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Ketta Brown: A long run with Laguna’s schools comes to an end

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Ketta Brown, LBUSD School Board member, has just four meetings left before her term expires. Choosing not to seek re-election after 12 years of what she says is “the best job (she) ever had” is bittersweet. However, after countless hours of dedication to Laguna schools and other local nonprofits, starting with Laguna Presbyterian Preschool, the Friendship Shelter, Top of the World Elementary then Thurston and LBHS, it’s understandable why, with her three kids now out of the house, the time has finally come for her to step back. 

Jeb’s schedule finally comes first

Brown says she decided not to run for re-election because after so many years of being beholden to the school calendar, it was time to put her husband Jeb’s schedule first. Jeb is a doctor and, “All of his partners are younger with younger kids so he gets last dibs on vacations,” Brown explains. 

With no kids tying them to the school calendar, the only constraint was Brown’s school board duties. “If I do something I need to be 100 percent invested. I can’t miss meetings without being wracked with guilt,” she explains. The only workable solution for her was to step away.

Running for School Board to right a perceived wrong

The decision was not an easy one because of Brown’s deep connection to the schools. “What these administrators and teachers and everyone involved does…it matters. And they matter. It has been such a gift to be able to participate,” she says. These warm feelings were not, however, what motivated her to run for School Board originally.

ketta brown close up

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Ketta Brown, four-term LBUSD Board member, retires this year

“The school board happened because I thought they treated Nancy Blade abominably,” Brown explains with her usual candor. Nancy Blade was the principal at Top of the World Elementary, then Laguna Beach High School before resigning in 2006. “I thought she had been treated horribly, and I was angry. You can disagree with someone but you can’t treat people like that.” Brown was elected to the School Board in 2006.

Change comes, just not immediately

Being front and center is not Brown’s preferred location. “I’m a great back office worker,” she says. “But when you feel you must step into the breach then you have to do it. I felt like it was one of those times.” Once elected, Brown says there was a “steep learning curve.” One of the things she learned was that, while change was definitely possible, it was not instantaneous. “You are one of five people,” she says simply. 

School board members are tasked with setting the direction of the school district. It is an important job and one Brown, and the other members, take very seriously. Passions can run high. Just ask parents their thoughts on the proposed school year calendar change and you’ll see what I mean.

Keeping things in perspective

After 12 years, Brown says she can still be surprised by how impassioned some people get about certain things. She likes to run through her rhetorical checklist in order to keep things in perspective: “Did anyone die? Did anyone’s house burn down?” Sadly, Brown has endured both of these tragedies so she comes to her perspective the hardest way possible. 

ketta brown TOW

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Top of the World Elementary School, where Ketta Brown dedicated many of her years with the PTA and taught a cooking class

However, this is not to imply that she fails to see the importance or gravity of the Board’s decisions. Her perspective simply gives her a framework for approaching things. Because the issues she and the Board must contend with do not rise to the level of life’s most horrible tragedies, they can and should be dealt with some composure, she feels. However, when things get personal or slide away from polite discourse, Brown is equipped to handle it. “I’m bulletproof,” she says. 

Midwestern roots paved the way to a long road of civic duty

Brown’s dedication to Laguna started just about when she and Jeb moved here in 1990. Both are from the Midwest and when they arrived in Orange County it was Brown’s job to find the place they wanted to settle. “We looked at Irvine and I thought, ‘I’ll die here.’ Newport…not happening, then we looked here and I felt like I just couldn’t live anywhere else.” In the small town where she grew up getting involved was just something that was expected of you. “You had a civic duty to become involved. It was ingrained,” she says.

She even cooked with the kids

Not only did Brown become deeply entrenched in the local PTA, she also ran an after school cooking class at Top of the World for nine years. “It was so much fun!” she enthuses. “We did everything. We’d cook fish and the parents would ask me ‘How did you ever get them to eat that?!’”

Committed to the idea of public education

Whatever her role, Brown has a deep, emotional connection to Laguna schools. “When I got elected I realized that public education is the greatest opportunity that most people will ever have. It deserves the same attention as other things, like public finance.” And so she very much appreciates when the community is engaged in what the schools are doing.

Trying to be creative in a tight box

Nevertheless, there are some things she wishes the general public was aware of. “We are very constrained by federal regulations and the education code. We have a very small box in which we can maneuver. We’d love to invent our own car, but we can’t. The best we can do is maybe choose the upholstery and whether or not there’s a sunroof,” she explains. 

Size matters

Laguna’s small size, while a plus in so many ways, can also be a hindrance in terms of programs that can be offered. “It’s subtraction by addition,” she says. “We’d love to add every AP class offered, but we just can’t.” So, it’s not necessarily that school leaders are ignoring the great ideas people send them; many times it’s simply a matter of not having the bodies to fill the classes that these great ideas would take place in.

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Ketta Brown at one of her happy places, TOW Elementary

However, Laguna schools are not in a position to complain. “We are well-funded. We can do things like add a social/emotional program where we have counselors at every school. That’s unheard of. We heard parents’ concerns and we were able to create a top notch structure built around measurable outcomes,” she explains proudly.

Finally, educating the “whole child”

In her twelve years on the Board, Brown says one of the things she’s proudest of is the district’s commitment to educating the “whole child.” “We always talk about the ‘whole child,’” she says. “I felt that we gave that idea lip service, honestly, but now I feel like we’re walking the talk. We have a great administration team, incredible teachers at all levels…I can say that with complete candor, and I don’t know any other districts that can say that.”

Laguna really is different

Brown is fiercely loyal to the people she works with. “I am with them 100 percent. The schools in this town are my family. People should treat my family well,” she says smiling. And for the most part, they do, which is why she and her family came to Laguna in the first place.

“If you choose to live here and you feel like you can breathe, those are the people who stay. It’s a feeling of community. I do think Laguna is different. Maybe it’s what’s in the water. There is an importance placed on character,” says Brown. She lists the programs each school has in place to foster good character and kindness. “We are trying to raise socially conscious, socially aware kids,” she says. 

She is also an advocate for letting kids make mistakes. “Everybody has to make a bad choice sometime,” she says. “Did you learn something? Then that’s ok. Life is lived one way: forward.” For Brown, “forward” means taking a step back from the schools she has dedicated herself to for so many years – and being able to take a vacation whenever she wants.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut is our Chief Photographer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists. Scott Brashier is our photographer.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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