Affordability, teacher housing, student well-being: Superintendent outlines county’s top challenges

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

As schools welcomed students back to classrooms this past week, education leaders, including Santa Cruz County Superintendent Faris Sabbah, are ready to focus on student well-being, workforce housing solutions and funding. Local education faces the same issues as all employers — and increasing worries about a “fiscal cliff” even amid this year’s unprecedented state allocations.

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The first days of this school year in Santa Cruz County are markedly different from last year.

A Q&A with Santa Cruz County schools superintendent Faris Sabbah

To start, students aren’t required to wear masks, and a larger percentage of youth are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Despite the differences, the pandemic’s enormous impacts are here to stay.

Much like last year, however, many staff, parents and students are grateful to be back at school in person. County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah, who heads the County Office of Education, said the community is looking forward to what appears to be a year with less of a focus on COVID-19 measures.

“We’re seeing a lot of real positive energy, a lot of excitement from both students and staff and parents,” he told Lookout last week. “I think people are really excited about coming together again.”

In an interview about the start of the school year, he talked about initiatives and challenges concerning mental health, affordability and teacher vacancies.

With students’ mental health issues exacerbated by the pandemic, Sabbah and other education leaders are looking for the most efficient ways to ensure students are getting the help they need in a timely manner. One of the solutions the County Office of Education is advancing: adding wellness centers on all high school campuses. While some campuses have created such centers — where students can receive professional therapeutic services on the spot — others are still working on them. The goal: for all public high schools to have one.

Sabbah also addressed a big upcoming question for the public education system: funding. As persistent enrollment declines are forecast to be a new reality, enrollment-based funding is giving administrators at every level a new headache.

“That’s something where we have a lot of concern about,” he said, “and it could impact our ability to sustain many of the efforts that we’re putting in place today for our students.”

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: How are you feeling about the start of the school year this year?

Faris Sabbah: We’re seeing a lot of real positive energy, a lot of excitement from both students and staff and parents. I think people are really excited about coming together again. A lot of the COVID issues — with the systems are really in place — seem to be taking more of a back seat, and we’re able to focus more on the exciting aspects of being in school: being together, learning together and coming together as a community. We’re seeing that our numbers are good — we have good numbers of students in attendance, which I think is a real positive thing. It’s just a really good start of the school year.

Lookout: In terms of filling vacancies, school districts appear to be faring better this year. What are you hearing from districts and where are there still vacancies?

Sabbah: We checked in with most of our school districts, and we still have some openings, both in teacher positions and in classified positions. But I think that the school districts have been working really hard to do as much hiring as possible over the last few months. There’s still vacancies: We still need subs, we still need special ed teachers, we still need math teachers. I think that the hard work of the schools to recruit as many people as possible has been paying off. I think we’re in a better place. Having enough subs is always something that we look for because of the pandemic. Because in many times the pandemic impacts who is able to, or who has to, isolate. So having enough subs to cover those vacancies when they occur is also important. One of the bigger areas where we’re having a recruitment challenge, for example, is in some of our classified positions, like instructional aides. For example, for special education, instructional aides, that’s been one of the areas we’ve been having a tough time hiring as well.

I think it’s due to a variety of factors. We’re always concerned about the cost of living in Santa Cruz County. I think it has a deep effect on our ability to hire in general. I think that the schools have been working with their bargaining units to the best of their abilities to be able to negotiate the best compensation package they can offer. 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. 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.

Lookout: School districts and the COE have been trying to address the issue of affordability and housing for years. What are some of the major projects in place and in the works?

Sabbah: Landed is an organization that the [COE has] been partnering with for about five years. They’re an organization that helps with the down payment of purchasing a house. If you’re an educator in Santa Cruz County, and you sign up with them, they help provide you with 50% of your down payment. Their agreement is that they get half of the equity that you can get from the house that you purchase. It’s a great way for folks who don’t have enough money to put their money down to be able to acquire a house. That’s one of the things that we’ve been working with and trying to encourage people who can use that extra help to be able to get money down to be able to buy a house. The other piece, which I think is really exciting, is the school districts that have land have been looking at different opportunities for them to build workforce housing on their own property. Santa Cruz City Schools, Live Oak and Pajaro Valley Unified are looking into it. These are long-term solutions, of course, because it’s going to take time to be able to secure funding to be able to get permissions and and get authorization to build and then to actually build a property. But we see that as absolutely something necessary to do. That, in conjunction with local city and county efforts to build affordable housing, is the only way we’re going to be able to get access for families who work in education to have access to housing.

