Pajaro Valley Unified School District candidates on diversity, pandemic learning loss and teacher housing

Aptos High School.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Sixteen candidates are running for nine seats in five school districts across Santa Cruz County. Lookout sent questionnaires to all of them asking about the most pressing issues facing their schools. Here, we take a look at the Pajaro Valley Unified School District.

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Ahead of the Nov. 8 election, Lookout is diving deep into school district races around Santa Cruz County with a three-part series exploring the biggest issues in education, school board candidates and bond measures.

This week, we launched the second installment: school board candidates. (You can find Part 3, an analysis of Santa Cruz City Schools’ ballot measure K and L, here.) Here we look at the Pajaro Valley Unified School District.

The district has two contested seats. Voters in Trustee Area 1 will elect either the incumbent, Kimberly De Serpa, or landscape designer Natalain Schwartz. In Trustee Area 5, incumbent Jennifer Schacher and Olivia Flores, chief financial officer of a construction company, are competing.

Students, parents and administrators previously told Lookout that their top issues are teacher pay and retention, equity, mental health, declining enrollment and learning loss from the pandemic.

We asked the candidates how they would approach each issue. Here are the highlights from their answers. Their full responses, edited for length and clarity, are also included below:

1. Increasing teacher pay

Takeaways from Area 1: Both candidates support increasing teacher compensation, but Schwartz’s plans are more extensive. Schwartz wants to increase teacher wages, offer teachers stipends or low-cost loans for housing, and introduce less extensive health care coverage for younger teachers to free up district funds. De Serpa said supports offering teachers one-time bonuses and leveraging the district’s new grant writer to bring more money to PVUSD.

Takeaways from Area 5: Both Schacher and Flores mark teacher compensation as a top issue — and support increasing pay scales across the board — but Schacher also mentioned introducing affordable housing and day care programs for teachers as means of attracting and retaining talent.

2. Addressing student mental health challenges

Takeaways from Area 1: De Serpa, a licensed clinical social worker, said student health and wellness is a “top priority” for her, pointing to her past support for the expansion of Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance, a nonprofit that provides mental health services to children and their families. Schwartz said she lacked enough information to comment on the adequacy of PVUSD’s mental health resources, but said she’s heard from students that there are long waits to see mental health professionals. Some, she said, are uncomfortable sharing their problems with school counselors.

Takeaways from Area 5: Schacher and Flores have different strategies for tackling student enrollment declines. Schacher said the district should bolster extracurricular activities and introduce more dual-language programs to attract families, while also naming affordability as a big driver of enrollment drops — saying PVUSD should provide families with affordable housing opportunities.

3. Closing the student achievement gap that widened during the pandemic

Takeaways from Area 1: De Serpa and Schwartz not only disagree on how much of a threat the achievement gap poses to PVUSD students, but also about the extent to which it’s a problem in PVUSD at all. De Serpa pointed to metrics, like literacy rates, where PVUSD students have either remained stable or improved since the beginning of the pandemic. She said PVUSD was “one of few districts, state and nationwide, that had very little learning loss identified.”

Schwartz said learning loss in Santa Cruz county has been “significant,” and wants to increase teacher pay, divert resources toward STEM learning and restore pre-pandemic graduation requirements to help students catch up.

Takeaways from Area 5: Both Schacher and Flores separated the issue of student achievement from the pandemic, but for different reasons.

Schacher said test scores in PVUSD have rebounded to 2019 levels, commending the district for using one-time funds toward increasing academic resources. She added, though, that ongoing funds could be spent on hiring more school counselors and classroom aides.

Flores said PVUSD students’ issues predate the pandemic, and that teachers should encourage parents to provide a supportive learning environment for their children at home. She also said that lowering grading standards was a temporary, pandemic-era fix that should be done away with in the long term.

4. Reversing declining student enrollment

Takeaways from Area 1: Both candidates agreed that declining student enrollment is a problem in PVUSD, but neither spoke to what they think the root cause of this issue is. De Serpa said housing build plans in Watsonville along with PVUSD’s current roster of extracurriculars will help attract families to the area, while Schwartz said the district should focus on school safety and the quality of their academics — and added that the district should investigate why students and families are leaving.

