Petition in hand, Soquel Union Elementary School District parents confront issues of low teacher pay, high turnover

Parents and students turned out in support of the SUESD teachers ahead of a March board meeting.
Audre Nelson (right), with son Axel (left) and daughter Savannah, turned out in support of the SUESD teachers ahead of a March board meeting.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A group of about 30 parents in the Soquel Union Elementary School District has taken action — confronting longstanding funding problems in the small district. A petition with more than 600 signatures asks for a reckoning on teacher pay in a district paying among the least in Santa Cruz County.

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Brynn Kessler’s two kids, one going into third grade and the other going into sixth grade, attend Santa Cruz Gardens Elementary and New Brighton Middle schools, respectively — schools in the Soquel Union Elementary School District.

When she thinks about her youngest’s second grade teacher, Melissa Provancha, and everything Provancha did this past year to help her son feel safe returning to school after remote learning, Kessler gets emotional.

“It’s that investment in my child. She knew him. She had a whole class full of kids, and she knew every child like that. That’s worth protecting, and that’s worth supporting,” she said. “That’s worth making sure that I’m spending every hour that I can to understand what’s going on with the negotiations right now and figuring out how I can support everyone involved.”

Last fall, the Soquel Education Association, the union representing Provancha and the district’s teachers, began bargaining for a “reopener” to its contract. Negotiations are ongoing, as Lookout has reported.

Now, as the union and the district — which is seeing turnover as high as 28% a year, according to the union — begin negotiating an agreement for the academic year ahead, the teachers are getting support from parents like Brynn Kessler.

“We’re being told that there aren’t funds for the teacher pay increase, but what we’re seeing in the budget is that there is money there,” Kessler told Lookout, adding that parents’ focus has been to understand how the budget works.

In mid-May, parents began talking virtually via a Facebook group, and began with that budget study May 31, when about 30 met in person, with some tuning in via Zoom, in front of Santa Cruz Gardens Elementary.

Now those parents have taken their concerns another step. The parent group, which isn’t officially organized under a name or group, launched a petition last week to get the district to work with the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), an organization created by the state of California to help educational agencies manage finances, with the specific goal of increasing teacher pay. The petition had gained more than 600 signatures as of Friday morning.

Kelly Moore was one of the parents who attended the May 31 meeting. He has three kids in the Soquel district and teaches high school in the North Monterey County Unified School District, where he is president of the teachers’ union. He has taught there for 21 years and has experience with budgets from his years being chief negotiator for the union.

“We ended negotiations after only two sessions this year because this is the most money California has ever had,” he said. “There should be zero fighting about salaries this year.”

Moore said he and the parents fully support the SUESD school board and administration and believe they have the best intentions, but they still feel they need to ask questions.

At the May 31 meeting at Santa Cruz Gardens, he and other parents talked for about two hours about how the budget works and prepared a list of questions to bring to the school board at its regular meeting the next day. Parent Jessica Zappacosta said she felt empowered heading to the board meeting after learning more about the budget with parents the night before.

Teachers and supporters wearing red at New Brighton Middle School
Teachers and supporters wearing red were much in evidence as the Soquel Union Elementary School District board met at New Brighton Middle School in March.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The questions they asked included “Why is the amount spent on certificated salaries making up a smaller share of the budget than in previous years?” and “What do the uses of the district’s reserve include?”

“We’ve learned enough to read these numbers and understand, but then we go to the board meeting, and we just hear things like, ‘No, actually, we’re in a deficit. Oh, this $5 million over here? No,’” said Zappacosta. “It just doesn’t feel like something that they’re willing to budge about.”

Union president Gordon Barratt said the district’s offer of a 3% pay increase for the 2021-22 contract, which itself is still under negotiation along with the one for the academic year ahead, is insufficient to meet costs of living in general and rising housing prices specifically. Currently in the Soquel school district, teacher salaries range from $42,309 to $85,742. The district’s pay comes in among the lowest in the county, and, according to the union’s estimates, the district also offers the lowest benefits contribution.

