OP-ED: Newly Retired Teacher Shares Her Perspective on the SBUSD Impasse

By Melanie Jacobson

After a 36-year teaching career, I’ve chosen to retire in advance of what should be a sizable salary increase from the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD). While the current impasse between certificated faculty and the district will not affect me materially, I have an abiding interest in our schools.

When I moved to Santa Barbara, I felt lucky to teach history at San Marcos High School, where the innovative spirit inspired me to stay put for 31 years.

I stand with my former colleagues – proudly and with great sympathy.  Through the “Parent-Square” messaging platform, SBUSD has the benefit of regularly amplifying and shaping the narrative to the community in ways unavailable to SBTA, the teacher’s union.

The district’s rosy picture of their generosity in a time of budget constraints leaves out important information. It reflects a narrow, protectionist modus operandi that is increasingly under-serving classroom teachers and by extension, the students and their families. Don’t be fooled.

Across three decades in the profession, I have learned to expect that there always will be claims of funding shortfalls. The information provided by SBTA indicates that, irrespective of Covid monies, the district revenues have increased by an average of 7.2% over 10 years, but that teacher salaries have grown only 3.2% in that time. SBTA illustrates this trend in two charts: “Salaries vs. Revenues,” and “Salaries to Expenditures.”

SBUSD – Certificated Bargaining Unit Salaries Percent of Total Outgo (Graph: SBTA)

Teacher salaries have not kept pace with cost of living increases. So the “rainy-day reserve” argument doesn’t hold sway in light of the moral imperative of dignifying the work of the teachers, which has become more complicated and arduous as the world has become fragile and fraught with existential crises.

SBUSD Classroom educator salaries have not kept pace with revenue growth (Graph: SBTA)

The impasse is less about dollars and cents as it is about ethics and sense. The district has a track record of glossing over the reality of our workload, in spite of reasoned pleas for support for students and teachers in the classroom. Three examples:

  1. The multilingual emergent students arriving from their home countries are placed in cohorts in college prep courses without sufficient bilingual support. According to the district, bilingual support specialists were “just not applying” to fill the need, which meant that teachers were left to translate materials and find ways to integrate them in the learning experience they deserved but couldn’t access. If the district offered bilingual support employees adequate compensation for their vital services (vs. slightly more than minimum wage), there would be an abundance of qualified applicants. I was one of many teachers helping these important members of our learning community gain access to the curriculum. The unremunerated extra hours of labor led to exhaustion and ultimately harmed students who could not possibly gain “equal access to the curriculum.” Maintaining faith in our district leaders, who talk about equity, but don’t deliver when the need is staring them in the face, is difficult.
  2. After a year of Covid lockdown, the district, in this particular iteration of “magical thinking,” announced that teachers were ready to welcome students back to in-classroom for hybrid learning. Nothing was further from the truth. They announced “readiness” before the requisite technology arrived. In fact, the Friday afternoon before reopening on Monday, teachers were scrambling to get the cameras, sound system, voice amplifiers, and monitors out of their boxes and wired, or programmed to operate wirelessly, with neither training nor the provision of time to work out how to use it to simultaneously engage students in the classroom and those learning remotely. The district never consulted with the teachers about readiness, but “ready and eager” were the terms they used in their public messaging.
  3. It is unconscionable that for two years, the SBUSD has dismissed the poignant stories of young teachers brave enough to speak their truth in the public comment session of the Board  meetings. We are called to bridge the gap between struggling families and mental health services.  The increased, near superhuman levels of responsibility led to a surge in teacher anxiety, compounded by the reality that neighboring districts pay much more. In fact, in a comparison of school districts in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, SBUSD ranks 26th. I have witnessed a mass exodus of young, talented teachers who have left the profession or moved to higher-paying districts. They continue to leave because their salaries aren’t commensurate with the cost of living here. The district remains unmoved by teachers who chose this profession to make a difference and who work hard to not just educate, but to save lives.
Teacher salary comparison among local districts (Graph: SBTA)

SBUSD, where is your sense of mission? Education is fundamentally about the relationship between students and teachers.

You cannot serve students if you deny the needs of teachers. I leave behind a beautiful teaching career exhausted and uncomprehending about why the district would be bystanders to the unnecessary, out-going parade of talented teachers.

Melanie Jacobson is a recently retired San Marcos High School teacher and parent of two young adults, for whom Dos Pueblos High School teachers and counselors bent over backward to care for and serve.

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    • I made a mistake in saying Vista de la Mar salaries balance out Cold Spring and MUS. It is a tiny district and by itself balances out very little. I meant to combine it and screwed it up. I still believe that when South Coast school districts are all combined vs SBUSD, the teacher pay is close and I still believe they should get a raise. I do want more comprehensive and accurate comparisons.

