Seeking New Term, County Schools Supe Decries "National Playbook" Fueling "Educational Divisiveness"
Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools Susan Salcido frames her campaign for re-election as a choice between “bringing folks together” on local education concerns and a “national playbook” wielded by conservatives in the politically polarized culture wars.
A five-year incumbent, Salcido was elected without opposition four years ago, after being appointed in 2017 to serve the final year of her predecessor’s term. On this year’s June 7 ballot, however, she faces a challenge from outspoken Santa Barbara teacher Christy Lozano, who has used social media, plus interviews on Fox News, local TV and Christian and pro-homeschool niche online programs to capture attention for her aggressive attacks on “woke” education.
A contested race for the county school post, a job which is largely administrative, is rare in Santa Barbara; before Salcido’s 2018 election walkover, former Superintendent Bill Cirone was elected to nine – 9, count ‘em, 9 – consecutive four-year terms, consistently without opposition.
Now, however, local public school conflicts across the nation - most notably in Virginia and Florida -- over Covid vaccines and masks, anti-racism instruction and curricula that includes discussion of transgender and LGBTQ issues have generated a volatile political atmosphere and revealed deep community divides over these and other hot button disputes. And Santa Barbara has not been exempt from heated and uncivil discourse over Covid safety measures and heated strife over sex and race in education.
“There is a political agenda that's getting pushed into races and elections, like County Superintendent of Schools,” Salcido told Newsmakers in an interview.
While avoiding direct mention of her opponent, she added: "This is not the time for this politicization in education, the divisiveness. We're seeing it. We're feeling it. We're hearing it. We're experiencing it...
"It is not the time for a national playbook of aggressive agendas that have nothing to do with collaboration and working towards something actionable to support our students," she added. "I'm about bringing folks together. Really, this is the time. We have been through such crisis..
In the first in-depth interview of her campaign, Salcido also provided a crash course in the duties, responsibilities -- and limitations -- of her office; discussed the overall poor performance on state's standardized achievement tests of the county's 70,000 public school students; and offered prescriptions for improving literacy and mathematical learning through "individualized instruction" and "expanded learning opportunities."
Speaking in torrents of words, rippling with edu-speak and coursing with cross-currents of cautionary qualifier clauses, she also answered critical questions about the fall-out of Covid and school shutdowns during the past two school years -- from a surge in absenteeism, increased behavioral problems and a spike in student mental wellness concerns, to "learning loss," staff shortages, teacher "fatigue" and morale problems.
"We've lost time," Salcido said, in describing the educational impacts of Covid. "The online environment, while it worked for some, was very challenging for many, or most. And so now we need to make up that time.
"So you're going to see more summer school offerings, longer school days that aren't required or mandatory, but they're after school. Those are the ways in which we're addressing supports for students that are going back and helping to accelerate learning...And so what's happening, what needs to happen, is that individualized support."
Christy Lozano is scheduled to be interviewed on Newsmakers TV this week.
By way of background. In 1879, the California Constitution (Article 9, Section 3) established the elected office of County Superintendent of Schools in each of California's 58 counties.
Ever since, some Californians have scratched their heads, trying to figure out exactly what these 58 education leaders actually do. As our friend Nick Welsh recently put it, the job is "the most important, least understood elected office nobody ever heard of."
Key point: County Superintendents are separate and distinct from the superintendents of local school districts, each of which operates independently; think Santa Barbara Unified, Goleta Union and Carpinteria Unified, which are just three of 20 local districts in the county.
"I think that's an area of need for explanation," Salcido acknowledged. "So all the 20 school districts have a district superintendent and a school board. And there, at that local level, they're making decisions around their schools. So for example, curriculum, materials, their goals for their schools, how they're going to spend their funding, the budget, all of those are local decisions, including who they hire, what their salary schedules are. They hire their superintendent, for example, that's part of what a local board does."