SUESD Superintendent Scott Turnbull says he thinks the parents’ involvement shows how much the community values its district and educators.

“It says a lot about our community — it believes in our teachers. The parents believe in our staff, and they want what’s best for them,” he said. “And I see that as a positive.”

Turnbull said the district currently spends about 87% of its budget on salaries and benefits.

He also acknowledges that the district is the lowest-paying or among the lowest-paying districts in Santa Cruz County, and attributes the low pay to two major factors. He says declining enrollment and a lower-than-average number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch and/or are English learners, foster youth or homeless, for which California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) provides additional funding.

The district comprises about 1,700 students and more than 104 teachers among its five schools — New Brighton Middle, Soquel Elementary, Main Street Elementary, Santa Cruz Gardens Elementary and Opal Cliffs School. Over the past three years, the district’s student count fell by more than 10%, from about 1,900 to its current 1,700.

As he told Lookout in March, Turnbull said again that the district cannot afford to pay the teachers what they’re asking and at the same time remain fiscally solvent for the next three years.

“What it really comes down to is, why is our salary schedule low? Is it mismatched? Or is it something else? I would contend that it would be a major disconnect, a major problem, if we were one of the highest-funded school districts in the county, and had these salary schedules,” he told Lookout on Tuesday. “But that’s not the case. We’re the lowest-funded district in the county. Of the 10 districts in the county, we’re the lowest-funded.”

Turnbull said the district has lost teachers to schools in neighboring Santa Clara County, including Saratoga Union School District, which receives about $20,000 in funding per student to about $10,000 in the Soquel district.

Gordon Barratt, president of the Soquel Education Association
Gordon Barratt, president of the Soquel Education Association, the district’s teachers’ union, speaks during a district board meeting.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Citing confidentiality, he said wouldn’t discuss specifics of negotiations. Turnbull said he agrees that teachers and staff should be paid more, but that there isn’t enough funding.

Kessler and several parents including Jessica Zappacosta and Kelly Moore, seeing the frustration on both sides and the stalled discussions, say they want to help both the district and the union reach an agreement.

That’s why they have recommended that a knowledgeable third party review budgets and have asked the district to ask for help from the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team. FCMAT is a group established by the California Legislature in 1991 to help local educational agencies manage their finances. The Kern County Superintendent of Schools office operates the service.

Turnbull doesn’t think FCMAT’s work is relevant, saying it helps districts that are in “fiscal crisis” — if they are dealing with a negative budget, for instance.

“While I understand the desire and where parents are coming from, their services are not appropriate,” he said. “We don’t have a fiscal crisis. We have an issue that needs to be solved at the bargaining table.”

County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said if the district worked with FCMAT, his understanding is that experts would come in and help it figure out how to be more efficient with the funding it has.

“However, I really think that the actual amount that Soquel is being funded is really an issue — that $11,000 [an estimate of dollars per student from the state] is not enough for them to be able to buy the same kinds of increases to salaries as a district like [Pajaro Valley Unified School District] is able to,” he said.

To Sabbah, it is a structural problem that needs to be addressed in part by one proposal coming from legislators: calculating funds allocated to schools by enrollment instead of average daily attendance.

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He added that the current funding systems in place — which were established to address social inequities — have created other inequities in districts like Soquel. The district doesn’t have a large population of students on free or reduced lunch and/or are English learners, foster youth or homeless, for which the state provides additional funding, and therefore receives less additional funding than districts like PVUSD that have larger numbers of students in those categories.

In the meantime, Zappacosta, Kessler and other parents say they’re going to continue meeting to learn more about the budget and ways they can help the district and the union reach an agreement.

For years, they’ve seen teachers leave and heard many of them say that it’s due to low pay in the district. It’s personal for parents, too.

“These teachers aren’t just shaping our kids, they’re shaping us as parents,” said Kessler. “I’m learning how to better parent my kids from the teachers that are with them every day.”

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