Santa Barbara teacher Hosby Galindo.
Hosby Galindo, a math teacher at La Cumbre Junior High School and president of the Santa Barbara Teachers Association, says there is a lack of trust in the administration of the Santa Barbara Unified School District. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Teachers in the Santa Barbara Unified School District are embroiled in an increasingly bitter and public battle over salaries and staffing levels, and some people trace the conflict to a “lack of trust” that has festered throughout the administration of Superintendent Hilda Maldonado.

The departure of veteran senior administrators, and Maldonado’s subsequent replacement of them by people outside of the district, has heightened tensions and fueled skepticism that the district is not dealing in good faith with the union in negotiations.

The costly salaries and benefits afforded members of Maldonado’s cabinet — well more than $1.1 million — demonstrate the gap between the administration and teachers, who are paid substantially lower than other local districts, according to union leaders.

Another flashpoint is the district’s failure last year to use 55% of its budget for teacher salaries as required by state law. The district has infuriated teachers by belatedly seeking a “waiver” from the state for having spent $6.7 million less than what should have gone to salaries.

“There have been trust issues that have been created definitely with the change in cabinet and the arrival of Dr. Hilda Maldonado,” said Hosby Galindo, president of the Santa Barbara Teachers Association.

Maldonado told Noozhawk that the cabinet cares about students.

“Building relationships at all levels of the organization is one of the highest priorities of our school district,” Maldonado said.

She said one of the district’s initiatives this year is to spotlight the vision statement of “Every child, Every Chance, Every Day.”

“The student and teacher relationship is the most important one, and all of our cabinet members are leading initiatives that place the student experiences in our schools at the forefront, such as improved literacy and math outcomes, social-emotional learning, addressing anti-Blackness, racism and discrimination, and respectful treatment of all persons,” Maldonado said.

However, that message has not trickled down to the people in the classrooms doing the work.

Dozens of teachers have rallied, protested and spoken out against the district in recent weeks, accusing the administration of not valuing the contributions of the 830 teachers who are part of Santa Barbara Unified.

Joel Block, a teacher, led a packed room at the Santa Barbara Unified School District headquarters recently in a chant of, “We are SBTA.”

He said the district has stalled negotiations on a new contract and, after saying talks would begin in November, now is waiting until January.

“Your continued stance on deferring meaningful negotiation will lead to greater and greater resistance,” Block said. “We are strong and we will not back down.”

Galindo, a math teacher at La Cumbre Junior High School for 19 years before getting elected to the SBTA, said there’s been a lack of transparency over the district’s budget and that the district has stalled efforts to begin contract negotiations.

In the past two years, Galindo said, about 200 new teachers have been hired because of recruitment and retention issues. The conflict over the SBTA contract shines a light on the changes at the administration level in the past three years and the link to the unhappiness among the teachers.

The district administration has experienced a massive and costly turnover in the district’s executive cabinet, a move that affects students, Galindo said.

Among the employees who have left or retired since 2020 were Maria Larios-Horton, executive director of diversity, equity and family engagement; Todd Ryckman, chief educational technology officer; Anne Roundy-Harter, director of secondary education; Meg Jette, the district’s longtime fiscal services manager; Chelsea Guillermo-Wann, director of research and evaluation; Steve Vizzolini, director of facilities and maintenance; Fernando Garcia, project manager; and Camilla Barnwell, chief of communications.

Several employees also left the school district in the past three years to join the Santa Barbara County Education Office. Barnwell, Carey, Tiffany Carson, Harter, Shannon Yorke and Armando Uribe all left the district to join the office.

The most significant names of former administrators were Frann Wageneck and Shawn Carey, longtime former assistant superintendents.

In their places, Maldonado has hired a whole new team and even created a new position of chief operating officer for her former colleague at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Steve Venz, the new COO, earns $274,000 annually. That position has never existed in the history of the district.

“As it pertains to all the new cabinet members that have come in, when you restructure things, that causes a trickle-down effect. When you restructure, when you bring in new people and there are new systems that are being put in place, or a lack of systems, at the end of the day that ends up affecting teachers, which ends up affecting students, when you don’t have a clear message that the district is providing,” Galindo said.

The annual payroll for the district tops $1.1 million for executive cabinet members.

