Last spring, on the same day that her school was planning to celebrate her Santa Barbara County Educator of the Year award, Santa Ynez Valley high school teacher Diane Siegal got a pink slip. Upon hearing word of this cruel and ironic twist, Stan Freedman, a retired Santa Barbara sheriff’s deputy with nary a political or activist bone in his body, was moved to action. Spearheading a community-based fundraising effort, Freedman has spent the better part of the past month working to reinstate the full-time job of the beloved English teacher and mock trial coach. However, despite initial support for his unorthodox efforts, the Santa Ynez Unified School District is now balking at the idea due to bureaucratic red tape. “[The district] says they cannot legally make it happen right now,” Freedman lamented.
Its budget-cutting blade forced by the grim realities of state funding for public education, the district cut or substantially reduced the hours of 14 teachers last year. While eight of those educators have been rehired, many, including Siegal, have been brought back at only a portion of their previous workload. Furthermore, this reduction in the number of classes being taught equals a corresponding cut in pay and health benefits. For Siegal, who was first cut to 20 percent-a move that would have required her to teach roughly one class three times a week in order to maintain tenured status while losing 80 percent of her income-things improved slightly over the summer as the district succeeded in getting her an additional 11th-grade English section and a yearbook class, thus restoring roughly 60 percent of her income.
Appreciative of this development and undoubtedly happy to be back in front of the classroom, Siegal explained this week that the remaining loss of wages and benefits is still a potentially crippling blow. Besides hurting the bottom line for her and her family, it also forces her to sacrifice her role as mock trial coach as well as her often exemplary habits, such as attending students sporting events, theatrical productions, and camping trips. “That is the pleasure of being a small-town schoolteacher: You get to be more to your students than just a person with a lesson plan,” explained Siegal. “And when I am working 100 percent, I am more than happy to give 150 percent, but when I am working 60 percent, I have to give the rest of my time to other things [like tutoring] to make ends meet.”
This situation outraged Freedman. Even though Siegal was a total stranger to him, the 19-year Santa Ynez resident knew he had to do something. “What a slap in the face to get an award in one hand and a pink slip in the other,” Freedman said. So, after initially deciding to give Siegal $2,000 to help soften the blow, the LAPD veteran and former sheriff’s deputy “evolved” his idea to fundraise first for Siegal and then for other Santa Ynez teachers. Though he doesn’t know the exact amount brought in so far for the cause, he has reason to believe it is a “substantial amount.”
According to Freedman, the district was first quite supportive of his idea, pledging to hold all donated funds in a special account until certain thresholds were met and people could be brought back. However, last week, he received word from Superintendent Paul Turnbull-who, as of press time, had not returned calls for this story-that complications with personnel laws, payroll protocol, and assorted other legal barriers have prompted the district to decline the money. Freedman hoped to reverse this stance by addressing the Santa Ynez school board this week. “If you are innovative and work outside the box, you can get just about anything done,” opined Freedman. “There are very intelligent and creative people on the board and in the district. They just have to come up with the right answers that make this possible.”