Santa Barbara Unified School District.
The Santa Barbara Unified School District, struggling to hire and retain paraeducators, will spend $500,000 on a staffing firm to help fill the void. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Facing a massive shortage of paraeducators, the Santa Barbara Unified School District has agreed to spend $500,000 to hire a staffing firm to help fill the void.

The vote Tuesday night was 5-0 to hire San Luis Obispo-based Maxim Healthcare Staffing Services Inc. to bring more paraeducators to Santa Barbara Unified.

The district has about 60 vacancies and is scrambling to fill the positions. Paraeducators support licensed special-education teachers in the classroom.

“I have never seen anything like it,” said John Becchio, assistant superintendent of human resources. “We really need to do something to fill these spaces.”

He called the situation “dire circumstances.”

The inability to hire special-education teachers and paraeducators is a national problem. With a shortage of special-education teachers, many paraeducators have moved into those full-time positions, leaving a massive hole for support staff.

Federal COVID-19 money also allowed competing school districts to hire special-education teachers and paraeducators, and Becchio said people who were commuting to Santa Barbara Unified took positions closer to home.

“School districts everywhere were opening positions, needing employees, and that was advantageous to them because they obviously save time and money by not having to commute,” Becchio said.

Many people at Santa Barbara Unified, Becchio said, are also just quitting.

“The Great Resignation that you have heard about,” Becchio said. “We definitely have seen more resignations than we have ever seen.”

The district has about $2.5 million budgeted for the vacant positions. The cost for the district to hire its own paraeducator is $35 an hour.

The Maxim contract would cost the district $37 an hour to employ each paraeducator, equalling an average annual amount of about $30,000 per paraeducator.

John Schettler, director of special education for Santa Barbara Unified, said the district has added about 40 special-ed positions since the start of the pandemic. Most of those are focused on students’ “behaviorial needs,” he said.

“We need to look at multiple ways to fill these positions,” Schettler said. 

Board member Virginia Alvarez said she has heard about the paraeducator shortage from talking to teachers and classified staff.

“I thank you for looking at different ways to fill this need since it is so difficult to hire permanent staff at the moment,” Alvarez said.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.