Lynne Sheffield, assistant superintendent of secondary education, earns $255,000 annually; ShaKenya Edison, assistant superintendent of student services, earns $255,000; Kim Hernandez, assistant superintendent of fiscal services, earns $288,000; and Denise Alvarado, elementary executive director of educational services, earns $215,000.

The district’s chief of communications, Ed Zuchelli, earns $181,000 annually. The district recently decided to hire an additional communications specialist at a cost of $71,000 annually, to specialize in “bilingual communication, especially to reach the modern digital audience,” Zuchelli said.

The only remaining member of the cabinet is John Becchio, assistant superintendent of human resources, who earns $277,000 annually.

The district has spent money in other ways other than teachers, some of it directly on behalf of Maldonado. The board of trustees approved $10,805 on leadership training for Maldonado for the 2022-23 school year.

The board of trustees contracted with public relations firm Nichols Strategies from January to June 2021 at a cost of $50,000, spokesman Zuchelli said. The firm was used by the district for crisis communication and to help produce a strategic communication plan with the former PIO, Zuchelli told Noozhawk.

Kim Baron, a teacher at Washington Elementary School, said the average starting teacher salary in Santa Barbara Unified is $61,000. The top teacher salary is $106,000.

“Many teachers in this district are considered low-income or very-low-income based on the cost of housing in our town,” Baron said. “Our district should be ashamed of this.”

Baron said the SBTA should receive a 10% increase just to go back to where teachers were three years ago after factoring in inflation.

“None of you on the board, or at the top level of the district’s administration, are low income,” Baron said. “So why should the teachers be?”

Further enraging teachers is the fact that the district failed to spend the minimum percentage of its budget on teacher salaries, as required by the education code, in the 2022-23 school year and is seeking a waiver from the State of California.

The district said the situation is an “anomaly” because of COVID-19 expenditures that snarled the percentages.

Maldonado told Noozhawk that the district paid teachers a 2.5% salary increase a year ago and gave them a one-time $2,500 stipend. She said Santa Barbara Unified met the requirement every other year, except for last year.

“This extra COVID-19 relief spending decreased the teacher salary ratio to 51.82%. It is important to note, the amount of money spent on teacher salaries did not change, and if you remove these one-time funds, the ratio is 55.3%,” Maldonado said. “For this reason, Santa Barbara Unified qualifies for the waiver.”

However, Galindo said the 55% ratio is the floor and nothing to be celebrating.

“That’s the floor, right,” Galindo said. “The fact that they didn’t even meet the floor, they have us somewhere beneath the floor. We don’t even make it to the ground. We’re in the basement somewhere.”

Jose Caballero, a teacher in the district, sent a letter to the Santa Barbara County Education Office opposing the waiver.

“Teacher morale in our district is at all-time historic lows, and everyone in our community knows that the cauldron of dissent is about to boil over,” Caballero wrote. “You absolutely can not allow our district to make excuses for underfunding our teachers. There can be no education without our teachers, and I need you to hear that our teachers are at the absolute ragged edge.”

He said Carpinteria Unified spends $8,000 more in health care benefit contributions than Santa Barbara Unified. Teachers at the five-year mark in the Goleta Union School District earn about $5,000 more than Santa Barbara Unified teachers, according to the SBTA.

Galindo said he urges the public to come forward and support the teachers. It’s the students who are hurt, he said, by the district’s “lack of transparency.”

“Right now, the way that the district has decided to compensate teachers is actually affecting students because they are not receiving equitable education across school sites,” Galindo said.

There are openings, he said, in special education, language arts and math.

“What is creating this inequity throughout the district for students, and affecting their education, is the fact that the district has not been able to create a competitive salary scale that retains teachers and attracts teachers to this district,” Galindo said.

The district must be held accountable so that students receive all the services they are legally entitled to, Galindo said.

“A quarter of the district’s teachers are new teachers to this district,” Galindo said, adding that experienced teachers should be in the classroom with students. “At the end of the day, if something does not change here, and the district does not make some drastic changes in how they compensate teachers, students ultimately are the people who suffer.”

In a statement Oct. 24 to staff and families, the district said it is ready to negotiate on the contract, which ends June 30, 2024.

“The entire contract is open for negotiations, and compensation and health benefits are the most critical and impactful topics to solve,” said the statement, provided to Noozhawk by spokesman Zuchelli. “The district values its employees and stands ready to engage in meaningful negotiations on Nov. 15th of any proposals that are brought forward.”