Santa Barbara City Councilman Oscar Gutierrez.
Santa Barbara City Councilman Oscar Gutierrez opposes new fencing at Ortega Park. He also wants the Santa Barbara Unified School District to work more collaboratively with the city. Credit: Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo

Oscar Gutierrez learned how to swim in the pool at Ortega Park.

For the 39-year-old Santa Barbara city councilman, Ortega Park isn’t just a line item on a budget. It’s a backyard, a playground, a place to experience the community with friends and family.

So, the idea of putting a fence around the park, or portions of the park, doesn’t sit well with him.

“I am generally against building walls and fences, especially in areas that have historically not had them,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez and Santa Barbara Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez (no relation) expressed the most concern about the parks and recreation budget. Both of them also voiced dissatisfaction with the Santa Barbara Unified School District and board.

Santa Barbara’s Parks & Recreation Department has proposed increasing fees, cutting a key after-school program at Monroe Elementary School, slashing a popular summer camp and placing fencing around some city parks as part of its recommended budget for 2024-25.

The Santa Barbara City Council heard a gloomy presentation from Parks & Recreation Director Jill Zachary at a meeting last week.

The department has a $7.9 million 2024 fiscal year budget. It is looking to cut expenditures by $289,824 next fiscal year and $445,428 the following fiscal year.

Other proposed cuts include eliminating “Summer Fun,” a low-cost full-day summer camp designed for low-income families. One of two sessions of Summer Fun would remain.

Last year, the department served 493 families, and with the cut would serve only 240 families this year.

Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon and Councilman Mike Jordan were absent from the meeting.

Oscar Gutierrez rejected the idea of adding fencing around parks and scolded the Santa Barbara Unified School District for not working more collaboratively on after-school programs.

“Putting something up where something hasn’t been, and then calculating the cost of the materials, the work to construct it, then maintain it over the years, as of right now, I don’t see that as a priority,” he said.

He peppered Zachary with several questions about the fencing. She said it wasn’t possible to come up with an exact cost of the proposed fencing.

The city has proposed fencing for Eastside Park, Dwight Murphy Field and portions of Ortega Park. The Eastside Park is about to undergo a renovation, and Zachary said a fence is needed to stop children from running into the street.

With Ortega Park, she said, it’s more complicated.

“One of the biggest challenges we have with that park is how it is used for less-productive reasons,” Zachary said.

Oscar Gutierrez also turned his focus to the proposed elimination of after-school programs and his frustration with the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

Zachary has proposed cutting an after-school program at the district’s Monroe Elementary School, which serves mostly Latino students, in favor of programs at Washington, Roosevelt and Adams elementary schools.

She has proposed that the students could go to either Washington Elementary School about one mile away or sign up for a different after-school program, A-OK! run by the school district.

The student population at Monroe, 431 Flora Vista Drive, is about 72% Latino, according to statistics from the California Department of Education.

School district spokesman Ed Zuchelli told Noozhawk previously that it’s not certain that the district could absorb any additional students with the A-OK! program, and that the Parks & Recreation Department should reconsider the cut.

At the meeting, Oscar Gutierrez asked Zachary if the school district was facing a budget deficit, and Zachary responded: “We are not privy to the information related to the school district.”

Oscar Gutierrez said he was disappointed that the City Council and the school district had not had a joint meeting to discuss issues that overlap.

“I really wish we would have had that joint City Council and school board meeting in January,” Oscar Gutierrez said. “I consider them partners. We have a shared interest in making sure our youth are being taken care of.”

He said the communication between the city and the school district is “one-way.”

“I reach out to them, and I don’t get a response,” Gutierrez said. “I just wish they would speak up and step up and help us address the youth in our community.”

Alejandra Gutierrez said she is concerned about after-school programs and the lack of partnership with the school district.

“What I think we should really focus on is the district meeting with the City Council, how the district has not provided any support to continue funding for after-school programming and summer recreation programs for our children,” said Alejandra Gutierrez, a former school district employee. “The district has to this day has not provided their budget information to the city to see how we can work together.”

School district spokesman Ed Zuchelli said district and city staff have had meetings that featured City Administrator Rebecca Bjork, Police Chief Kelly Gordon, Superintendent Hilda Maldonado, Assistant Superintendent of Student and Family Services ShaKenya Edison and others.

“District and city staff have been communicating to find mutually agreeable dates for both sides,” Zuchelli said. “We had a date in March but had to delay it due to an unavoidable scheduling conflict. We will have the meeting after the school year ends.”

Zuchelli said the staff meetings that have been held were productive conversations about “topics we will discuss at the joint meeting, including youth engagement, youth wellness, and youth employment. We look forward to finalizing a date and the continued collaboration with city partners.”

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the final budget in mid-June.