Taking it to the Streets

San Marcos Students Weigh In on Teacher Pay Debate

by Ethan Stewart

Contentious and gridlocked, the salary negotiations between the Santa Barbara School District and its teachers took an unusual turn last week, as more than 100 high school students skipped school in a show of support for their teachers. Risking Saturday detention and possible repercussions on the home front, dozens of San Marcos High School students ditched class last Friday in an effort to call attention to the labor talks between teachers and district officials currently being mediated by a state official.

Though the morning began with about 60 students taking part in the all-day protest, by the end of lunchtime, the group gathered outside on the school’s front lawn at the corner of Hollister Avenue and Turnpike Road had grown to well over 120 students. Toting signs, chanting “Support our teachers!” and eliciting repeated honks of approval from motorists, the group stayed until the end of the school day, promising to continue their efforts until, as one student put it, “The teachers get what they deserve.”

Claiming budget restrictions in the face of declining enrollment, the district has held fast since late last summer to its offer of a 1.5 percent raise, while the teachers — who initially sought a 7 percent increase — have refused to adjust their demand lower than 6.5 percent, citing the high cost of local living and the fact that the state has kicked down an unusually high amount of money from the governor’s office this year. According to district numbers, the average Santa Barbara teacher currently makes about $66,000 annually.

The teachers’ union raised more than a few eyebrows from parents and school board members alike when it implemented a “slowdown” two weeks ago, in which some educators from every school site stopped providing voluntary services to students, such as homework clubs and after-school and lunchtime extra help. Detractors felt the eight-day slowdown unfairly placed the students in the crosshairs of the ongoing salary battle.

But last week’s demonstration was entirely unrelated to any teacher activities, according to one of its chief organizers, San Marcos senior Zach King. Gesturing to the colorful sea of students gathered around him, King explained, “This is completely student-organized. The teachers had nothing to do with it … We just wanted to show people what’s happening and that we support our teachers.”

In a move that would make any educator proud, the protesting students were anything but idle during their skipped day, as they participated in what King termed a “teaching skill-share”: students coached each other in endeavors such as jewelry making, guitar playing, dance, and letter writing. The last skill they planned to put to work generating letters to district officials detailing the many positive ways local teachers have impacted them. Many of the students shrugged off the possibility of punishment, though San Marcos’s Assistant Principal Ed Behrens promised, “There are classes being skipped, and if there are unexcused absences, they will get a Saturday detention.”

The day before the San Marcos protest, union representatives and district officials met yet again with a state-appointed mediator, but to no immediate avail. At the mediator’s behest, both sides promised to remain tightlipped on the progress of negotiations until another round of mediation takes place on February 13. But sources with inside knowledge of the talks say the sides are now considering a possible deal that would look to make teachers an obvious priority in the district’s budget making for years to come. Alluding to that possible progress, but taking into account the distance between the two sides, Santa Barbara School Board President Nancy Harter commented, “I’m trying to stay optimistic that we’ll have a tentative agreement after next week’s meeting.”

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