In her post, the 48-year old Salcido earns $278,000 in annual salary and benefits to manage a county educational bureaucracy that has 550 employees and a total budget of about $104 million.
Overseen by a low-profile, seven-member county Board of Education elected by district, the County Education Office in large measure is an administrative government agency, acting on behalf of local school districts as a clearinghouse, pass-through, analyst, interpreter and liaison with California's maddeningly complex state public education system.
The California Education Code, longer than War and Peace and more stupefying than Moby Dick, contains 69 Parts, each with between one and a dozen Chapters, each with a multiplicity of Articles -- and the Governor and Legislature never cease amending, adding to, deleting from, meddling with and tweaking it. Part of the job for the Superintendent and her staff, is to be familiar with the policies and regulations set forth in the Code, not only in support of the local districts, but also in pushing back on their behalf against Sacramento.
"The work that I do.....really requires experience and understanding of complex systems," Salcido said. "We're working with complex systems of goals and accountability, (and) we've got to have that experience in order to do that."
Salcido and the Board have a raft of other executive responsibilities, such as reviewing and signing off on district budgets; making site visits; preparing annual required reports on some districts; completing the credentialing process for teachers, and providing professional development programs for them.They also adjudicate appeals of student expulsions and inter-district transfers, as well as charter school applications.
Further, the County Education Office identifies, applies for, disperses and oversees outside educational grants, often worth millions of dollars, that help support local districts with programs that range from mental wellness to technical, vocational education.
“We need to identify what's really needed, know what the systems in the state are, so that we can go for those grants and then partner with regional partners in Santa Barbara County and provide them for our schools on behalf of our students," Salcido said.
The role of the County Education Office in direct teaching and classroom instruction is relatively limited, but crucial. Perhaps most significantly, county professionals tend to the education of about 700 students with disabilities or special needs who attend classes in small school districts.
"My staff are serving within schools for students with disabilities from Cuyama all the way down to Montecito," Salcido said. "That's one area of direct student support. Another one is, we operate preschools...my staff are operating 10 preschools within Santa Barbara County for low-income families.
"And then a third one, that I think is very commonly known for county education offices around the state, is serving students who are adjudicated youth. So those in the Santa Maria Juvenile Justice Center, Los Prietos Boys Camp...that's my principal, our team, our staff who are serving students there."
Born and educated in public schools in Santa Maria, Salcido earned a BA and a Master's degree at UCSB, followed by a Phd from USC's School Education. She worked as a teacher and principal before joining the County Office of Education in 2006, working her way up to Deputy Superintendent under Cirone.
When he retired in 2017, the Board of Education followed his recommendation and appointed Salcido to fill out the final year of his last term, and she was elected to her own, four-year term the following year.
Now, for the first time, she faces an opponent.
"I really do hope our voters will rehire me," Salcido told us, "because I have work I'd love to do on behalf of our students and districts in Santa Barbara County."
Some key quotes, edited for length and clarity:
On dismal test scores in SB County schools. "Well, we can look back and historically around the results of students in literacy and in mathematics and in science. But I want to say those are point in time exams. They're happening right now in our schools, for example. They're multiple days long. Students to opt to take them, or parents will opt them in or out to take them.
"And it is an indication, but it isn't everything. I think it's really important that we frame or reframe students and their learning. Let's not use a sweeping generalization of, "They are failing" or "Teachers are failing," or "Schools are failing." I think it's really important to say, 'Let's think about our classrooms.'..
"...But it's really, really important that we individualize instruction. That's what the sophisticated profession of teaching is all about, is to see how are our students doing in my class, on this subject, on this unit, and then understand how we can progress and support. But I'd say that literacy and reading, mathematics, essential. We've absolutely need to focus there."
