Santa Barbara Unified district Superintendent Cary Matsuoka | Credit: Paul Wellman

The jobs of some 20 or so food-service workers in the Santa Barbara Unified School District were spared for the second time Tuesday night amid the district’s push for layoffs.

Despite the country facing the highest unemployment rate in recent history, Superintendent Cary Matsuoka said the proposed layoffs are unavoidable. The Food Services Department is 24 percent overstaffed, and as a result, the district loses $25,000 every day.

Matsuoka said the layoffs are also crucial to his plan to restructure the department’s workforce, including adding a new layer of managers. Currently, recently hired Food Services Director Matthew Dittman manages all 123 employees. Matusoka and Dittman proposed six managers as part of the reorganization.

But most boardmembers vehemently disagreed.

“Rather than spending this time talking about our lowest-paid workers, how do we get more families to access these wonderful meals? I’ve been putting forth suggestions, and frankly some of them are just ignored,” Board President Laura Capps said. “These are essential workers that are going to work every day, unlike me. They have actually been putting on a mask and risking their health to feed our kids.”

The school board has received reports since December that Food Services was over budget and beginning to drain the general fund, much of which funds academic instruction. Up until the previous April 28 meeting, Matsuoka and Meg Jetté, the assistant superintendent of the district’s Business Services, had not proposed layoffs as a remedy.

Instead, they proposed increasing meal costs or cutting partnerships entirely with nonprofits and other stakeholder groups, cutting the district’s mobile cafés, and eliminating free breakfasts for students who don’t qualify. The district has already implemented the first two. Capps urged Matsuoka and Jetté to explore other options before laying off workers.

“We’re in a whole new reality now, but yet we’re making this decision that impacts the lowest-paid workers? And we don’t even truly know what we’re dealing with,” Capps said. “I do believe we are out of step in terms of the process. We have to be creative. I believe in the district.”

More than 1,200 people from the California School Employees Association signed a petition in opposition to the layoffs. Santa Barbara’s local chapter 37 president, Paul Rooney, also spoke at public comment, urging the board not to vote for the proposal.

The board didn’t need convincing, though. Boardmembers Kate Ford, Jacqueline Reid, and Rose Muñoz all made similar assertions against the layoffs, and also agreed that six new management positions were unnecessary. Ford and Reid proposed two instead.

“I totally don’t think we need six managers. That doesn’t make sense to me,” Reid said. “I will stand and say I don’t agree that [adding two managers] should come at the loss of our essential workers in food services.”

Matsuoka, who will retire next month, was apparently frustrated with the board’s comments.

“This is not hard to discern,” he said to the board. “You do not want to take action on the layoffs; you’ve made that very clear. We’ve presented this in various forms four times.… We still believe in these recommendations, but if you’re not ready to move forward, then there is no action. The answer you’re saying to me as your superintendent is, ‘No, we don’t want to do this.’

“At this point, to go back and put together another iteration of this, I don’t think it’s the right use of our time and energy.”

Boardmember Wendy Sims-Moten was the lone member in the past two board meetings who supported the proposal for layoffs.

“We have a structural problem,” Sims-Moten said, “and it doesn’t matter how much money we throw at it: We will still have the problem when those dollars go away.”

The board found middle ground. Rather than voting on the district’s proposed plan, it voted to hire two new managers — not six — and avoid layoffs. Restructuring the department will be revisited when the district has a better grasp on the evolving nutritional needs of students during the pandemic.

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