.Santa Cruz County’s Struggle to Hire and Retain Teachers Continues

The high cost of living paired with low wages resulted in a mass exodus of Pajaro Valley Unified School District teachers over the last year

Conditions at Pajaro Valley High School have improved since last year, when a group of teachers filed a Williams Complaint with the Pajaro Valley Unified School District over a staffing shortage that left educators overworked and many students without an instructor.

But PVHS English teacher Greg Tucker says that although there are fewer vacancies—dropping from 20 across the district to roughly three—the complaint did not have the desired effect, as district officials put the bulk of the responsibility of filling the openings on the principal’s shoulders.

“That was not the goal,” Tucker says. “The goal was not to make my boss, who was already working hard, work harder.”

Among other things, that led to the use of long-term subs and student teachers. Existing teachers also worked through their prep periods to fill in the gaps.

Tucker says he doesn’t want to file another Williams Complaint—which can be used as recourse for educators when districts are, among other things, not doing their due diligence to provide instructional materials or addressing teacher vacancy or misassignment—out of concern it will further exacerbate the problem that, coupled with the high cost of living in Santa Cruz County and low pay at PVUSD, have many in education questioning their career choices. In the past year, he says, more teachers have left the district than in any other over the nearly two decades he’s been a teacher.

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“You’re left to think, ‘If the system is not going to be fixed, maybe I no longer want to be a part of the system,’” he says. “That’s why we have a lot of people leaving the profession.”

A survey released in July by Edweek.org of 255 principals and 280 district administrators throughout the U.S. shows that schools are seeing far fewer applications for teachers and administrative employees this year compared to 2021. A closer look paints a grim picture, with 86% of those surveyed saying they don’t have enough bus drivers and 72% saying they are short on teachers.

The picture is somewhat better for administrator positions, with just 35% claiming a dearth in that department.

PVUSD spokeswoman Alicia Jimenez said last month that the district is still looking to hire 19 general education and four special education teachers, and Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Alison Niizawa told the Board of Trustees during an Aug. 24 meeting that she expects to fill those ranks this semester.

It was at that fall meeting that the PVUSD Trustees approved a series of bonuses and supplemental payments to retain teachers and school employees. Every teacher, school worker and administrator employed since April 1—and who plans to stay with the district through March 2023—will receive a one-time payment of $2,500. The first half of that payment will come in October, while the second will be paid in June 2023.

Seasonal teachers, classified staff and administrative employees will get the same payment.

In addition, the trustees approved one-time $2,500 signing bonuses for new teachers, with an additional $2,500 going to those with bilingual certifications who sign contracts through Dec. 16.

Teachers who sign on at Watsonville High, and at E.A. Hall and Rolling Hills middle schools—schools harder hit by retention troubles—will also get a $2,500 signing bonus.

New school nurses, speech and language pathologists and psychologists will also get a $2,500 signing bonus, and associate teachers can get a $500 bonus.

The Trustees also agreed to raise the daily pay rate for long-term substitutes from $200 to $240 and to pay those teachers $35 per hour when they lead after-school activities and participate in after-hours school events.

The payments and increases—funded by Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds—are a way to encourage teachers to stay in the district as the nation battles an ongoing shortage of educators and school employees that was compounded by the pandemic.

Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers Chief Negotiator Radhika Kirkman praised the decisions, but added that ongoing raises—rather than one-time payments—will attract and retain teachers. PVFT President Nelly Vaquera-Boggs agreed.

“What would really make a significant statement of valuing the educators in this district is putting money on the salary schedule, because we all know that’s what counts for our retirement,” she said at the August meeting. “So that it’s meaningful for teachers to know that they are being taken care of by our district, and they are being paid a wage that they don’t need to stress about working a second job and dedicate their time to working in the classrooms with the students and having their personal lives in the evenings.”

The items were approved 6-0, with Trustee Georgia Acosta absent.

Countywide, school districts are seeing a rosier picture of teacher recruitment and retention than last year, says Santa Cruz County Office of Education spokesman Nick Ibarra. 

While the county office is still looking to recruit specialized classified positions such as instructional aides and special education teachers, an effort to attract substitute teachers has made the situation more manageable, Ibarra says.

In August, Soquel Union Elementary School District approved a 15% raise for its teachers, which includes a 3% retroactive increase to last year, and a 12% increase this year. 

Santa Cruz City Schools (SCCS) spokesman Sam Rolens says that the teachers’ union there has negotiated a bonus to address the hardships that came with the Covid-19 pandemic. But so far, he adds, the district has not faced a teacher shortage.

Still, SCCS—like most districts in Santa Cruz County and across the U.S.—faces difficulty retaining teachers who accept jobs and meet insurmountable housing costs. 

Rolens says that some 95% of declined job offers stem from this predicament. And so the district is hoping to use a parcel of its land on Swift Street on the Westside of Santa Cruz behind the old Natural Bridges campus to create workforce housing for teachers, an 80-unit apartment complex which would be offered to educators and staff members at below-market rental rates.

While no funding mechanism for this project has been officially identified, district officials are eyeing Measure K, a $240 million bond measure that would pay for projects and upgrades in secondary schools, and Measure L, a $122 million bond with similar aims in elementary schools. 

If voters approve those measures in the Nov. 8 election, the district will use 5% of the funds for the teacher housing project, Rolens says.

“It is very difficult to find money within the fixed revenue of the school district for salary increases,” he says. “This is potentially a path that we can make all of our offered salaries more lucrative if someone has help in the Santa Cruz housing market.”

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