Hilda Speaks: SBUSD Superintendent Responds to Onslaught of Teacher Criticism, Demands and Anger
By Jerry Roberts of Newsmakers
Hilda Maldonado says the biggest mistake she made during the just-completed school year was expecting that, after a year of pandemic shutdown, things would return to "normal."
"And it hasn't been the case," Maldonado, the Superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District, said last week.
Which may qualify for understatement of the decade.
When a decidedly un-normal school year ended for students last Thursday, Maldonado had been under fire for months, lambasted by a substantial number of the district's 600 teachers with a long list of criticisms and complaints. Concurrent to their pronouncements of no-confidence and lack of trust in her leadership was a months-long exodus of more than a dozen high-ranking administrators, most previously in the superintendent's executive cabinet, several of whom sotto voce shared around town their woeful personal opinions of her management style.
Also on the last day of school, she even was implicitly chastened by the school board that hired her, and has stood behind her amid a storm of controversy, when the five members sent a letter to each teacher, and every other employee of the district, apologizing for a "breakdown in communication and trust in some of our schools." In the letter, board members also acquiesced to a host of demands the anti-Hilda teacher faction had pressed upon them.
In an interview with Newsmakers the same day, Maldonado recalled the optimism with which she began the academic year, with schools reopened and most students back in class.
"We had a summer institute last year, to kick off the (school) year, and I had teachers create a survey: What will we be known for by the end of the year?," she remembered. "And we had so many great vision statements about combating equity issues, closing the achievement gap..,
"I never thought that it would actually turn from that...to just being completely exhausted and having low morale," she added. "And that is information for me to take and learn from, and do better by."
Our story to date. Arriving from the L.A. Unified district, where she was an Associate Superintendent, Maldonado took over as SBUSD's boss in the depth of the pandemic, on July 1, 2020.
With the state largely locked down, the school board had interviewed and hired her, via Zoom, to replace Cary Matsuoka, the previous out-of-towner to hold the SB supe job, who "retired" with a year left on his contract after a series of missteps and bungled decisions.
Although Covid denied her a get-your-bearings honeymoon that otherwise might have been accorded a newcomer to a high-profile public perch in Santa Barbara, Maldonado immediately began to tackle the countless complexities of navigating the impact on local schools of the worst public health emergency in a century -- before presiding over an uncertain and confusing 2020-21 school year of hastily contrived "remote learning" for the district's 13,000 kids.
Last summer, however, with the first Covid vaccines soon to arrive, and the virus apparently in abeyance, she vowed to keep the schools open all year in 2021-22; with characteristic high energy - and, according to at least some who worked with her, a rough-edged personal style lacking bedside manner - she swiftly started pushing hard to implement previously-delayed policies of her "equity" agenda, while also moving to change several existing administrative and financial processes and systems.
It turned out not to be exactly a great year to keep piling new stuff on the plates of her 1,500-person workforce.
"As a person that came in during a year where I couldn't really get to know people the first year, beginning a second year, with this charge to stay open, gave us this sense of things going back to normal," she said in our interview. "And we're going to all behave normally."
"We got hit with Delta and then Omicron, and it was...not a normal year," Maldonado told us. "And I think maybe we...set some expectations of people -- distance learning's over, we're opening a new year, we're going to stay open, and we're going to act as if things have not happened to us collectively."
Amid Covid's unpredictability, disruptions and confusion that, until the last several months, set in motion cascading waves of illness, scuffling to secure substitute teachers, admixtures of students in classrooms, hybrid and remote learning courses, politicized battles over vaccines and masks, all coursing through oft-shifting guidance from state and local public health officials, Maldonado said, with 20-20 hindsight, that she was late to understand that teachers, families and kids badly needed a reset.
"The ways that we have been shaken up as a school system, and the number of times our teachers have been asked to pivot, over and over again, from the very beginning, has been just unbelievable," she said. "It's just been incredible what's been asked of teachers, and I think that we did not take enough time to stop and just acknowledge that."
