Superintendent Hilda Maldonado | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

An internal survey of the Board of Education from teachers and certified staff in the Santa Barbara Unified School District has cast a light on the shortcomings of district leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the wide disconnect between teachers, staff, and the superintendent. 

The survey was sent to teachers from the Santa Barbara Teachers Association and was meant to provide constructive feedback for the board and Superintendent Hilda Maldonado following her first chaotic year serving in the position. Maldonado was brought in to replace Cary Matsuoka as superintendent in mid-2020, months into the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Of the more than 700 teachers and staff the survey was sent to, less than half, or about 320 responded. The survey had several statements that could be ranked on a scale of one to five, one being “strongly disagree” and five being “strongly agree,” and an area for teachers and staff to leave comments. 

The most prevalent grievance with Maldonado was her connection with and availability to staff, parents, and the community. Among the results, about 60 percent of respondents strongly disagreed that Maldonado builds quality relationships with staff, parents, and community members. When asked if Maldonado demonstrates empathy and genuine listening and is able to handle conflict, 57 percent strongly disagreed. When asked if she has earned the trust of the people, 64 percent strongly disagreed. 

Maldonado wasn’t aware of the perception survey until the results were made public but said she could understand the general response from teachers and staff. Being brought into the district during a crisis has made it difficult to connect with staff directly, she said, with the board mainly focusing on the pandemic and maintaining the safety of staff and students once in-person learning began again. “They know me in a box on Zoom, making quick decisions as a pandemic superintendent brought in during a crisis,” Maldonado said. “We need to do a better job of explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing, and bring them to the table for those conversations.”

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Joyce Adriansen, president of the Santa Barbara Teachers Association, said this is the first internal survey of the board and superintendent that has been conducted in her time at the association. Adriansen was not surprised by the results but did not see some of the same issues with Maldonado as other teachers. “I’ve found her to be very open, and she’s been very easy to work with for me,” Adriansen said. The pandemic has created an unprecedented strain on teachers and staff, she said, and the district has not taken enough time to consider the mental and social well-being of its employees. Going forward, Adriansen said she believes Maldonado has the skills to begin mending relationships between teachers, staff, and the administration. 

Another prevalent issue brought forward was changes being made too quickly without proper preparation for staff. Many wrote that with new initiatives and changes being implemented throughout the school year, they felt that they had no time to adjust before another change was made. 

Board President Kate Ford said this was something the board had heard over numerous weeks. “On reflection, we should have seen this coming,” Ford said. “We’ve been hearing for a long time that teachers are tired and burnt out.” Ford did not agree with all the criticisms of the board and Maldonado, particularly the ad-hominem remarks, but resolved that criticism is what moves the district forward. “Any good leader is getting feedback all the time,” Ford said. “I think Hilda did a great job last year, and I think she can do more.”

Maldonado has planned a listening tour with principals from all the schools in the district beginning next week to begin building those relationships and understand the particular needs of each school. “Each school has its own priorities, culture, and issues,” Maldonado said. The board also issued an email apology to teachers before Thanksgiving break, acknowledging the need to “pause and pull back,” so teachers and staff can decompress from the last two years. “We all have common goals,” Maldonado said. “But, going forward, I’m going to focus on building trust.”

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