A Tale of Two Schools
The last couple of months have been, well, to put it mildly, a massive challenge. As a result of the Thomas Fire, some of us have been impacted by loss, many others by smoke inhalation or voluntary and mandatory evacuations, along with ensuing respiratory issues. Then, within a few days, tragedy struck again with the great “once in 200 years” rainstorm and mudslide event. Our friends and neighbors lost loved ones and their homes; some of were rescued and relocated – not once but twice – and many were faced with a massive cleanup and an uncertain future.
Think, then, how would it be if one had the responsibility for two campuses and a Montecito family of almost 700 elementary school children?That question sent me (once I sloshed out of the mud) to visit Cold Spring School superintendent Amy Alzina and superintendent Anthony Ranii of Montecito Union School District.
We met in Anthony’s MUS office, and it was a stroke of good fortune to be able to speak with them both at the same time. I was quickly informed, however, that this time with me was not their first rodeo. “I don’t know what we would have done without each other,” exclaims Ranii. Alzina nods in instant and appreciative agreement adding, “We are in two very different physical environments but have everything else in common when it comes to the responsibilities of caring for our students, their families, and our staff.”
During our conversation that day, I came to understand the deeper and infinitely complicated meaning of that statement.
As the Thomas Fire encroached upon Montecito and Santa Barbara, accompanied by 70-mile-per-hour gusts of wind, a blizzard of smoke and ash fell from the sky. “For the health and safely of our children,” Anthony recalls, “Amy and I discussed the bad air quality and the proximity of the fire, which was uncontrolled, and decided to discontinue classes, despite being in the ‘voluntary’ zone. Our schools were closed for the seven days before the two-week winter break.”
Neither Montecito Union nor Cold Spring School suffered damage from the fire itself, but ash and dust covered both campuses. “It was everywhere,” Amy recounts. “It was all over our campus, came in the windows and doors, even inside the air ducts. Massive work needed to be done before our students could return safely to school.” Both superintendents worked ceaselessly with insurance companies during the holidays to facilitate the extensive cleanup that would be necessary for the safe return of their staff and students after the break. A huge sigh of combined relief was heard after both campuses were cleared of ash, dust, and workmen.
Unfortunately, that sense of satisfaction was short-lived.
After the Break
As planned, school began after the winter break on January 2, and life seemed to return to normal. Just seven days later, however, storm clouds gathered and exceptionally dangerous weather with strong winds, thunder, and heavy rain was predicted for the area. The worst of the storm was to arrive in the dark hours of January 8. The mountains behind Montecito had been denuded by the Thomas Fire and were considered a danger, due to a potential debris flow. Although both Montecito Union and Cold Spring schools were located in the voluntary evacuation zones, the prospect of the predicted storm presented the superintendents with a dilemma: Should they hold classes on Monday or shutter their schools?
On a sunny Sunday morning, when Alzina and Ranii met, the prospect of that predicted storm seemed far, far away. The oncoming weather, though considered serious, was still not predictable as to its severity and impact.
“We knew we were in the voluntary zone, but the notification that it might be necessary ‘to move at a moment’s notice’ seemed ominous. On the other hand, perhaps the storm wouldn’t be as bad as predicted and it will have passed by morning,” Anthony recalls. “We were really in uncertain territory.”
The decision to cancel school weighed heavily upon both of them, because the well-being of almost 700 children and their families depended on them. “If the weather were less severe and passed through the area quickly, closing the school on Monday would be disruptive to the students and faculty,” Amy notes, “not to mention the parents.” She says such an action could appear to have been an overreaction. “On the other hand,” she adds, “if that storm arrived in our area with the force that was predicted, a decision to keep the school open could be disastrous.” After much thought, Amy and Anthony made a difficult, possibly questionable, call: to cancel school on Monday. Their decision turned out to be both timely and accurate; the overnight storm was far worse than anyone, including the meteorologists, could have predicted: its ferocity and the resulting calamitous flood and mudslide isolated Montecito from the rest of the world in less then a half an hour.
“In the early-morning hours of [January] ninth, I awoke to that red sky and knew something terrible had happened,” recalls Amy. Anthony relates how he had to get on social media from his home in Goleta to find out what had taken place. “I sent out Google docs to find out about all our families. Amy did the same, although she later was able to access the Cold Spring campus just a few yards outside of the evacuation zone.”
Both discovered that students, present and former, and families known to them, had lost their homes and lives in the mudslide. “That was the single worst moment for me,” Amy recounts, “when I discovered that two of our students, a kindergartner and a sixth grader, had been swept away in the mud, and a third child was in the hospital fighting for her life. It was hard for me to get my mind around that.”
Complicating matters was the closure of a mud-filled portion of Highway 101, most access roads, and the heavily guarded evacuation zones in Montecito. This presented a significant challenge for students and staff coming from the north and south. During the days that followed, plans were made for the resumption of classes. Off-site classrooms were established in locations such as the Santa Barbara Zoo, the Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation (MOXI), and Santa Barbara City College. Families south of Montecito attended Summerland Elementary School. Books and supplies were borrowed from everywhere so that off-campus classes could be as close to normal as possible.
Many services were made available as was physically possible, including County Mental Health Services and Hospice. Anthony notes, “We all worked together to make all the transitions and adjustments happen.” Amy adds, “On Martin Luther King Day, a barbecue was held for our Cold Spring families, and the next day, January sixteenth, our children returned to their classrooms.”
Looking Toward the Future
Listening to the stories of superintendents Amy Alzina and Anthony Ranii, I still find it hard to imagine what is must have been like for them during those two difficult months. I’m reminded that both are new to their positions, having only arrived in our area near the beginning of the 2017-18 school year. The decisions, planning, and caregiving – and most of all, the responsibility involved as District heads – must have been, and will continue to be, a large mandate. That chapter has yet to close, as the weather remains an uncertainly and recovery from the disaster that has befallen the Montecito community will take a very long time.
“We are constantly in communication with the Office of Emergency Management while attempting to stay ahead of the weather in our decision-making. This is a twenty-four/seven watch for the safety of our children, their families, and our staff,” Amy reminds.
Despite the difficulties that lie ahead, Montecito is most fortunate to have two such people helming our school districts. The way they handled their respective situations was beyond impressive, especially under the uncertain weather-related conditions and relatively unfamiliar territory. They were each other’s teammate, had each other’s backs, and worked together for the good of their kids, their school, and our community.
If we were looking for heroes, I’d say we turn our heads in their direction.