"Sometimes we haven't taken the time to do the post-disaster healing or post-traumatic event processing that we need to," the superintendent added. "
"In retrospect, we could have used time differently, and I had some teachers reach out to me and asked for more time to do different things," she acknowledged. "And I think one of my lessons learned is, I need to also stop."
A November inflection point. As one familiar downtown administrator after another departed - some retired, some found other jobs, some mysteriously moved laterally, or even down the career ladder, some just quit - many teachers struggled, not only with pandemic perplexities, but also with new programs, processes and procedures ordered up by the still-new superintendent.
In November, the Santa Barbara Teachers Association conducted a "Superintendent and District Perception Survey" of its members, polling attitudes about Maldonado and inviting anonymous, open-ended comments. Intended as an internal document for the school board, the survey quickly leaked; journalist Josh Molina scooped the story and reported:
"An explosive Santa Barbara Teachers Association survey of teachers and certificated staff shows that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of Santa Barbara Unified School District Superintendent Hilda Maldonado...
About 60% of teachers and certificated staff who responded to the survey strongly disagree that Maldonado builds quality relationships with staff, parents and community members, and another 22% of respondents said they disagree.
In another question, 57% of respondents said they strongly disagree with the statement that Maldonado demonstrates empathy, genuine listening, and is able to manage conflict."
Many of the hundreds of comments were substantive criticisms -- or cries for help -- on issues like the lack of support with student discipline from the administration; a need for expanded mental health services; class sizes; salaries; a shortage of support staff; inadequate planning time; the imposition of new class schedules and grading systems, for example, along with multiple expressions that the superintendent essentially remained a stranger to them, seemingly indifferent to their fatigue and burnout.
"I am not a counselor, doctor, cop, mental health therapist, custodian, grant writer, nurse, parent, babysitter to my students." one wrote plaintively.
"I do not feel that Superintendent Maldonado has a clear understanding of how big of a crisis she is facing if things do not improve for teachers very soon," read another representative comment. "I along with many other colleagues are burned out plain and simple."
"Stop introducing a million confusing new things," pleaded a third.
Many other comments were less high-minded and far more personal.
"Go back to Los Angeles, please," wrote one educator. "Hilda=Mussolini. The only difference is Mussolini was more empathetic," said another. "She is a highly skilled hypocrite who has learned to hide behind her story of being an immigrant," a third contributed.
More: "BY FAR the most aggressive, heavy-handed, stubborn and tyrannical leader that i've ever met in education - at any level and in any roll (sic); "crushing the souls of the teachers and admin"; "ambition is only superseded by her ego."
And: "I was really disappointed to see her wearing super high heels on our campus. This is not a good role modeling for our teenage female students."
So there's that.
View from the top. The school board took no action on the survey and, by spring, that fact itself had become a top-line grievance for some teachers.
Last month their anger erupted into public view, as a large majority of teachers at Dos Pueblos High, followed by colleagues at two other schools, dispatched harshly-worded letters bashing the superintendent to her bosses, followed by a large protest organized outside the May 24 board meeting.
By then, the campaign against the superintendent had become a running story for the local press corps, especially Molina, who relentlessly reported every twist and turn.
Amid the reams of coverage chronicling criticisms and complaints about Maldonado, however, the voice of one key player in this civic drama has been all-but-silent: her own. So, for the public record, Newsmakers requested a video-recorded interview; in between attendance at graduations on the last day of school, she sat down to answer questions in a full-length session.
For the first time, she offered an expansive and detailed look at her perspective, both personal and professional, about the tempest of controversy and censure in which she has been engulfed for the past six months. She also discussed several major ongoing initiatives - including universal access, a literacy project and the effort to reduce screen time for young students -- as well as learning loss and emotional and mental health concerns arising from the pandemic.
