Santa Barbara Teachers Association president Joyce Adriansen spoke during a closed-session school board meeting Tuesday, May 31. | Credit: Courtesy

Teachers within the Santa Barbara Unified School District are facing an ever-declining loss of morale, and many have attributed this to a dysfunction of district leadership, culminating in three school sites penning letters from teachers to the school board, expressing their lack of faith in the board and Superintendent Hilda Maldonado.

The first letter sent to the board came from the Dos Pueblos Faculty Senate, a group of about 75 teachers, and expressed concerns over how money was being distributed, a breakdown of communication, and a desire for teachers to be included in the process of hiring new administrators. After the letter was sent, dozens of teachers protested outside the district building during a school board meeting on Tuesday, May 24. A handful of teachers also spoke during public comment, and Goleta Valley Junior High and Santa Barbara High School subsequently sent their own letters.

Accounts from teachers, administrators, or district employees have been made to the Independent entirely off the record, many citing a fear of retaliation. The majority of claims from these individuals are that Maldonado creates a toxic work environment through micromanaging employees, creating barriers that discourage direct communication between school employees and district administrators, and by belittling those who work beneath her. 

Sources from the district further claim that Maldonado has created an unsustainable system of communication between instructors and administrators. When a teacher needs supplies, such as computers or textbooks, they are required to filter requests through school officials, who then take it to district administrators, who then pass the request to the superintendent cabinet. This process, sources say, is inherently slow-moving, but it has worsened as administrators, principals, and other employees leave, creating gaps in the system of communication.

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One teacher from Dos Pueblos High School, Olivia Happel-Block, who spoke at the school board meeting on May 24, said her class, the International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge course, will not have textbooks next year because the district has not approved the funding requests. “This board needs to take a discerning look at these top-down procedures and truly evaluate how effective you are at serving our students and teachers,” she said. 

Letters from instructors at Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara High School include a list of district employees who have left in the past two years, many of whom had resigned within the last few months. Some of these include Shawn Carey, assistant superintendent of secondary education; Frann Wageneck, assistant superintendent of student services; Ana Escobedo, assistant superintendent of elementary education; and Sierra Loughridge, director of secondary and elementary education. 

Maldonado’s response to claims that she has caused a toxic environment, which has pushed nine of the 10 members of her cabinet to retire, was that she “can’t make life decisions for others.” She said in the conversations with administrators that have resigned, the reasons for their leaving were “professional, personal, or promotional.”

In response to teachers’ concerns, Maldonado said one of the things she reflected on after the Santa Barbara Teachers Association (SBTA) survey came out in late 2021, which reflected poorly on her leadership, was to adjust her schedule to allow more meetings with teachers. “I want to encourage [teachers] to come and talk to me directly,” she said. Maldonado also said she would continue working with SBTA president Joyce Adriansen.

Several sources from within the district have also said the Santa Barbara Teachers Association is “dysfunctional,” with leadership and teachers divided on how to address teachers’ concerns to the board and superintendent.

 In a closed-session board meeting Tuesday, Adriansen spoke about the concerns brought up by teachers, though she did not directly address the letters sent. In her comments, she commended Maldonado and the board for their efforts to listen and respond to teachers’ concerns. “[The teachers’ union] is encouraged by the supportive actions the board has taken,” she said. Adriansen did not list any specific actions taken but did say a future meeting between Maldonado and new Assistant Superintendent of Student Services ShaKenya Edison was “a step in the right direction.”

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