On strategies for literacy. "It really is dependent upon each district and what approach they adopt...Curriculum decisions, instructional models, are all decided upon by a (local) school district. And so Santa Barbara Unified School District will have implemented their approaches to reading and literacy different from (others)...They'll have their own approach. And so it's difficult from me to say... I really cannot say why they chose what they chose, but I can say that statewide, and including countywide, we're really looking at literacy in a different way...
We really want to say, "Okay, what are the different approaches there are? What are the ones that are most successful? And let's really dig into that learning, and work with experts in the field of literacy, and then implement that, and actually support the implementation of that with school districts. So it's not that the county office would say, 'Here's how you all have to do it.' That's just not our role. That is just absolutely usurping a local school board's role.
But what we can do is say, 'Here are the methods that we know from the statewide research, the research we've done, that can support your district as you are thinking about implementation of literacy and reading in your district.".
On pandemic "learning loss." "When schools reopened, and they reopened in different spaces, time, it was very, very different across the county...Frankly, what I was hearing about mostly was the behavioral shifts of our students… What happened was, after being away from an in-school environment, students actually needed to learn again what it was like to be in person. And behaviors were really, really challenging to where we had to learn again how to go from class to classroom, how do you communicate in a classroom with others. It was a really huge... something that I think we didn't expect, but needed to address is that those behavioral shifts needed to occur.
On what to do about it. “We really are focused as a school system around extended learning opportunities for students specifically for this purpose...What needs to happen is that individualized support. So there's tutoring after school, for example. Really targeted supports for after school, before school….
"The special piece is to really focus in, as school systems across California, but in Santa Barbara county to say, 'All right, (district) superintendent, school leaders, 'how are we going to support our students in extra ways?' And that's really what we're focused on. There's expanded learning opportunity grants, really there's extra funding for after-school supports. It's not just only play time or extracurricular after-school supports. We're talking about focused, focused literacy support, tutors in that are trained in support for students in mathematics specifically, or literacy specifically there...
"Right now we're shifting to using the language of community schools so that we can have more resources at schools to support that, what you've been calling the learning loss. We really need to have more. We've lost time...so now we need to make up that time. So you're going to see more summer school offerings, longer school days that aren't required or mandatory, but they're after school. Those are the ways in which we're addressing supports for students that are going back and helping to accelerate learning...
On declining student enrollment and attendance. "I think in terms of the attendance rates decreasing, I'm reading the headlines as you are reading the headlines and it's across California. I'm also speaking with our superintendents about the shifts in attendance, there's unknown information and then there's known information. We know that in public schools, many families chose to have their children attend private schools. The charter schools, which are public schools, their numbers increased as well. People moved away, moved out of California and out of the districts. We don't have great tracking for when they move out of a district. Once they move out, we aren't able to track from state to state. So there's some unknown data as well."
On spikes in chronic absenteeism. "I think the rates for COVID, people were not wanting to report that they had COVID so they aren't reporting attendances. I think that is a bit bumpy as to an explanation there. We need to look more into what were the reasons for additional chronic absenteeism. That's something we do track. We have great partnership with the District's Attorney's office as well with the truancy program. That's something we can circle back and get more information about.
On the teacher shortage. "I am so concerned about the teacher shortage and the staffing shortage in our schools, because everything that we spoke about...what work we have done, are doing, want to do for our students, you have to have staff to do it. Every (economic) sector that I, well I don't want to generalize, but I've heard from so many sectors that they also have shortages, but in teaching and special education, it is incredible...
"We have the money to hire individuals. We need the individuals to hire, in order to make a difference in our schools. It's a bit of a catch -22 right here, because we need to have people that are trained and qualified to support our students. And we are lacking significantly."
On teacher morale. "The morale right now is something that is tender. And I'm really, really mindful of that. . It is an absolute reality around teacher morale....We've been through a lot in the education system. Like it or not, we've been through a lot in the education system. And our teachers, when we first were on Zoom, boy, they got a lot of credit. You heard families and celebrities were coming out and saying, 'Oh, these teachers are heroes.'
