Santa Cruz City Schools staff register applicants for a job fair on July 24, 2023 at Harbor High School.
Santa Cruz City Schools staff register applicants for a district job fair on July 24, 2023, at Harbor High School in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa )
K-12 Education

Santa Cruz County public school staffing woes ease ahead of start of the academic year

After struggling to fill vacancies for the past few years, several Santa Cruz public school districts say staffing levels going into the new academic year are better thanks to a combination of lower turnover compared to the pandemic years and new contracts that have boosted pay for teachers in some districts. Still, officials say some positions that have traditionally been hard to fill, such as special education workers and bus drivers, continue to pose challenges.

This time last year, Amy Hedrick-Farr was on the verge of tears thinking about needing to fill 12 open positions within the Santa Cruz City Schools Food Services department.

This week, she’s breathing a sigh of relief at the prospect of having just three open entry-level food service worker positions she has left to fill as the first day of school on Aug. 10 nears.

“Going into the [previous] school year, it was a little brutal,” the food services director recalled. “This year, we’re doing better.”

Santa Cruz City Schools held a job fair on Monday seeking to fill 38 positions for support and administrative jobs, including special education workers and bus drivers. Hedrick-Farr was among those school officials participating in the job fair, which drew about 50 candidates. The district said it made 11 job offers and has another seven prospective hires that are pending additional interviews.

Unlike in previous years, when the district struggled to find enough willing and qualified candidates for some jobs, officials from Santa Cruz City Schools and other local school districts say they are optimistic they will be starting this school year in much better shape.

“It’s so much better,” said Soquel Union Elementary School District Superintendent Scott Turnbull.

Officials aren’t exactly sure what has led to the improved staffing, but point to salary increases as well as the end of the pandemic for helping to improve the hiring picture.

A variety of factors caused widespread burnout during the pandemic for the education workforce leading to higher turnover — from the challenges of moving to online instruction in 2020 and 2021 to the turmoil brought by the return to in-person instruction and rising student behavioral issues as pandemic restrictions eased in 2021 and 2022. Toward the end of the last academic year, several school districts also saw teachers’ unions win historic salary increases.

The Santa Cruz City Schools staff hosted the job fair for positions such as food service and classroom aids – or classified staff – and host a separate job fair for certificated staff, or teachers.

This year, some school officials noted that staff turnover has been lower, leading to fewer vacant positions to fill.

The Job fair located at Harbor High on Monday July 24 in Santa Cruz.
(Photo by Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz


Turnbull, the Soquel superintendent, said to put things into perspective, going into last year, the district had 11 general education teacher positions open out of about 71 possible positions – a 15% turnover rate. Leading into this year, the district had about two 2 positions to fill out of about 68 possible positions – a 3% turnover rate.

“When you compare this year to last year it’s night and day,” he said.

However, Turnbull and other district officials said while generally staffing for both classified and certificated staff is better — particularly better than the last several COVID-impacted years — there are still challenges in filling some traditionally hard-to-fill roles such as special education positions and bus drivers.

Affordability continues to be either the primary challenge for staff retention across the county — which was recently named the most expensive rental market in the country.

Santa Cruz County Office of Education spokesperson Nick Ibarra said in light of the teacher retention challenges, the office is offering a $7,000 hiring bonus (its biggest bonus for COE-certificated staff) for special education teachers and recently hired a teacher recruitment and retention coordinator.

“We are making a particular effort around special education recruitment, not just here at the COE, but we’re also seeing the same thing at the districts,” said Ibarra.

Molly Parks, the Santa Cruz City Schools human resources director, said among the 11 job offers the district made during the job fair Monday, three of them were for special education positions, or behavioral aid techs. She added that two of the offers were for the nutrition services department — leaving Hedrick-Farr with potentially just one left to fill.

Prior to the job fair, Parks added that the school district had 38 open classified positions and has just one open certificated position to fill, which she hopes will be filled Wednesday.

She said each year, however, they hire about 50 teachers during the hiring season which runs approximately from January through May.

“Special education is definitely an area that’s harder to staff,” she said.

Joanna Eskilson, who worked as a massage therapist for 18 years, went to the job fair having no idea what she was going to apply for

“I really needed a job,” she said.

Eskilson learned about the job fair through the district’s social media and decided to take a chance.

“They found the right job for me,” she said. “It’s called behavior technician — So I’m working with special needs kids. I’m gonna get training. I love working with kids.”

Eskilson said the position is a full-time job with benefits. She’s just waiting for the district to check her references and she’ll have to get fingerprinted.

“Life is great right now,” she said. “I’m going to go buy a lottery ticket right now.”

Joanna Eskilson leaves Harbor High School after attending a job fair on Monday, July 24, 2023, in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa )

Parks added that the district is still working on filling bus driver positions.

Similarly, Pajaro Valley Unified School District Interim Superintendent Murry Schekman said the district is working to hire 20 bus drivers out of a total of 57 classified positions. As for certificated staff, he added the district needs 10 general education teachers and 11 certificated teachers. The district’s first day of school is August 15.

The district is also currently searching for a new permanent superintendent after former head Dr. Michelle Rodriguez resigned in June to lead the Stockton Unified School District.

Schekman said he thinks the improvement could be due to a variety of factors including the end of the pandemic and that the district’s human resources department was “proactive all year long” filling positions.

“We’re in very good shape, we have very few openings,” he said, adding that the numbers are better than the past several years, and the numbers are a moving target.