Takeaways from Area 5: Schacher and Flores have different strategies for tackling student enrollment declines. Schacher said the district should bolster extracurricular activities and introduce more dual-language programs to attract families, while also naming affordability as a big driver of enrollment drops — saying PVUSD should provide families with affordable housing opportunities.

5. Tackling equity and inclusion issues

Takeaways from Area 1: Both candidates pointed toward strides the district has taken to make its schools more inclusive to LGBTQ+ students. Schwartz said that on a classroom level, teachers should encourage students “to be friends with each other,” saying this could help address some mental health concerns.

Takeaways from Area 5: Both candidates said PVUSD has put effort into making its schools more diverse and inclusive, with Schacher pointing toward the district’s yearly equity audits as an existing check. As for solutions, Schacher mentioned expanding vocational training and career technical education (CTE) programs as potential avenues for improving equitability. Flores pointed to the inequities between schools in PVUSD, saying that there is work to be done in bringing each school to parity.

6. Discussing other issues that concern them

Takeaways from Area 1: De Serpa highlighted the increasing politicization of school boards, mentioning book bans and other culture-war issues. Schwartz said school safety is her top priority, and voiced her support for maintaining school resource officers (SROs) on campuses.

Takeaways from Area 5: Schacher focused on school funding, saying that new state legislation needs to base funding on enrollment, not attendance. New funds should be spent on increasing teacher pay, she said. Flores, on the other hand, named school safety as a concern.

Full questions and answers are below (edited for length and clarity):

Question: How important is it to your district to pay teachers and staff competitive salaries compared to other higher-paying districts? How would you propose increasing pay? If not, why not?

Trustee Area 1

Kimberly De Serpa: Due to the teacher shortages across our nation and our state, there is fierce competition to recruit and retain excellent talent. In Pajaro Valley Unified, we have one of the highest total compensations in our area.

Our unions put a high priority on health care, and in the 12 years that I’ve been on the board I have respected this priority and there has been little change to health care benefits. Because the cost of health care continues to rise every year, the district absorbs the cost with no charge to our teachers and staff. Like other school districts, this reduces total dollars that we can use for salary. In our district, we received one-time funding and have negotiated with our unions to provide a $2,500 retention bonus for every employee, as well as up to a $7,500 bonus to new teachers.

I have advocated and supported the addition of a district grant writer, and this has been extremely successful in capturing dollars to enhance programming for our students. In the past six years alone, we have been awarded $14.6 million in grants. This has also allowed more of our general fund dollars to be used for salaries.

Natalain Schwartz: In 2019, Santa Cruz was named “The Least Affordable Place for Teachers” in the nation. Teachers enter the profession because they love what they do, not for the salary. But currently, entry-level teachers cannot afford to live in or relocate to our county. Our existing teachers and staff are overworked, making it difficult to teach in their own classrooms. No one benefits when teachers, substitutes and staff are working tirelessly to attend to additional responsibilities, and it’s not fair to students to not have a consistent teacher in the classroom.

There are teachers who live here and work outside our county because the pay is better. We can’t afford NOT to pay living wages for Santa Cruz County teachers and staff.

Some of my ideas include:

  • Offer a stipend toward rental housing or low-cost loans. Explore partnerships with local developers to have teacher and staff housing available at a lower cost, using school developer fees as a source.
  • Adjust the health benefits package (for younger teachers) who might not need all the bells and whistles and use the savings to increase salaries. Offer two health plans to choose from.
  • Revisit PVUSD’s budget to focus on existing hiring issues.
  • Lobby at the state and federal level for more funding.
  • Identify and eliminate wasteful district expenses.

Trustee Area 5

Jennifer Schacher: It is vital that PVUSD pay teachers and staff competitive salaries. We need to keep comparable salaries to surrounding districts to retain and attract qualified teachers and staff.

Teacher pay compared to other schools in the county is finally moving in the right direction. This past year, the teachers were able to have their first significant raise since 2017. PVUSD has offered signing bonuses up to $7,500 for teachers and $5,000 for bus drivers. PVUSD also gave our current teachers and staff a $2,500 retention bonus. Improving pay scales and introducing robust health benefits and a collaborative working environment will encourage teachers. We must also think outside the box and look at affordable housing options for teachers and staff by working with the state, city and county. We should also look at day care programs for teachers and staff to ease the cost of living.