"And right now, they're fatigued. They are expected to do so much more than in their classroom. And they've become COVID monitors, and they're supporting their students in their emotions as well. The criticisms that we are hearing about 'failing schools' that we just talked about a moment ago, and 'what are you all doing?'...That framing is really challenging for teacher morale.
And let's hook it back to the need for more staff. We need to have more staff that are highly qualified, that are excellent individuals and instructional staff for our students. Is this the environment right now that individuals want to come into, that they want to enter into?"
On student mental health. "I don't have this scientific data yet, but I think we'll have that soon. I'm hearing from counselors at schools across the county that their referrals from teachers for mental wellness supports for their students has, in many cases, doubled. So there's double referrals happening.
"Coupled with that is that we need to have places for the students and the families to go. So when I talk to the psychologists and support people and external providers like CALM and Family Services Agency, they are booked. They have many, many individuals on a waiting list so that they can serve these students really well. So it's a traffic jam. The need is high. These individuals want to provide service, but they too are having a staffing shortage.
On the risks of too much student screen time. "I'm going to say this is a sensitive topic for a lot of families, really, because I think what's happening is we're experiencing way more screen time at home than we even want to admit in terms of our children being on screens. And I think what has happened is, and I speak for myself included, I have two kids at home, it's we have our parameters around being on the screen, but it is hard. It's so tempting. The students and youth are so tempted into being online, being on screen time, social media.
"We were so reliant on it two years ago. Everyone had to have these devices. And then we talked about connectivity as a utility, just like water and electricity. I mean, there was such a focus on it, and it was celebrated. 'Ah, we have connectivity. We have devices.' And so now we insisted our students, kindergarten, all the way up, use devices all day. I mean, we were saying, 'That's what you have to do.' And now we're at a place of, 'Wow, there's a lot of extra screen time.'
On social media and students. "Not every parent can sit right next to their child while they're on the screen all day. Oftentimes, what'll happen is the screen's over there and the family's over here, so it's not being monitored carefully. And I say that, again, not generalizing, and I don't want to accuse anybody, but what I'm saying is, what is on TikTok now, and what's on Instagram now, and what's on social media in Snapchat, are things that aren't necessarily visible to all of our parents and guardians. And I think that's an area where we've got to really, really watch.
And I know, for sure, that ways in which youth are enticed are through those social media modalities that we are not always on. Some of the grownups, we're on Facebook. Children, youth, they're not there. And so we've got to be really, really careful about the screen time, for sure, but also what is being watched, and what social media inputs there are external for our youth."
On Fenantyl and other drugs in schools. "It's a real crisis that we need to focus on right now. That is an area of crisis right now in the nation, in the state, and in Santa Barbara County, an absolute crisis of which we need to focus as a community. And this is an area where I think that having a broad understanding of the resources around the County are so, so important, in school, but also in many different sectors.
To me, it's important that we educate. It's really about educating our school people. I've already spoken with our superintendents to speak about, 'Let's get this education to our school folks, really, to our parents, to our community members.' And that's an area of focus that we really need to be looking at quickly."
On the politicization of education. "This is not the time for this politicization in education, the divisiveness. We're seeing it. We're feeling it. We're hearing it. We're experiencing it. There were families who were genuinely concerned about the masks and vaccines. I completely understand that. I hear that. I hear it. I listen to it. I understand that they're concerned. It's gone beyond that. There is a political agenda that's getting pushed into races and elections, like County Superintendent of Schools.
It is not the time for a national push playbook on agendas that have nothing to do with collaboration and working towards something actionable to support our students. We cannot have that national playbook push in these aggressive agendas in our schools. We need to focus on students, on teachers, on parents, listening to their voices, and making really good decisions so that our students can be, as we talked about, successful."
Images: Susan Salcido (Santa Barbara Independent); Salcido with former Superintendent Bill Cirone in 2020; SB County Education Office (SB Independent).