Tuesday, March 20 , 2018, 9:09 am | Overcast 53º


Santa Barbara Officials Offer School Progress Report

The district says the budget is back on track and laid-off teachers have returned. Among changes for students is a ban on cell phones and MP3 players.

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In attendance for the Santa School School District’s back-to-school update Tuesday were Annisa McNeil, director of special education; Barbara Keyani, communications director; Robin Sawaske, associate superintendent of education; Eric Smith, deputy superintendent of business services; Brian Sarvis, superintendent; Kristine Robertson, director of personnel (hidden); Ann Peak, personnel analyst; and Michael Gonzalez, director of student services and compliance. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

With the first day of school less than a week away, Santa Barbara school leaders on Tuesday gave an update on the state of the public schools, touching on a range of topics, including a new ban on cell phones during school hours, a proposed gang-prevention initiative and the budget, which district officials insist is back on track. 

Given last school year’s shaky start — beginning with a budget boondoggle and continuing this spring with dozens of teacher layoffs — district officials on Tuesday seemed to insinuate that last school year ended on a relatively positive note, all things considered.

When the 2008-09 school year begins Monday, the district’s budget books will be in order, and with minimal bloodshed, officials said.

The budget woes were resolved last year, they said, by a personnel overhaul that included the hiring of an able finance chief, Deputy Superintendent Eric Smith, who guided the school board through the fog by recommending $4.1 million in cuts, which were made in April. The 43 teachers who received layoff notices as a result of the cuts were all offered their jobs back, because of retirements and other resignations, Superintendent Brian Sarvis said Tuesday.

Gone, however, will be small class sizes for ninth-grade math courses, and reduced will be the number of instructional aides in special-education classrooms, as well as school psychologists, among other things.

More financial storms could be on the horizon. Sarvis said the graduating class of 2008 was the largest ever in Santa Barbara, with 1,700 seniors from Santa Barbara, Dos Pueblos and San Marcos high schools receiving diplomas.

That, he said, could take a sizable chunk out of the population of the seventh-through-12th-grade district, which in turn could spell more bad news for the budget, as school districts generally receive money from the state based on enrollment.

Conversely, enrollment in the elementary district — after years of steady decline — appears to be back on the rise, he said. “That’s a relief to us,” Sarvis said, adding that it takes at least a week to gather reliable attendance figures.

For students, among the biggest changes this year will be new rules concerning gadgetry. When students come back to school Monday, they will find that they are no longer allowed to use cell phones and MP3 players on campus, although they can store the devices in their backpacks.

“Our experience on a daily basis is when that cell phone rings, it disrupts the educational environment, and that’s not something we can tolerate,” said Michael Gonzalez, the district administrator in charge of discipline issues. “There is a time and a place for cell phone use. It’s not during the school day.” 

This fall, voters will be asked to make school-related decisions. Among the items on the ballot will be two parcel taxes, one for the elementary district and another for the seventh-through-12th-grade district.

Taxpayers in the elementary district, which exists wholly in the city of Santa Barbara, will be asked to approve a tax of $27 per parcel, and voters in the seventh-through-12th-grade district — which includes Montecito, Santa Barbara and Goleta — will be asked to approve one for $23.

If passed, the initiatives would bring music classes to all elementary students and bolster a range of programs in the seventh-through-12th-grade district, from math to theater to foreign language.

Voters also will elect three school board members. Running for the three open seats will be Annette Cordero — the race’s lone incumbent — and five challengers: Susan Deacon, Ed Heron, Jaqueline Inda, Kate Smith and Charlotte Ware.

School officials also commented on their efforts to shield campuses from the kind of gang-related violence that has resulted in the stabbing deaths of three teenagers in the past couple of years.

“We’re afraid that some of that might bleed over to the school campuses,” Sarvis said. “So far, the gang violence has been off of our school campuses, it’s been in the community, but we’re very worried about the safety of our students.”

Chief among their efforts is a proposal to hire street-smart gang-intervention specialists to work on the district’s junior high and high school campuses. The specialists — some of whom could be reformed gang members — would spend time on the campuses getting to know at-risk students, but also venture into surrounding neighborhoods to speak with parents about the risky behavior of their children, officials said.

“Many parents who are having to deal with youngsters involved in gang violence are in denial,” Gonzalez said. “They will not believe the youngster is part of that gang involvement.”

The specialists, he said, would give those parents a reality check, as well as help provide ways to dissuade the teenagers from getting involved.

However, the gang-specialist program is not a done deal. Last week, administrators asked the school board to hire at least five such specialists, at a total cost of $330,000. A majority of school board members, however, said they felt more comfortable starting smaller, perhaps with a pilot project. The board is expected to take another look later this month or next.

Meanwhile, the board is still wrestling with the idea of passing a dress code prohibiting the “gang look.”

In May, a proposal called for barring plain white T-shirts “when worn in combination with another black or blue T-shirt,” because, at least locally, white and blue signify gang colors. It also called for doing away with, among other things, knee-length socks when worn with long shorts; sagging or oversized pants; and haircuts, jewelry or accessories denoting membership in a gang. The proposal was criticized by at least one board member — Cordero — as veering dangerously close to profiling, and the school board held off on voting on it. The dress code, too, is expected to come back to the board.

District officials also said they expect more schools to be sanctioned by the federal government under the No Child Left Behind law when test scores are released this month.

In addition, they said that in the past four years, new textbooks have been purchased to all core programs.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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