Responding to a catalogue of castigations from teachers, as well as parents, she alternately set forth explanations, admitted missteps and expressed sadness, particularly about some of the vitriol and ad hominem attacks aimed at her.
"Yeah, that has definitely made me feel sad," Maldonado told us. "It's been very hurtful to be part of an organization where we have adults having personal attacks, or adults behaving in a way that I don't think would be what we want to model for our students.
"I've gotten calls from family members and friends who have read about some of the things that are said about me, who know me, and are concerned - 'why are you being treated this way?'" she added. "Some of our parents from the Latino community...came to me and said, 'if people say these things about you...how do we know teachers are going to treat our kids fair if they treat the Superintendent this way?'"
Here is a transcription of the superintendent's comments, prepared by Rev and lightly edited for clarity, on some of the key issues she now faces
Executive exodus. Among the larger controversies swirling around Maldonado has been the mass exodus of more than a dozen high-ranking, mostly veteran administrators from the district, many of them members of ex-Superintendent Matsuoka's executive cabinet, which left only one member of that group remaining after Maldonado's first two years on the job.
Amid anonymous allegations that the suits were fleeing because of Maldonado's management style, last month's departure of longtime Assistant Superintendent Shawn Carey, a former principal of Dos Pueblos High who remains popular among teachers and administrators there, and Brian Rowse, the longtime Chief Information Officer, brought cries of outrage from the anti-Hilda teacher faction, along with a demand that the school board order third-party exit interviews with the departed employees, to which the trustees consented in last week's letter.
Asked about the matter, Maldonado discounted the allegations and said she welcomes the exit interviews:
"So there is a narrative that's being promoted, that I've driven people out. And when I've spoken to the different people that have made decisions, there are many reasons why people choose to leave. Some are retiring and that's appropriate. It's time for them to take on the new chapter in their lives. Some have personal reasons for going back to other jobs or places where they have a greater support network. Some are looking for different opportunities professionally. They understand that having a variety of professional experiences gives you different perspectives on how schools are run or how to do your job differently.
"That's been said to me personally. If there is a different narrative that has been said beyond what I have experienced, then that's why I think the board is making the right decision to say, 'Hey, let's do some exit interviews and let's give somebody that's not in the school district an opportunity.' And I could understand that. I could understand why some people might not be feeling like they could be completely forthright."
Reservations on budget reserves. The Dos Pueblos teachers' letter, which was followed by similar communiques from teachers at Santa Barbara High and Goleta Junior High and a public protest outside a school board meeting, demanded a budget accounting, which specifically charged the district is spending money from its budget reserve "at an alarming rate."
Maldonado's take on the fiscal issue:
"So last year, we also settled (union) salary agreements with both the (California School Employees Association) and the (Santa Barbara Teachers Association). We gave employees an 8 percent raise over the next three years, 3.51 percent first year, 2.5 percent the next year and 2 percent the third year.
And that money, when we made that decision, we knew we were going to dip slightly into our (budget) reserve, but we thought that was something we wanted to do for our employees. We want to make sure we value them. And then we also looked at our health plan and how much we contribute towards employee health plans. And we did invest a little more in the differences. We have several health plans for our employees, so we did increase some of our investments towards employee health plans. So some of that money also leads to some of this dip into the reserves.
"We do not have a budget deficit. In fact, I think we were somewhere in the low thirties this year, high twenties (millions of dollars in reserves) next year...I do want to say that Santa Barbara Unified, compared to other school districts, because we are a basic aid district, there is a different way to think about the funding compared to (Local Control Funding Formula) districts, which means that we get funding from the state that is covered by the property taxes of our city...
"Being a basic aid district, we also have a policy that says we have to have 10 percent (of budget) above the 3 percent (required) by the state in terms of reserves. So we actually have a goal to always be at 13 percent reserve, not 3 percent. Many districts go down as far as 3 percent..but we are well above that."
Heroic teachers, lousy morale. A significant number of teachers have bashed Maldonado -- in the survey, in letters, in public comment at board meetings and at the school board protest -- allegedly for being distant, isolated and uncaring about them. In the interview, however, she repeatedly praised them for their work during the worst of the pandemic and since.
"The ways that we have been shaken up as a school system, and the number of times our teachers have been asked to pivot, over and over again, from the very beginning, has been just unbelievable.
From within two weeks, taking all of the curriculum and experiences that you have and suddenly being put in a situation where you have to learn the technology, to be able to access all these kids from home, to coming back and doing a hybrid model, where you're teaching two days on and two days off, and a new group comes in, or where you're having to take small groups of students, where we were looking at how do we adapt curriculum...It's just been incredible what's been asked of teachers, and I think that we did not take enough time to stop and just acknowledge that."
Polar opposite vaccines. Among the most frequent complaints cited in the union survey last November was concern and unhappiness by some teachers over the Covid vaccine mandate imposed by the district.
"So I think that is something...everything has been polarized. We've had so much polarization around what we believe. We have teachers on the one hand saying, 'It's not safe, we can't return. We want everybody vaccinated. We want the kids vaccinated.' And then we had teachers that were saying, 'We don't believe in the vaccine, we don't believe this is important. You can't make us have a vaccine or even mask.'
So I think all those polarities did cause that division. But at the end of the day, I was a former teacher, and I will say, that teachers stick together, and they should because they are the ones that are the key members of the heart of the organization when it comes to who works with our kids. And I think that when teachers see us treat somebody a certain way, of course they're going to support them because that is what teachers do. That's where their heart is...
So we did lose some people over that (mandate). As things became less clear, as you remember, we had a vaccine, that mandate that was implemented in the fall, and then as we started to look atoosters and we started to move away, towards the spring, on some of the ways that we will stay safe...we started to bring some people back.
But I do think it did something psychologically to staff to have a vaccine mandate, when they started to see their friends who refused to take the vaccine being asked to leave, or to take a leave, because that was an option, to take a leave of absence, until they were able to come back when things changed in terms of the rates of infection, and we were having a different approach."
Breaking bad behavior. Another complaint expressed multiple times in the teacher survey was increasing difficulty in disciplining students and a lack of support from the district for the problem, which appears to have worsened amid the pandemic.
Answering this concern, Maldonado spoke about a new discipline system implemented last fall, and some shortcomings she did not foresee.
"We did Institute a new response to behavior that was kicked off last summer, which I think made people feel like, 'Oh, you're no longer really doubling down on kids' behavior.'
And we've...been walking this fine line, of trying to be very compassionate and understanding of what children have been through with the pandemic and the loss of social, emotional, relational skills that they need, and at the same time, trying to Institute a new response to behavior that takes us away from immediate suspensions, immediate expulsions, and really tries to deal with the whole child and understanding what led to this behavior in the first place.
And I think that there is a combination of many factors happening, including, some people need more help, with the way that some children come across to them. And I think we could have probably hired more staff in some schools to help with safety. I know that I made some decisions midyear to hire more campus safety assistance in some places that we hadn't budgeted for because we underestimated that support needed."
Micromanaging bureaucratic delay. In private conversations, some departed executives have described Maldonado as a "micromanager" who wants sign-off on everything, while some teachers and others complained of long delays in getting approval of spending requests and other necessary authorizations.
The superintendent acknowledged delays, saying they came about in part because she was putting in place financial controls and processes that were lacking under her predecessor, and offered her perspective when asked directly if she is a micromanager,
"The other thing I inherited is just a system that needs a lot of controls and accountability for how we spend our money...I inherited a system that didn't do that kind of tracking, even just job transactions, when you have an employee that comes in, having an employee tracking of who's getting hired, how are they getting paid, from what funding? And so we've had a lot of work that we've had to do internally between HR and fiscal, payroll, to really keep track of employee transactions.
"There's a lot of transactions that happen in schools where maybe a principal decides to promote somebody to another job. So we've been putting some controls in place. One of the biggest fears when you take on a job like this is that you're going to make a mistake when it comes to school safety and budgets. And so that's something that I did inherit, some cleaning up to do. And that's what we've been doing...
"I ask a lot of questions, and it's probably annoyed a lot of people. I'm constantly asking for data. 'How many employees do I have in this department? How many employees do I have in that department? What are their hours? How do we track attendance?'
We have some attendance that's being tracked online, some of it is still paper-pencil, where we have to collect timecards and put them in. So we're looking at systematizing some of this in a way that we can better track all those things. But those things take time, training and oversight. And those are things that when you're trying to do things like that, while dealing with a pandemic, and getting pulled many ways, it does take its toll on a lot of people.
"I have had to be what I call a details person, which is not necessarily my way of always working. And I think that part of that is that I've come into a school system that is very different from the one I come from, and having to learn the processes, completely different student information system, completely different fiscal system, completely different ways of approving curriculum and things like that. So I think I do ask a lot of questions because I want to understand, and I think that some people may perceive that as being a micromanager."
A bumpy roll-out for "universal access." Many parents have expressed concerns about a new initiative, which will be before the school board later this month, for upper grade classes that combine students from what has been called the "honors" track and "college prep," leading to apprehension, not only by parents of honors students that they will not receive as much rigorous attention for advanced studies as previously, and by parents of college prep students, fearing that their kids will fall behind in an accelerated learning environment.
Maldonado acknowledged the district fell short in introducing the change to families, but stated that both sets of concerns will be addressed under the new system,
"This is another one of these areas of the school system that I needed to understand better, when it came to how we enrolled children for the junior high school and then up to high school. And I learned that we basically went from a system where we decided, based on test scores, how we placed children in honors or college prep, to a system where it's just kind of, you choose your own adventure - do you want to be in honors or college prep?...
"(W)hat staff have informed me about..is that we started to see a very clear division of ethnicities around who goes into honors and college prep. And teachers themselves started to really realize, this is not really working, we need to have all sorts of kids in our classrooms. And I've had to go and meet with some of the teachers myself to understand what they were thinking about doing, how were we helping to prepare them to meet the different levels of learning that we have, and what they needed to be able to make this successful...
"I know that parents feel that by mixing children, the high achievers, or the honors students, will get less, and I've been assured by teachers that will not happen. And I have to trust the teachers when they tell me that...
"So we (also) talked about what are some investments you're setting aside (for college prep students) for tutoring, peer mentoring, after school if needed. I know that we have had programs in our schools that we want to lean into, in terms of study skills and other kinds of supports that students get. And so those are all the conversations we have been having since January. February, January is when we started this conversation...
"And I'm going to be the first one, and the last one probably, to admit we did not do a good job of engaging families and community when it came to this project. And that was why we did the (May 31) webinar (about the change). And that was the first of many."
Thinking the unthinkable. In the wake of national horror about the most recent school shooting in Texas, which left 19 children and two teachers dead, Newsmakers asked Maldonado about safety planning in SBUSD schools.
"We have safety administrators at every school who write safety plans, they're due every year. We do drills. I never thought I would see the day where we would have to train children on what to do if there's an active shooter. And every time I think of... My boys are now 23 and 24, but I have nieces and nephews and others that are young. And I think of, Rosie and Isabella, my two great nieces that are in second and fourth grade, and thinking about how they would have to go to active shooter training, where we teach kids how to hide, how to stay quiet, how to move away from doors and windows, but it even goes as far as saying how to fight back...
"I know I've heard from parents, emails, put a (School Resource Officer) in every school.' Well, we know that there were SROs in schools when these shootings have happened, not just in the last one we saw in Texas, but in others. It's all of us together working as a community to take care of our children and to look for signs, and to understand and to think about, how do we keep each other safe...
"But it's unconscionable to me that a school is not a sacred place in our communities. I just cannot get my head around that."