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A District in Turmoil

As shown in student walkouts, teacher work-to-contracts, and animated school board meetings, the ongoing battle between the Santa Barbara Teachers Association (SBTA) and the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) has served as an undercurrent to all school functions over the 2023-2024 school year. As the final weeks of school draw nearer, so too does the date to finalize the district budget for next year. In the midst of budget negotiations, wage disputes, staff layoffs, and program cuts have sparked major concerns about the future of the district. 

In November of 2023, SBUSD began negotiations with SBTA regarding compensation, working conditions, and benefits. Teachers expressed concerns that their salaries did not adequately match increasing inflation rates and living costs; they received a 12% raise in a year when inflation rates were near 20%. In the 2022-23 school year, SBUSD spent 53.42% of its budget on teacher compensation, a 1.58% or $3.2 million deficiency from the requirement of 55%. In addition to the shortage, the 55% minimum already includes multiple on-site administrative salaries. These cumulative discrepancies have been a consistent talking point for negotiations this year, as teachers stress the need for livable and competitive pay. 

In SBUSD’s budget proposal for the 2024-25 school year, there were numerous program and personnel cuts that sparked concern within SBTA. 108 positions were initially proposed for elimination or reduction, which was lowered to 50 following board approval in May. Eliminated positions included campus security, bilingual paraeducators, SBHS counselors, and Educational Technology Services (ETS) staff, including ETS director Rob Cooper. These employees will be placed on a 39-month reemployment list, where the district may rehire them if the budget allows. Numerous electives were also cut at the junior high level, including music and theater programs that feed into arts at the high schools. One teacher, Mr. Dodson, pointed out that these cuts “take away [students’] sense of safety as well as many students’ trusted adults,” and “target the most vulnerable of the students: those with special needs and newcomers.”

The district has maintained that the proposed changes are necessary to minimize the damage from expiring temporary funds from COVID-19 and other budget cuts. However, SBTA has questioned the legitimacy of the district’s financial troubles, especially as the SBUSD administration’s staff and salaries have ballooned. There are 4 assistant superintendents making between $195,000 and $223,000 annually, according to budget reports from SBUSD. Most notably, following her hire in 2020, superintendent Hilda Maldonado hired Steve Venz as Chief Operating Officer, a position that had never existed in SBUSD before and pays $221,000 per year. Additionally, administrators have been known to hire external consulting firms to aid with district function, including a consultant hired recently to aid with SBTA negotiations who was paid $325 per hour. Teachers feel that overspending on administrators jeopardizes classroom jobs, and thus the quality of the education SBUSD claims to back. In a recent board meeting one teacher commented, “This is your village, and you have been burning it down for months, if not years.”

After mediation closed with no agreement, SBUSD and SBTA will move into the final stage of bargaining: fact-finding. Beginning on June 12, each party will present a panel of three members with their proposals, and a report will be drawn up. During the next ten days, parties may come to an agreement; if they do not, SBUSD will make their best and final offer. Should SBTA reject this offer, they will have the legal right to strike. California is one of only 15 states that allows teacher strikes, and they are exceedingly rare due to their highly disruptive nature. Should the strike be carried out, the district could face canceled classes and even school closures, creating immense pressure to come to an agreement. SBTA will vote on their willingness to strike at the end of May.

Teachers have spent this year balancing grading and coursework with advocating for better treatment. As they continue to make their voices heard, one thing is certain: we can be sure that a big change is heading our district’s way.

Teachers attend SBUSD board meeting on May 7 [Image credit: Kelly Meeder]


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    Piper is a senior at SBHS. She loves hiking, the beach, and spending time in nature. She loves movies and is excited to write articles for Arts and Entertainment.

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