Quick Take:

As voters head to the polls to decide on school board candidates and school bonds, what are the concerns those in the school system — students, teachers, administrators and parents — have? We talked to more than two dozen of them.

Election 2022: Santa Cruz County

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It might seem like a distant memory, but even more than the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Santa Cruz County schools already had plenty of issues on their plates before the spring of 2020.

Now, more than two years later, administrators, teachers, parents — and those serving on, and running for, school boards — still deal with the lingering effects of the on-and-off shutdowns.

As voters go to the polls Nov. 8, they’ll see school board candidates and bond measures. To help inform voters, Lookout offers a three-part series. This first installment takes a look at the big picture — the kinds of issues that are in front of all in education.

These are the kinds of issues we cover throughout the year and think are particularly useful to consider as we move on to the second and third parts of this series, “Recovery and Equity in Schools.” In Part 2, we’ll hear the views for contested seats on school boards, on these and other issues. In Part 3, we’ll look at the three school bond measures in front of city of Santa Cruz and San Lorenzo Valley voters, again with these issues in mind.

To focus our questions, Lookout reached out to more than two dozen students, staff, teachers and administrators to add to our understanding of what’s most pressing in local education. We appreciate their views and perspectives. We’ve centered this discussion on five issues, for school election candidates and issues. These are the top issues in education they say they hope school board candidates will prioritize:

  • Teacher retention/teacher and staff pay
  • Mental health resources
  • Learning recovery
  • Declining enrollment
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion

Teacher retention and staff pay

Teacher retention and adequate pay for all school staff rose to the top of the list, likely the most important and most-cited issue in education.

Although there appeared to be fewer vacancies across the county this year compared to last year, school districts are still struggling to fill positions. Substitutes, special education teachers and instructional aides were among some of the positions that were particularly difficult, County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah told Lookout at the start of the school year.

Sabbah, teachers and administrators point to several factors: the cost of living in Santa Cruz County, burnout in the profession and people leaving for jobs in higher-paying districts.

“With the additional funding that has been coming down from the state for schools, I think there have been some increases in the negotiated compensations for staff across the county,” he said in August. “I think that education, like many industries, is having a tough time hiring right now. It’s similar to the patterns we’re seeing in other industries as well.”

The Soquel Union Elementary School District (SUESD) had drawn-out negotiations that concluded in August with the teachers union earning a 15% raise. In March, teachers in the district argued that low pay contributed to a 28% turnover rate during the prior academic year.

Last academic year, a credentialed teacher at the bottom of the pay scale earned $42,309 in the Soquel district compared to a starting salary of $51,037 in neighboring Live Oak School District.

While Soquel teachers earned a historic raise and there appear to be fewer vacancies this year, there are still challenges across the county. For instance, as the 2022-23 school year started, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) had 24 vacancies.

Community members turned out in support of Soquel Unified Elementary School District teachers in March.
Community members turned out in support of Soquel Unified Elementary School District teachers in March. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

As recently as last Wednesday, during the PVUSD school board meeting, bus drivers and teachers told board trustees that they’re reaching breaking points. They cited the high cost of living, low pay and the pressures of working extra hours or losing prep time to cover for the unfilled positions.

“This is the second-most-expensive region to live in, so the wages need to be commensurate with the cost of living in this region and not having to work a second or third job,” said Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers President Nelly Vaquera-Boggs.

Pajaro Valley High School senior Karla Leyva said she is very concerned about teachers and staff in her district as they manage stressful jobs with low pay.

“I genuinely saw my teachers lose their minds at the end of the year,” she said. “People forget that when teachers are unhappy, they unfortunately spill all their emotions (usually angry ones) onto their students and give us a rough time.”

Mental health resources

The California Healthy Kids Survey asks students in Santa Cruz County a range of questions to measure their mental health. One question — “In the past 12 months, did you ever feel so sad or hopeless almost every day?” — produced alarming results in 2021.

The survey showed an increase in students reporting depression between 2019 and 2021. In 2019, 46% of students who responded to the survey reported chronic depression feelings; in 2021, that figure was 55%.

Broken down by gender identity and sexual orientation, in 2019, 28% of non-LGBT students reported chronic depression feelings compared to 39% in 2021. For LGBT students, 64% reported chronic depression feelings in 2019 compared to 71% in 2021.

Between 2015 and 2021, 32% of students taking the Healthy Kids survey in Santa Cruz County responded that they had felt chronic depression in the previous 12 months. When disaggregated by gender identity and sexual orientation, the results are concerning: 66% of students who identified as LGBT (78% for transgender) reported such feelings.

As Lookout reached out to sources, students often mentioned difficulty in accessing counselors.

Lynda Otero, a senior at Soquel High School, said that “oftentimes meeting with emotional support counselors is by invite, but it should be opened up to more students.” She added that the general health curriculum needs to include nonstigmatized mental health education.

A mental health counselor in PVUSD, Daisy Nuñez, also commented on the need for more counselors, noting that while the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to one counselor, most counselors in the district have a caseload of about 400 students.

Learning recovery after the pandemic

Educators, administrators and parents have seen how the pandemic affected learning for students — starting in spring of 2020, when schools were entirely unprepared for remote learning, and continuing today, when the pandemic’s lingering effects continue to take a toll on students.

