘new math’ F. (The program has since been dropped.)
His second career had begun.
Mr. Noel became a gadfly. He started rounding up friends to attend board meetings. He worked as a political consultant for two like-minded potential candidates — Fred Rifkin and Bob Pohl — and helped them get elected. In 1998, he decided to run and won. In 2002, he was elected to a second term.
Compared to his current status as the board’s maverick, his first term was considerably easier. One of his proudest moments is when the board voted to overturn bilingual education, one year before the state of California did the same. Now his political allies have moved on, and the board often votes 4-1, with Mr. Noel as the lone dissenter.
“ANGRY AND RESENTFUL”
Meanwhile, his frustration has seemed to grow. Mr. Noel’s inquiries have grown more numerous and the meetings more confrontational. His frustration has been matched by that of his fellow board members.
At some points, the April 11 meeting took on the air of the Jerry Springer show, with audience members heckling and board members responding.
At one point, school board member Laura Malakoff, after being interrupted several times by a member of the audience, looked up and said, “This is a way to model for your children? That you interrupt somebody who’s speaking? . . . I find you extremely rude, I’m sorry.”
In a voice filled with anger, longtime school board member Nancy Harter read from a statement.
“I’m angry and resentful we are giving up time for this discussion when we have pressing business to discuss,” she said, “so much so that we are scheduled to meet every week from now through June. . . . I am anxious to share with the public what went on in that closed session because I wish to be vindicated.”
Despite the rancor, there remain some signs of civility on the board. After Monday night’s school board meeting, Ms. Harter, walking past Mr. Noel in a corridor, stopped to wish him well with a surgery he was to undergo two days later for diverticulitis. “By God, that’s a statesman,” he said later.
For his part, Mr. Noel insists that he has not accused anybody of anything. He has merely “raised questions,” and taken a beating for doing so.
More generally, Mr. Noel disputes that he’s simply itching for an intellectual scrap. In his view, he’s a proud outsider, a spokesman for the taxpayer who refuses to join the “Camelot club.”
“The hardest thing in the world is to keep your independence — we eat dinner together in that closed session,” he said. “It’s hard to avoid being co-opted, on a personal level. ‘We’re all in this together — team, team team.’
“My job is not to trust that organization. My job is to watch that organization.”