  1. As a retired educator I applaud Ms. Jacobson for taking the trouble to document for the public the true facts relating to the SBUSD administration and its policy decisions. Teachers are the guides for our children and grandchildren who will be our future leaders. Their task is vital to our community and they should be accorded the appropriate respect and remuneration.

  2. So what expense is going up as a percentage of revenue? If teachers salaries as a percentage are going down something is going up.
    I’d love to see a chart of administration salaries and pensions/benefits as a percentages of revenue over time.
    If administration salaries are going up faster than teachers that seems it would be a strong argument for the teachers union.
    If teachers benefits/pensions are going up, the school district would have a strong argument.

    • They might oppose a higher raise because the budget models for future years show that the reserves would fall to dangerously low levels. Isn’t that important?
      The board must approve a budget that maintains adequate reserves looking at 3 year budget models. They have identified a bottom limit of 10% reserves which is absolutely reasonable for a unified school district (and riskier than what school financial advisors would recommend). They are attempting to be fiscally responsible with the budget. They do not want to over commit and put the district in a position where they have to increase class sizes and make cuts in the future – it may not ever happen, but this is what you have to think of when you manage a budget. This is something that is in the front of every board member’s thinking.
      There are so many comments about what the teachers deserve – and I think that everyone, including the board (and even Hilda) feels that they do deserve a lot higher pay, but that is not what this is about. The district is not able to disregard the budget to pay people their worth. I also read comments about how they are underpaid relative to other nearby districts and that is also not what this is about. They still have to make decisions looking at the budget. Regardless, the teachers need as much money as the district can afford to live in this area…
      My point is that the district/board is not trying to limit teachers pay because based on what they think they deserve or what the other teachers get, rather they are trying to be fiscally responsible. The board are volunteers who believe in our public school. they are attempting to make reasonable budget decisions. I hope that fact finding is effective and the district can find room to offer a little more while maintaining adequate reserves.

  3. The 3rd chart comparing salaries is (unintentionally) misleading.
    Small samples yield skewed results.
    Cold Spring, Montecito, Hope do not have a large samples of teachers and none of them should be used for average or mean comparisons to an overwhelmingly larger district. Even combined as Hope, Cold Spring, MUS, their sample is still way too small to compare average or mean accurately to SBUSD.
    When you have a small sample, simple differences within can skew the average. For example if MUS, Hope and Cold Springs have more long term teachers and fewer recent hires, their $$$ average would be higher but their pay could be comparable with similarly tenured colleagues at SBUSD.

    Hope, MUS, Cold Spring are too small even when combined to be a representative sample and for balance the SBUSD comparison should combine Hope, Cold Spring, MUS, Carpinteria Unified, Vista del Mar and Goleta. This would give a good view of how they stack up next to the average and to the mean of the rest of the South Coast.

    I think they owe taxpayers that type of comparison. How does our pay of SBUSD teachers stack up next to the rest of South Coast combined? This would help us come to better informed conclusions. Doesn’t mean the SBUSD should not get a fair raise, but it would help us better determine “fair”

    For what it is worth (very little) I went on Transparent California and tried to collect all the 2023 salary data for all of these districts vs, SBUSD and run the comparison and with what I found, it came out about even. BUT I really would like to see experts do it because I might be missing something.

    Seat of the pants reasons why my numbers could be right are Vista del Mar salaries seem to balance out Cold Spring and MUS, while Carpinteria elementary school salaries seem to balance out Hope.
    Goleta’s elementary schools and SBUSD’s are a toss up, leaving Carpinteria Middle and Senior vs SBUSD’s High School and Middle School salaries. On the average, and on the mean, the South Coast combined vs SBUSD seem fairly close.

  4. Thank you Melanie Jacobson for the courage to inform the community what is happening from a teachers perspective. It is clear that the district is underpaying teachers by the simple fact that the district had to ask the state for a waiver because the district pays teachers less than the 55% the state requires. On top of this we know that our community has lost 100 teachers annually because pay is 15,000-20,000 less than neighboring districts. As someone who goes to countless board meetings teachers who do stay have a difficult job since many positions remain unfilled. Special ed has been a revolving door of teachers and para educators. Para educators are offered 19 an hour and only given 6 or 7 hours w/o benefits. At board meetings teachers pour their hearts out. One that I can’t forget is a teacher who is a single mom whose son wrestles can’t afford to buy meat . So many drive a two hour commute daily or work multiple jobs. Yet the admin salaries are bloated as they have been getting the same raises or stipends that teachers get. This practice has not be stopped by the board yet.