Sabbah said Santa Cruz County is no different from the rest of the country, and learning loss is a major challenge. It has been particularly concerning among students from historically marginalized groups.

One national assessment found that average reading scores for age 9 students declined by five points between 2020 and 2022. In math, average math scores dropped seven points. The National Center for Education Statistics, the organization that did the assessments, said this was the largest average score decline for reading since 1990 and the first score decline for math on record.

In California, testing done by the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CASPP) was paused due to the pandemic for the 2019-20 year. Because testing was done inconsistently across schools in 2020-21, using the results to make assessments or comparisons is challenging.

CASPP did report academic progress for students during the 2020-21 school year, but at a slower rate than prior years.

Data for the 2021-22 school year isn’t available yet, but Sabbah said educators expect achievement gaps to worsen and continued slow progress for students generally.

Over the past year, school districts across the county have invested in tutors and after-school programs to give students more opportunities to recover.

SUESD Superintendent Scott Turnbull said one of the most important issues facing school board decision-makers is how to optimize the Expanded Learning Opportunities grant to address student learning loss.

Declining enrollment

The County Office of Education estimates that enrollment in the county’s public schools will decline by about 20% in the next five to seven years. Funding for schools is based on average daily attendance and enrollment.

“If we lost 20% of our funding in seven years, that would be devastating,” said Sabbah.

Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah
Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Of the county’s estimated 44,113 K-12 students, 72.6% are in public schools, 11.3% are in private schools and 16.1% are in charter schools. During an average year, about 3,000 high school seniors leave and about 3,000 kindergarteners enter schools.

Superintendents, students and administrators mentioned this is a major concern for their districts.

Pacific Elementary School District Superintendent Eric Gross said for his elementary school — located in the small town of Davenport — it is particularly difficult to attract students when enrollment is declining across the county and state.

SUESD’s Turnbull linked enrollment to budget challenges: “offering competitive salaries for all staff despite declining revenues due to declining enrollment.”

To address this challenge, school board members have a range of options. They could work with the state legislature on creating a new funding formula, approve marketing campaigns or push for passing school bonds or tax increases.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

In addition to the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 had far-reaching effects that brought issues of diversity, equity and inclusion to the forefront for institutions across the United States.

In particular, schools began to take more direct approaches to intentionally serving historically marginalized groups including LGBTQIA+ students and students who identify as Black, Indigenous or Latinx.

For example, in summer 2020, the PVUSD school board voted to remove school resource officers amid protests against systemic racism and police brutality. Although the decision was reversed in September 2021, the vote to remove officers was largely made in light of studies showing that having officers on campus disproportionately affects students of color.

Despite the reversal, the district is monitoring the impact of the new SRO program on all students and conducting surveys to ensure it won’t adversely and disproportionately impact students of color.

In the Scotts Valley Unified School District, the school board hired a consultant to assess the state of equity in its schools and has increased diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training and launched a youth-led suicide prevention program, among its many initiatives.

Educators, students and administrators say there’s still a lot of work to do.

For example, Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers head Vaquera-Boggs emphasized that recruiting a diverse pool of staff and teachers must be made a priority.

Gordon Barratt, a teacher at SUESD’s New Brighton Middle School, said promotion of equity at all levels of a school district is a priority for decision makers to consider.

Soquel High seniors Lynda Otero and Caitlyn Hankes also cited equity issues.

Otero said it’s essential that input from students, particularly input from race and equity student groups, is included in decision-making “so that students feel that change is being made.”

Cece Pinheiro, executive director of Special Parents Information Network (SPIN), a nonprofit providing support to families with children with special needs, said that DEI issues must be made a top priority “as many of the other issues [like mental health] can be resolved by working on that.”

Cabrillo College

Cabrillo College faces many of the same challenges K-12 schools are experiencing.

Cabrillo College President Matt Wetstein, in a recent meeting, said employee and student housing is a crucial need, among other challenges such as declining enrollment and equity issues.

During the meeting with local elected officials and education leaders, he outlined a major proposal to house 300 Cabrillo students and 300 UC Santa Cruz students. He also provided an update on the work of a committee exploring the possibility of changing the name of the college.

“I think in terms of prioritization, our college, in our internal conversations, said students are the first priority,” he said earlier this month. “If we can make any [housing] project happen, it should be for the students first.”

Cabrillo College student trustee Deviné Hardy said housing is possibly the biggest issue.

“That’s what every student is concerned with right now,” she said. “The housing situation is very real here — and transportation, basic needs.”

Cabrillo College student trustee Deviné Hardy.
Cabrillo College student trustee Deviné Hardy. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Since the start of the school year, Cabrillo’s basic needs center has been “overwhelmed” with 68 basic needs referrals — many related to housing — according to a Student Services report to the board of trustees.

Staff members say they feel similar pressures.

Tobin Keller, a Cabrillo art instructor and president of the Cabrillo College Federation of Teachers, said affordable housing is a major concern for faculty.

“Faculty compensation that is reflective of cost of living in Santa Cruz County,” he said. “Cabrillo ranks in the bottom third of compensation according to the California Federation of Teachers salary study of the 72 community college districts.”

He added this is directly related to retention as Cabrillo’s salary struggles to compete with higher-paying colleges.

After three years of reporting on public safety in Iowa, Hillary joins Lookout Santa Cruz with a curious eye toward the county’s education beat. At the Iowa City Press-Citizen, she focused on how local...