Olivia Flores: Paying teachers competitive salaries is very important to me. I believe it is the first step in making our school district a sought-after place to be a part of. It also enables teachers to continue living in this area to do what they love to do. I am really looking forward to seeing why our $300 million budget doesn’t allow us to pay our teachers more. Fine-tuning where our tax dollars are spent and refocusing it on our classrooms would be the first step.

As voters head to the polls to decide on school board candidates and school bonds, what are the concerns those in the...

Question: Do you think there are enough mental health resources in your district? If not, how would you change or add to them? If you do think there are enough resources, have the recent additions of more mental health counselors schools had a positive impact?

Trustee Area 1

Kimberly De Serpa: In PVUSD, we have added multiple mental health practitioners as budgets have allowed. I am proud of my support for this. I have also served on the board for many years of Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance. I have provided support for their expansion to provide mental health services for our district’s most vulnerable students and families. I am a licensed clinical social worker, and our students’ health and wellness have long been a top priority in my policy decisions.

Natalain Schwartz: Since I am not on the board, I do not have enough information to comment on this adequately. I definitely think there is a need for mental health resources. Why are children needing these resources in the first place? If we can determine the reasons, we may be able to proactively prevent many of these mental health issues. Students have mentioned there are long waits to see mental health experts, who are critical for those with suicidal tendencies. Other students are afraid that counselors will report their issues to the authorities, and some feel counselors are not able to relate to their problems.

Trustee Area 5

Jennifer Schacher: Mental health resources are always needed. In the past two years, we have added additional social emotional counselors to our campuses. In 2021, PVUSD opened its first community wellness center for students and families in Watsonville, which has served over 11,600 people since opening. This was one of my goals when I first became a board member. I would like to see more wellness centers open to serve our Pajaro Valley schools. Community school grants through state and federal programs will assist us in this endeavor. With the partnership of Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance (PVPSA) and Luna y Sol [Familia Center], PVUSD is able to offer additional mental health and substance abuse programs for our families. We also work with organizations like PDCR (Positive Discipline Community Resources) and First Five, offering classes, support groups, coaching, training resources, and other programs for families.

Olivia Flores: These past two years with COVID-19 have wreaked havoc on our children’s mental health. I believe that we need more resources that focus on mental health than we had pre-COVID. That takes financial resources. I would fight to make sure that the resources needed for the extra mental health assistance doesn’t affect the resources needed for our students’ basic curriculum by applying for emergency assistance from our local municipalities and appropriate agencies.

Do schools have enough resources to address learning loss caused by the pandemic? If not, what do you propose your school district do to close the learning loss gap?

Trustee Area 1

Kimberly De Serpa: Pajaro Valley Unified actually did quite well during the pandemic. Our teachers, staff and parents did an amazing job pivoting to distance learning. We were one of few districts, state and nationwide, that had very little learning loss identified. In fact, under our superintendent’s leadership, in the past six years our literacy rates have risen 63% and our ranking in the state — once at the very bottom 12% — is now up to 50%. These improvements are amazing and facts to be proud of as a community.

Natalain Schwartz: The learning loss we have experienced in this county is significant. Most students did not do well in Zoom school. Plus, Santa Cruz County public schools have an average math proficiency score of 36% (versus the statewide average of 40%) and reading proficiency score of 46% (versus the statewide average of 51%). Schools in Santa Cruz County have an average ranking of 5 out of 10, which is in the bottom 50% of California public schools.

We have a lot of work to do! We can do better by focusing on the core academic subjects (reading, math, language arts and science) to reverse learning loss and to improve students’ academic abilities.

How do we do this? We need to solve the teacher shortage by paying a living wage and pivot the curriculum to focus on catching up. I would push for more emphasis on STEM curriculum that can be taught on school campuses. Recently, graduation requirements were lowered due to COVID-19 — we need to reverse that, because it does not benefit our students. Classes could be offered on Saturdays to help students catch up. Our students need to be well-educated in order to be competitive when entering the job market.

Trustee Area 5

Jennifer Schacher: PVUSD is proud of the work our teachers, staff, students and parents have done. Test scores show that we have rebounded to 2019 performance levels since the pandemic.

The district has added extra tutoring support, resources through the wellness center and community partners over the past few years. Through the use of one-time funding, we have intentionally placed additional intervention teachers and instructional assistants at each elementary school and expanded English-learner support and tutoring at secondary sites to address learning loss. We will continue to use one-time monies for these extra supports.