    The current Superintendent is creating chaos and trust has eroded. Two hundred teachers have left on her watch on top of all but one of the original cabinet. So much institutional knowledge gone with this mass exodus of talent. Our district is in triage and the Superintendent & leadership continue to delay and settle with SBTA. 15/8 is reasonable and the alternative is to lose our teachers. Why are cuts to admin off limits? Students had stagnant scores pre pandemic and then endured learning loss. Now for the past year they have had to deal with lack of teachers and chaos. This is no way to run a district. Many students particularly our marginalized students whose parents don’t have means for tutors or supports while be irreparably harmed. So sad and so unnecessary.

  5. Whenever there is a labor dispute involving teachers or government workers, it’s always described as a dispute between the employees and whatever agency they work for. On one side of the bargaining table are the employees and on the other side is the agency. What side of the table do taxpayers sit on? Where will the money come from to meet teachers demands? 75% of our property taxes go to schools plus transfers from our state taxes. Per student spending has more than doubled in the last 10 years but outcomes don’t seem to be improving.

    • That’s because the money isn’t being spent on things that affect student outcomes. It’s going toward hiring more administrators and consultants who never interact with students.

      Ideally the “taxpayers’ seat” would be occupied by the school board. But the board hasn’t done anything constructive to end this dispute since it began. They just take the superintendent at her word and don’t ask questions. Vote in November.

  6. From what I can observe, the basic problem with the local school system is too many executives and managers all receiving high salaries (and the concurrent benefits and lifetime retirement).

    If there weren’t so many superintendents, assistant superintendents, vice superintendents, principals, deputy assistant principals, directors, etc., etc. there would be more funds available for the people actually doing the work, the teachers.

    A look at the organization chart for the school district would reveal where a significant portion of the budget is going and it isn’t to the classroom teachers.

  7. ESL
    Facts can be true and also not tell the whole story. I expect everyone involved in a negotiation to present their own facts.

    I can set up a factual chart that compares Santa Barbara County Districts to SBUSD and use:

    I can mix and match all the district facts until I come up with a mix that shows SBUSD is the highest paid district on my entirely factual chart which doesn’t help anyone make an informed decision.
    It encourages an emotional response

    • I’ve looked up data and found that for equivalent experience, teachers in SBUnified are making $15k to $20k a year less than those in Goleta.

      Now, SBUnified is different because they have junior high and high school. It costs more to educate JH and HS students, so Goleta can’t just say “see, we are awesome”, because they don’t have the same expenses.

      However, you can also look up Ventura and Santa Maria, which would be equivalent districts, and find that SBUnified pays less. It’s visible in the loss of 100 teachers per year. If you have to commute from SM or Ventura anyway, why bother to stay at SB?

      Regardless, the proof is in the (lack of) retention due to large salary gaps. SBUnified HAS the money. They HAVE to be able to figure this out. Their predictions of future revenue have been abysmal. I have very little faith in this school board. I am aware that they don’t get paid much ($400 per month). But at least in the past, I got responses from Capps, Kate Ford, Virginia Alvarez when I have emailed about issues. This current board? Crickets.

  8. Once this salary dispute mess finally comes to a conclusion, is there anyone, anywhere who honestly believes that this district can continue to be run by the current administration? The mistrust engendered, the sense of entitlement among the cabinet (and their lack of connection to the community), and the painfully low morale among educators is so clearly toxic.

    When there was a mass exodus of long-term administrators who had a vast amount of institutional knowledge–only to be replaced with newcomers hand-picked by Hilda–it was so very obvious it was only a matter of time before this district would become a sad, sad, place for students and teachers to do their work.

    I’m wondering when the school board will finally come to their senses and recognize it’s time for them to exercise the most important duty they have and address the situation with the superintendent, under whose leadership this district has slipped so far. But it seems she has the upper hand, even over the board that is elected to represent the interests of the public, not just to allow the superintendent to run the show.

    New contract, new beginning with an experienced person who can set goals and develop strategies; who has strong leadership skills, respect for the community; and empathy and knowledge about how to teach children and value educators.

  9. Time to DRAIN THE SWAMP of “Administrative Staff Positions”… Like Vivek dream of getting rid of Washington D.C. entrenched bureaucracies like H.U.D., Dept of Education and the FBI, we have the same PORK in our school systems. The reality is, the South Coast school districts should be consolidated into ONE district. The duplicity of Adminstrators between Carp, Montecito, Santa Barbara, Hope and Goleta is an insane waste of taxpayer funds. The teachers, after a 4 year undergrad degree, 1.5 year of a CA Teaching Credential certification should be getting a starting salary that a County Sheriff’s Deputy gets or MORE…

Hazmat response to Figueroa Mountain Brewery in Buellton on June 9, 2024 (Photo: Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

HazMat Response to Figueroa Mountain Brewery in Buellton

Audrey, a Masai Giraffe at the Santa Barbara Zoo, passed away at age 16 (courtesy photo)

Santa Barbara Zoo Giraffe Audrey Passes at 16