Soquel Elementary School.
(Soquel Union Elementary School District)
K-12 Education

‘Difficulties and wariness’: Soquel school district’s student services director taking fire from staff

After taking a no-confidence vote in the leadership of their department’s director in January, student services staff at Soquel Union Elementary School District aired their grievances against Eric Olsen publicly this week.

The director of a Santa Cruz County school district’s student services department is taking fire from his staff, a conflict simmering for more than a year that this week erupted into the public eye.

Soquel Union Elementary School District’s Student Services Director Eric Olsen was hired to the position in July 2019. In that role he oversees the district’s special education and counseling services department, earning a base salary of $123,155, according to a copy of his most recent contract.

But the majority of his staff have internally shared a lack of confidence in his leadership, citing issues such as competence and poor treatment of employees. Those grievances were aired publicly to the district’s school board on Wednesday.

“Members of the Student Services team are once again advocating for our collective and continued concerns regarding the competence of the student services director,” stated a letter submitted to the board by Bryan Koch, program coordinator of school counseling. “All of the difficulties and wariness previously shared continue to exist unabated.” Dozens of staff members, teachers and other community commenters submitted comments endorsing the letter.

Wednesday’s public action followed the department’s staff in January taking a no-confidence vote in Olsen’s leadership — supported by 17 of 19 employees, the district’s superintendent, Scott Turnbull, acknowledged.

Koch’s letter submitted Wednesday further claims that “multiple complaints were substantiated” against Olsen under a Uniform Complaint Process, a formal written statement alleging harassment, discrimination or violation of law. Turnbull said he was aware of those complaints, but was unable to comment on their contents. He acknowledged he is also aware of complaints filed to the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment, as referenced by the letter. That department enforces state laws around employee discrimination.

While the outlines of a persistent conflict within the department are clear, many of its details are not. Olsen himself declined to comment, referring a Lookout inquiry to Turnbull.

Turnbull said he was unable to discuss Olsen’s performance or any specifics in question.

And several staff members who supported the letter said it should be left to speak for itself and declined to speak further.

But there is no doubt, Turnbull acknowledged, that staff has “expressed frustration and discontent with the management of the department.”

The complaints date back to last spring. In May 2020, Olsen’s staff wrote the school board citing “ongoing negative experiences” with Olsen’s management, including “poor treatment of employees, concerns over legalities of actions, and multiple pending infractions.”

Asked about his view of the broader issue in the department, Turnbull said the department is high stress and has had management conflicts predating Olsen’s leadership. The challenges of the pandemic have only underscored those issues, he said.

Soquel Union Elementary has an enrollment of about 1,750 students in grades K-8, serving Soquel, Capitola and nearby areas of central Santa Cruz County.

The student services employees “do the most important jobs in the district,” Turnbull said of Olsen’s department, which includes psychologists and counselors. “They work with our students and families who have the most vulnerable needs. And so their jobs are stressful to begin with.”

Turnbull said he has already taken several steps to try to address the issues in the department — and plans to hold a virtual Town Hall with its staff before the end of the academic year.

“I wish that we could have increased the level of satisfaction with management quicker, but change doesn’t happen quickly,” Turnbull said. “Change during the middle of a pandemic, especially, doesn’t happen quickly.”

Read the full letter submitted to the SUESD board below: