Soquel Union Elementary School District candidates on teacher pay, mental health, declining enrollment and pandemic learning loss

Soquel Elementary School.
(Via Soquel Union Elementary School District)

Sixteen candidates are running for nine seats in five school districts across the county. Lookout sent questionnaires to all of them asking about the most pressing issues facing their schools. Here, we take a look at Soquel Union Elementary School District.

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

The second installment, looks at school board candidates, starting with the Scotts Valley Unified School District and continuing with San Lorenzo Valley Unified and Pajaro Valley Unified; now we look at the Soquel Union Elementary School District.

Voters must pick from two candidates to fill one open seat in the district: Trustee Area 4. Voters will choose between incumbent Phillip Rodriguez and Justin Maffia.

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

Main takeaways: The candidates both emphasize the importance of earning a living wage, especially to compete with surrounding districts, which can offer more competitive salaries. However, the candidates prefer different solutions. Rodriguez proposes an approach that neighboring districts have tried as well: finally passing a parcel tax, which has been proposed and rejected by residents in this district twice already. Maffia notes that this issue galvanized him to run and argues that a careful eye should be given to the budget.

2. Addressing student mental health challenges

Main takeaways: While both candidates agree that student mental health is essential, their solutions differ. Rodriguez argues that staff should be constantly evaluating students’ well-being, predicting future needs and seeking resources as needed. Maffia applauds the district’s previous efforts to place dedicated mental health counselors in all of its schools, but argues for additional education, intervention and partnerships with all levels of government.

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

Main takeaways: Candidates are divided on how to close the achievement gap. Rodriguez suggests an approach that evaluates each student individually, while also offering support on a larger scale, such as providing additional classroom time and summer school. Maffia argues that expectations for students are too high. To address this, Maffia suggests giving teachers more flexibility to adjust their curriculum and class schedules, which would allow teachers to provide more intensive support to students who are falling behind.

4. Reversing declining student enrollment

Main takeaways: Both candidates say they are concerned about declining enrollment. Rodriguez says he intends to advocate for more funding to replace money lost from families who have pulled their kids from the district, as well as adding educational opportunities. Maffia argues for retaining high-quality staff to keep families from leaving. He also favors implementing attractive programs, such as dual-language programs, but says the district must clearly track the effectiveness of such programs.

5. Tackling equity and inclusion issues

Main takeaways: The candidates agree on the importance of this issue. While they offer different solutions, each builds on what the district is currently doing. Rodriguez suggests that the district must continuously update its approach, but argues that diversity and inclusion is likely to remain an ongoing discussion. Maffia says district schools are working to teach children to be curious and open to diversity within the community and points to programs such as internet connectivity and special education programs to meet individual needs.

6. Discussing other issues that concern them

Main takeaways: Rodriguez proposes addressing climate-related challenges, such as heat waves and safety blackouts. He says he would work to make sure schools can update heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and install technology that ensures the power stays on during outages. Maffia advocates for providing education to support non-college-bound individuals and build crucial life skills for all students, such as problem solving, personal advocacy and resilience.

New Brighton Middle School teachers Melissa Walding and Michelle Bell
New Brighton Middle School teachers Melissa Walding and Michelle Bell outside a Soquel Union Elementary School District board meeting in March as the teachers union sought a raise, which it has since received.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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

1. How important is it to your district to pay teachers and staff competitive salaries compared to other higher paying districts? How do you propose increasing pay?

Phillip Rodriguez: In Santa Cruz County, every dollar counts. It is very important that every worker is compensated with a living wage. All workers strive to build and maintain a safe and secure life. So school districts find themselves competing against each other for staff in a spiraling cost environment.

Increasing pay to meet this need has compelled neighboring school districts to ask their residents to tax themselves in order to supplement wages for school staff. Our district has attempted two parcel tax votes to do likewise. Unfortunately, both measures were defeated by our residents. Nonetheless, I propose that we again ask our residents to step up and support our school staff and pass a parcel tax.

Justin Maffia: Staff retention and attraction are why I have stepped into this race. My 17 years of human-resources experience give me a unique understanding of what is required to build healthy, happy, engaged employees. The cost of living in our area has threatened our teacher’s ability to reside in our community. Recent wage hikes in the district were welcomed, but made possible by additional state funding, which might not always come through. We must adopt a more holistic and aggressive approach to keeping our teacher and staff compensation competitive with other districts in our area and throughout the state. Doing this will require a hard look at all programs funded to ensure every dollar is being used in the most impactful way to enable our great teachers to stay in our District.

2. 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 had a positive impact?

Phillip Rodriguez

The pandemic has had a behavioral impact on all of us. Children were fully exposed to the disruption caused by this historic event. To say that there are ever enough mental health resources would mean that we fully understand all the implications. I don’t think we do. I support a framework that deploys resources in a synergistic fashion. That is, we continue to engage with our students on a regular basis, evaluate our efforts frequently, reconfigure our programs as needed and look ahead to anticipate new challenges and secure the resources to address them.

Justin Maffia: I am delighted with the recent news that all SUESD campuses have a dedicated counselor on campus. This additional support is a significant first step, and I believe this resource for our students will positively impact our campuses in time. That said, one person will not be enough to address the growing mental health crisis with our youth. In addition to counselors, campus programs must also include additional broad-based education and intervention that will require other resources and strategic partnerships with private, state, and local programs.

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

Phillip Rodriguez: Right now, schools have received funding to address this grave problem. Whether the state will continue to support this effort is unknown. Often, government will allocate resources without fully understanding the problem. We saw this during the pandemic. Identifying learning loss at the granular level will be absolutely necessary and it will be a challenge.

There might be a variety of reasons for a student’s achievement level. This, of course, means that school districts will assess and assist students on an individual basis. We do this as a standard practice, the hurdle now is to offer support on a larger scale.

That is why I am a strong supporter of summer school. Our district has held a summer school program, uninterrupted, for many years now. We took extraordinary measures to hold a summer school session in 2020 and 2021. Four months into the lockdown, in July 2020, I was visiting a classroom at our Main Street Elementary School campus. Extra classroom time will be essential to helping resolve this problem. That will mean having a fine focus on directing resources.

Justin Maffia: As a parent, I have seen firsthand the profound impact of the pandemic on our children. I have talked to many teachers who have to slow down and teach/reinforce concepts they would expect their students to show mastery of at their grade level. These academic challenges also expand to the development of social and emotional maturity in our younger students. I believe the District needs to consider this and allow teachers the time and space to adjust their curriculum to address these gaps in student knowledge. Some of these tactics could include focusing on foundational learning items that are prerequisites for future learning. Another tactic could be to alter the schedule for the first several weeks of school to address these learning gaps and invest in intervention programs for subjects such as reading and math to help students who fall behind bridge the learning gap.

4. How do you plan to address declining enrollment?

Phillip Rodriguez: Our district’s enrollment numbers are in decline. We are not alone as others are in the same situation. Lower enrollment means fewer dollars. It is what we do to mitigate this that will be very important in the coming years. My goal has been to advocate for funding to ease the burden and to create educational programs that will attract and retain families in our district.

Justin Maffia: Step one is resolving our teacher attrition issue. Keeping our excellent teachers will ensure that we keep our learning standards high and that our teaching teams on campuses can partner to provide effective learning solutions which enable student success and progression. This, in turn, will keep student success high and drive testing scores, a metric looked at by parents choosing a district and neighborhood to build their families. Additionally, the district can look at programs that will attract and retain students, such as our dual-language program. These programs can attract students, but they also must include clear success metrics and goals to ensure that the monies spent to set up these programs are effective.

5. 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?

Phillip Rodriguez: I would suggest that to reach the “adequately” level we would need to see that the work is done. How can anyone say that these fundamental issues will ever be fully resolved? We live in a constantly changing world, there will be future discussions around diversity, equity and inclusion that are not apparent today.

Our district has wisely embraced an approach of “continual improvement” around these issues. We have and will continue to embed these concepts in all aspects of our district’s governance.

Justin Maffia: The bottom line is that our campuses must be safe and inviting for all students. Our students come from families, cultures and backgrounds that are very different. I believe the schools are teaching students the benefits of a diverse and vibrant community of differences. We need to teach students to be curious and respectful of the differences in our community. I appreciate the partnerships the district is building to provide equitable resources to students through internet connectivity, special education programs, and educational support such as technology resources to address individualized learning needs.

6. What other issue most concerns you and what would you do about it?

Phillip Rodriguez: Climate event mitigation and resilience is a topic that we must address. Over the past few years our schools have suffered from climate-caused events. Fires and storms have always been part of living here but now we have safety blackouts to contend with. Beyond that, temperatures pose challenges. We are now having to improve HVAC systems to cope with these fluctuations.

I am committed to doing what we can to keep our schools open. My goal is that every one of our sites will be able to stay open when the power is shut off. I will work with stakeholders to find the resources to make this happen.

Justin Maffia: I feel strongly that, as a district, we need to be able to support all types of students and learners. While our District only goes through 8th grade, I believe that we need to acknowledge the reality that not all students will be college-bound after high school and that the way individuals acquire knowledge is ever-evolving and very different than it was in the past. This trend was already happening, but I believe the pandemic will ultimately accelerate it. We need to be ok with this and celebrate that success comes in many forms. Regardless of a student’s path, I believe that these formative years in elementary and middle school are where we must start to build a love for learning and crucial skills such as problem-solving, personal advocacy, and resilience in facing challenges. I will ensure that our investments in our campuses support the development of academics and critical life skills.

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