After weeks of hand-wringing, the Santa Barbara school board on Tuesday night unanimously agreed to hire two gang outreach workers who will work directly with students involved in gangs.
The outreach workers each will be paid $31,000 to $39,000 annually—the exact amount has yet to be decided—plus benefits, and most likely will work in junior high and high schools on the east and west sides of town.
The plan is meant to be a temporary, tourniquet solution to what has become a deadly problem: In the past two years, three teenagers have been fatally stabbed in Santa Barbara. Others have been injured.
Put another way, the money earmarked for the outreach workers, roughly $90,000 for this year, will dry up at the end of the fiscal year, and a steering committee will be formed to better decipher the long-term direction of the program.
It is expected that it will take until November before the yet-to-be hired workers start the job.
On Tuesday night, before the vote, Santa Barbara Schools Superintendent Brian Sarvis seemed frustrated by the board’s reticence. A different version of the proposal was introduced to the board on Aug. 12, and the board balked. On Sept. 9, it happened again. On Tuesday, Sarvis pressed the board to take action.
“We have a serious problem in our community. The problem is gang culture,” he said. “Children are dying in our streets.”
At one point, he said, somewhat sardonically, that the board has the option to “just wait” and “hope that nobody dies.”
More earnestly, he added: “I’d like you at this point to decide up or down.”
The most skeptical member of the board has been Bob Noel, who on Tuesday voted for the proposal. Noel has repeatedly called for the plan to exhibit better balance, saying while it does well on intervention and suppression, the idea is short on prevention. He also said he would like to see other local agencies share some of the cost of hiring the outreach workers.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, school board member Annette Cordero has been no less frustrated, saying before Tuesday’s vote that it appeared to her that the board had been foot-dragging.
“When you have a bridge collapse, and people are tossed into the water, you definitely say, ‘How could we have prevented this,’” she said. “But you don’t let the people drown. There’s an urgency of dealing with the people who are in the water.”
The outreach workers, who do not need to have attended college, will be trained in areas such as street mediation, which would involve defusing and de-escalating potential episodes of violence; developing local and regional truces; peace agreement maintenance; and rumor control, which the district defines as “training in the prevention of rumors that can cause an intensification of tension and/or igniting violent responses.”
The program approved by the board Tuesday is a stripped-down version of its original form. In August, administrators proposed hiring five outreach specialists to serve six schools at a total cost of about $330,000. On Sept. 9, they pared the proposal down to two specialists, but at a total cost of $133,000, which was markedly higher than the price tag for the plan that was ultimately approved Tuesday night. Under the Sept. 9 proposal, the specialists were slated to earn $49,000 annually, plus benefits. That amount was reduced significantly after several board members lamented how the salary for beginning teachers is only about $43,000.
Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.