However, while this has helped close the learning gap, ongoing funding would allow the district to hire more academic counselors to reduce case-load — particularly for counselors serving at-risk children and children with special needs. Hiring additional classroom aides would allow for smaller class sizes and to sustain these needed resources.

Olivia Flores: Our schools were struggling before the pandemic. The pandemic disproportionately affected students who didn’t have much, if any, parental help at home. I believe parent involvement is extremely important to a child’s education. Lowering our standards help give our students passing grades but hurt in the long run by not preparing our students for the future. I want to be a source of encouragement for parents and help them help their children at home. By making it easier for parents to get and stay involved and by being a voice for them, I believe we can invest in this generation of students and help nurture the future leaders of tomorrow.

We need more one-on-one, targeted, and specific tutoring for all students testing behind in reading, writing, or mathematics. We should prioritize the cohorts who were already struggling prior to the pandemic, including those of lower socioeconomic status and those with learning disabilities. Providing easier access to IEPs [individualized education programs, which are special accommodations for students] is another opportunity to help students with learning disabilities catch up. Lastly, after-school learning programs and summer school have proven cost efficient and effective for catching students back up.

Question: How do you plan to address declining student enrollment?

Trustee Area 1

Kimberly De Serpa: Declining enrollment is an issue around our state. We have addressed this issue by adjusting staffing and budgets to meet the needs of our students. We have about 18,000 students now, down from about 21,000 just a few years ago. Watsonville and surrounding areas continue to build out housing and we will continue to meet the needs of the community. Additionally, we continue to build excellence in our schools so that families will want to have their children in the district. For example, our sports programs is the largest in the county, we teach performing arts and music to every student, and offer enhanced opportunities like Edward James Olmos’ Youth Cinema Project, the Lagasse Teaching Kitchen and Culinary Garden, Wetlands Watch, mock trial, Advanced Placement classes and career and technical education — and many other enriching programs.

Natalain Schwartz: Since I am not on the board, I am not privy to the reasons for declining enrollment, but I imagine the cost of living here is a big factor. I also know students who have left due to concerns about the safety of campuses, especially after the stabbing at Aptos High. With the teacher shortage, I know that some parents are concerned about the quality of academics, since many students do not have teachers at all for some of their classes. With a decline in enrollment, adjustments must be made to reduce expenses accordingly. My plan of action includes:

  • Keeping our schools safe.
  • Hiring full-time teachers and paying them a living wage.
  • Listening to students, teachers, staff and parents’ feedback.
  • Finding out why students and parents are leaving.

Trustee Area 5

Jennifer Schacher: Like the rest of the county, we have been experiencing declining enrollment for the past three years. We have addressed declining enrollment by casting more accurate enrollment projections, identifying operational inefficiencies and using one-time monies strategically. The district can work with the statewide task force on strategies to combat declining enrollment. However, a shift in policy at the state level to base funding on enrollment and not daily attendance would help resolve some issues. An overlooked factor that feeds declining enrollment is a lack of affordable housing for families and workers. The rising cost of living affects all aspects of education.

We can continue to combat declining enrollment through advocating for proper funding, providing affordable housing opportunities for families, converting schools to dual-language programs, enriching curricula such as Life Lab, the Latino Film Institute, music and visual and performing arts, competitive athletic programs and introducing vocational education pathways.

Olivia Flores: Paying our teachers and other staff that directly work with students a living wage to stop high turnover rates and making traditional education and safety a priority will strengthen our schools’ influence in the community. Through that, I believe parents will be more likely to leave their children in our schools and it will lower dropout rates by giving students a more personal education experience.

Question: Do you think schools address diversity, equity and inclusion issues adequately? If not, what else should be done in your district to address equity issues?

Trustee Area 1

Kimberly De Serpa: I am a strong supporter of LGBTQ+ issues and students. I attend the Queer Youth Awards every year and support the care and inclusion of students on our campuses. I support flying the diversity flag on our campuses as a symbol of support. All students belong in PVUSD.

Natalain Schwartz: I feel PVUSD has been a champion of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in the schools. PVUSD has offered LGBTQ+ programs engaging school awareness on and off campus, welcoming teachers, students and staff.

