COVID, mental health and security challenges: School superintendent Faris Sabbah reflects and looks ahead to next four years

Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah
Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah will get a second four-year term leading the Santa Cruz County Office of Education after winning an unopposed election Tuesday. COVID-19 threw him a curveball, and now school security and generational funding challenges mean anything but education business as usual.

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Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said he was relieved to find out earlier this year that he was going to run unopposed in this year’s election.

A Q&A with county schools superintendent Faris Sabbah

As the superintendent of schools in the county, Sabbah already had plenty of work to do and not having to consider facing an opponent during the election gave him some space to focus on pressing issues at schools such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s transitional kindergarten expansion, enrollment decline and student mental health.

“If you ask me why I believe that folks didn’t run for the position or consider it, I’m hoping that that’s a sign that people are supportive and feel like the leadership and all the work that we’re doing is having a positive impact,” he told Lookout on Wednesday. “And that they want us to continue this important work.”

With 25 years of experience in roles in education, from deputy county superintendent to teacher and instructional aide, there isn’t much that Sabbah hasn’t seen.

However, with the lingering impacts of the pandemic, continuing equity challenges and a declining student population, Sabbah has a full plate.

He tells Lookout he can’t imagine doing anything else.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Lookout: Looking back on your first four years, what stands out to you?

Faris Sabbah: I often joke that the job description that I applied for was very different from the job that I needed to carry out over the last three years. Because a year into the position, COVID became front and center in education. There was a big need for the county office to be able to provide support and enter the role of being a kind of intermediary with the California Department of Public Health. Really being the facilitator and doing everything we can to provide guidance and support for schools, helping them understand the rules from the state level. One of the positive things that came from our response to COVID-19 was all the networks and collaborations that have taken place.

This crisis really brought us together as a community. The kind of work that has come about between all the school districts and the county office, all the nonprofits coming together, and thinking about how we can pull resources together.

And thinking about how we make sure that we are applying our equity lens, too, so that the students and families that come from historically marginalized groups are being supported as much as possible, and how we are addressing the mental health issues and all of the secondary impacts of the pandemic. One of the things that I feel proud of as an organization is that we were true to our word as advocates for equity and supporting our families.

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Lookout: How is the county responding to these growing mental health needs of students?

Sabbah: We have an ongoing crisis that we need to address. We’re looking forward to creating a more systematic, robust, comprehensive approach to mental health services. The vision is to be able to have any child, any student, be able to have access to resources regardless of their background, regardless of the kind of insurance they have, to be able to get therapeutic support that is appropriate to their level of need quickly, without any delay.

What we’re working on creating wellness centers across the county that would be able to offer a system of support. For example, where a student could walk in, get screened and then be able to start getting therapeutic support immediately, including Tier 3 support which would be stabilization, high-acuity needs support for students who are in crisis. That’s one of the things that I think is a high priority for us. We’ve also been doing a lot of great work in school safety, and the tragedy in Texas was just a reminder that with those systems, we need to continue the work that we’ve been doing.

Lookout: Schools across California face declining enrollment. First, what is the data showing? Second, how big an impact is that having or going to have on our school funding and how are administrators working with legislators to adjust funding formulas?

Sabbah: We’re seeing these dramatic reductions that are going to lead to significant drops. Currently, we have 3,526 12th graders; in the current 11th graders there are 3,144. So there’s these dramatic drops that we’re seeing, and it’s something that’s happening across California. But in Santa Cruz County, and in a few other counties, the drops look like they’re happening at a much higher rate. And so we’re anticipating in the next four or five years a 10% drop in enrollment for students.

It’s something that is of great concern that, in possibly seven years, there will be an additional 10% drop. We were predicting before the pandemic a 10-year drop of 20%. But now that seems to be shortened down, and it looks like it’s going to happen in seven years.

Schools are funded based on the local control funding formula; it’s all about average daily attendance. And so whether you have lots of people enrolled or not, it doesn’t really matter. It’s how many students are in their seats and participate.

It’s not only a Santa Cruz County issue, it’s a statewide issue. We have been working with our representatives from the legislature, like state Sen. John Laird, Assemblymembers Rob Rivas and Mark Stone, and asking them to continue to advocate for us. One of the things that is being included in the budget discussions is to look at enrollment instead of attendance for funding.

Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: With the horrific spate of school shootings, what should parents know about the safety of their kids in our schools?

Sabbah: Since I started here at the county, we’ve had a school safety partnership with law enforcement and all the districts working on threat assessment plans.

We provide training and also tools to be able to address a variety of different threats. And we’re going to continue that. We’ve launched an incident command system academy that is going to be starting up.

We’re going to have a review of our protocols and training to make sure that we are up to date and that we have the best current information about systems and protocols for school safety.

That’s going to continue next year with ongoing training with law enforcement and not only to address the active shooter scenario, but also other other threats like fires and earthquakes and other threats that we have to be prepared for. The chances of something like that happening are always something that we think about and worry about and just want to make sure that we have put resources, training systems and protocols in place to be able to respond effectively to be as prepared as we can.

Lookout: Sounds like there’s another big term ahead of you. How long do you foresee being in this role as County Superintendent of Schools?

Sabbah: Oh, well, you know, it’s up to the voters, I guess. I’m looking forward to another term, and I think that there’s always a benefit for continuity, and there’s also always a benefit for change. I’m really excited about the next four years. I recognize some of these huge challenges that we’re facing as a society and as a community and I think this space is one where we can have the biggest leverage. That’s why I want to continue doing what I’m doing. I love it. I can’t think of doing anything else.

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