[Locally, just under 900 educators have signed up to be part of the Landed program, and since 2017 a total of 40 homebuyers have successfully purchased a home.]

Lookout: While this is the second in-person school year since students had remote instruction, many of the social and emotional challenges that students started the previous school year with remain, and are worse in some cases. Can you talk about what you’re hearing about student mental health?

Sabbah: There’s lots of data that shows that students have been having a very tough time over the last few years. We’ve seen the higher incidence of anxiety and depression, social isolation, suicidal ideation. We’ve seen an increase in students who are experiencing eating disorders — just in a lot of different places we are seeing that students are really struggling. We’re looking at our data from the California Healthy Kids Survey data, and we were seeing that this trend was already increasing over time. But really, the pandemic has exacerbated this — the mental health challenges of students. It is also important to note that there’s an equity dimension to this, where students who come from historically marginalized communities are having an even harder time than their peers. It’s impacting all our students, especially our students of color, and students who come from historically marginalized communities or LGBTQ students, students of poverty. We feel we have a responsibility to address, to increase services and really do everything we can to provide support to students who are in crisis or otherwise in need of therapeutic support.

Lookout: What are some of the initiatives that schools and the COE have taken up to address student mental health?

Sabbah: We’re continuing our effort to try to create more opportunities and access for students for mental health services. One of those efforts is to encourage districts to establish wellness centers on school campuses. We’ve brought in a coordinator of wellness and school climate who has a background in overseeing wellness centers at the Salinas Union High School District. We’re putting together a roadmap for the development of wellness centers, that gives you a breakdown of the kind of the components and designs for what would go into building one — it will be ready at the end of the month. It’s not quite ready to share at this point. We are working right now with Santa Cruz City Schools and Scotts Valley on the possibilities of establishing wellness centers there. We’re hoping that we can launch those by the end of the school year so students could access them in fall of 2024.

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

Being able to provide therapeutic services for students is kind of complicated, especially with the challenge for students who qualify for Medi-Cal — or if they don’t qualify for Medi-Cal, it’s a little bit more challenging. Creating a sustainable model so that all students have access to those services is something that we’re working on. We also received a $5 million grant that we call the Companion Project, which is a team of folks that are there to help parents navigate the [mental health care] system so that we don’t put it on the parents to have to try to search for needed services. For students, the team has helped to essentially case manage the students and provide support for students to be able to connect with a therapist that is able to support them and get them the services they need, especially for students with higher acuity needs and students in crisis.

If we’re able to, the goal would be to have a wellness center in every high school in the county. If we’re able to create a sustainable system to be able to fund these wellness centers, we would want to have them in as many locations as possible because we want to shorten the distance between the needs the students have and the services they can get. We want them to be able to walk into these wellness centers and get served right there on the spot.

Lookout: Speaking of funding: This year, the state allocated a historic amount of funding to the education system. Are you hearing from people any concerns about what funding might look like the next year, and the following years, after receiving such a historic boost in funding this year?

Sabbah: We’re very concerned. The way that the California Local Control Funding Formula is designed, we get our funding based on an amount of tax revenue that the state is able to collect. It is anticipated that the amount that is going to be collected this year that will give us our funding for next year is going to be deeply impacted. That means our funding is going to be impacted. In addition, we are losing a lot of students in terms of our ongoing projections of enrollment. We’re seeing we’ve lost about 10% of our student population over the last three years. And we anticipate another 10% to 20% [loss] over the next five years — that’s coming from Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team [a state entity]. That combination of losing enrollment to students, which impacts our average daily attendance, which is how we get funded, plus the reduction in state revenue, could represent what many refer to as a fiscal cliff for schools, which could represent a huge reduction in funding of schools. Now, the state has incorporated a mechanism where they look at a three-year average for attendance. That will slow down the reduction, so it won’t be as abrupt as it could be if it was done year to year. But what that does is, it just slows down that drop. If our enrollment continues to be reduced, and tax revenues are going to be significantly lower than this year’s, the combination of this is going to mean significantly less funding for schools starting next year. That’s something where we have a lot of concern about and it could impact our ability to sustain many of the efforts that we’re putting in place today for our students.