I believe we can do more. Students are reporting being sad, lonely and afraid. In all our classes, we should encourage students to be friends with each other. The students will benefit from helping and caring about each other. All students have value, and this should begin with treating each other that way. What about letting students help each other in the classroom? A student that might be struggling with a subject could be helped by another student. This atmosphere of caring and human interaction will make students feel welcome and accepted, possibly cutting back on the need for mental health workers.

Trustee Area 5

Jennifer Schacher: We are continuing equal access to resources through the wellness center and opening of additional community school programs. PVUSD holds equity audits that look specifically at policy, programs and procedures that impact students and staff, allowing us to remove barriers that could be affecting participation, access or opportunities for students to receive an equitable education.

What can we do to improve? Practice informed instruction through teacher collaboration and formative assessments.

Encourage staff to pilot electives they might be interested in. Work with parents and site councils to advocate for opportunities. We often think of solutions from a policy and program perspective — which is critical — but we also need to be analyzing this problem on the classroom level. We need to ensure that all students have equitable access to A-G courses and must improve pathway options for career technical education. We need to look beyond four-year university and also offer pathways to trade certifications and apprenticeships in areas like the building, automotive and electrical trades. We want to make sure every student has the opportunity to attend a university or vocational trade right out of high school. While PVUSD has worked to improve technology access for all students, there is still a need for better access in some areas especially with internet service.

Olivia Flores: I believe PVUSD is doing a fair job with diversity and inclusion. With regards to equity, I feel there is room for improvement. There are vast differences between schools in Aptos, Watsonville, North Monterey County and within those communities.

Question: What other issue most concerns you and what would you do about it?

Trustee Area 1

Kimberly De Serpa: I am concerned about people who want to stop all the amazing progress PVUSD has made. There has been an ongoing movement across the nation to flip school board seats, making them more conservative. Although the school board position is supposed to be non-partisan, across the nation we have seen book bans, a movement to erase “critical race theory” or ethnic studies from schools, a reduction in women’s rights and no support for LGBTQ+ issues. Locally, we are not immune from these ideas. We saw this when some of our school board members came into power and attempted to fire our superintendent, changing the important course we have forged.

If I am reelected, I will continue to work toward improving opportunities for all our students.

Natalain Schwartz: School safety is a top priority at schools, especially after what happened at Aptos High a year ago. Students cannot learn if they come to school in fear. I like the idea of having social emotional counselors, but a school resource officer (SRO) should remain on all campuses to deal with serious threats. The SROs are aware of the problems and are equipped to deal with violence. SROs should remain on campus for the students and never should have been removed in the first place.

Students have also told me that having classes on managing fear and anxiety would help their concerns about school safety. Other ideas I have for school safety are:

  • Continue to give students the assurance of anonymity to report potential problems via the STOPit! app.
  • Make sure Aptos High gets much-needed cell phone service for communication with the local police, which has not happened yet.
  • Have a “one strike and you are out” policy for the most violent student offenders. For other altercations, a student’s return would require attending anger management therapy with parents.

Trustee Area 5

Jennifer Schacher: A major issue facing our schools is funding. Improper funding affects every aspect of schools, from salaries to facility repair and upkeep. I have consistently met with our state leaders and local officials to improve funding for our schools. Last year, the legislature finally dedicated more money for education. There is still more to do. The formula for how schools are funded needs to change, and schools need to be funded by the number of students they enroll, not attendance.

Teachers were able to receive their first raise since 2017. I fully support continued increases to the salary schedule.

Advocating for proper funding of education at the state level would provide an increase in funds for salaries. We can utilize state cost of living adjustments to give the increases directly to teachers and staff, look at the current step and column to see what can change to benefit our teachers and staff and use one-time money for bonuses to retain and recruit them. This past year we reduced district administration costs by eliminating a cabinet position which freed additional funds.

I will eliminate unnecessary contracts and streamline costs to free up funds for salaries and continue facility upgrades and site safety improvements. I will actively work with the Pajaro Valley Education Foundation and other community groups to seek out grants and alternative funding sources for programs.

Olivia Flores: Student safety is one of my concerns. Students need to be able to focus on their learning, and that is difficult for them when they are concerned with being confronted with dangerous situations. I would like to help PVUSD partner with our community leaders to address student safety concerns.

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