SAN MARCOS — Eight-year-old Brooklyn Houchin and her teacher at Double Peak Elementary School, Jena Steinberger, are practically best friends, according to Brooklyn’s mother Ashley.
“From the first day our daughter Brooklyn stepped onto campus as a scared little 4 year old, Jena Steinberger became her rock,” Ashley said. “Jena has done something for her [Brooklyn] these past 3.5 years that are immeasurable and priceless. She has instilled so much confidence in her and invested so much time into my daughter, that I truly will forever be grateful for the impact she has had in shaping my daughter’s love for learning.”
But Jena, along with 96 of her full-time colleagues, are slated to be laid off this month due to budgetary constraints, district officials announced earlier this week. Ashley said that she and Brooklyn are both devastated by the news, prompting the mother to write a letter to Superintendent Andy Johnsen.
“Brooklyn wants to be a teacher when she grows up, and it is 100% attributable to Jena Steinberger. She has always gone so above and beyond for our kids and it would be an absolute tragedy to lose her,” Ashley wrote. “SMUSD cannot afford to let the most highly-regarded, most-loved, and highest-performing teachers go…If we start to let go of our absolute best, who will be gladly snatched up by neighboring districts, SMUSD will go downhill fast, losing its reputation!”
The district on March 14 released the names of 97 certified staff and 50 temporary teaching staff who will be out of a job by the start of the upcoming school year, according to Dale Pluciennik, president of the San Marcos Educators Association, or SMEA.
While some layoffs had been expected due to SMUSD’s challenging budgetary situation, Pluciennik said educators were stunned by the sheer number of teachers cut by the district.
“‘Wow’ is the word I would use,” Pluciennik said. “You have 97 teachers plus 50 temporary staff that are losing their jobs, that’s around 147 teachers and that’s roughly 10% of our total SMEA membership. It’s hard for me in my position seeing this, but I don’t want to minimize what it’s like for the people who are experiencing this, it’s brutal…I know what those people are going through and it’s horrible. That’s what drives me to fight for every one of them to get their jobs back.”
According to a statement from SMUSD spokesperson Amy Ventetuolo, the layoffs were a part of a $10 million package in cuts aimed at addressing “structural” problems within the district’s budget.
“[Around half] of these staffing reductions are necessary to address significant structural deficits in the budget…SMUSD has been contending with deficit spending primarily due to rising costs, including employee pension increases, expanded services, and increases to utility, supply, and healthcare costs,” Ventetuolo said.
The district also asserted that a large number of the positions being cut had been previously funded by COVID-era relief dollars from the state and federal government, funding that has now expired.
“More than half of the reductions approved by the Board were positions funded by one-time COVID relief grants,” Ventetuolo said. “School districts received those funds to meet various COVID-related needs, whether by temporarily providing extra support for students or addressing physical needs such as temporary, additional COVID-related cleaning. As these one-time COVID-related funds are spent down, these positions will close.”
However, Pluciennik says that even with the current budget shortfall and the pressure put on the district’s finances by declining student enrollment, the layoffs were too much and will invariably impact the quality of education that students receive in classrooms moving forward.
“Part of this is budget and we’re down students, we can’t deny that…but I think this is overkill by a long shot,” Pluciennik said. “It’s going to have a severe impact on the classroom…I mean you can’t say you want to make cuts furthest from the classroom (as they’ve said) and then teachers are the largest cut you make…how severe this will be I’m not sure…but it’s draconian, it’s insane just how many they’re laying off.”
Lauren Holman, a San Marcos resident with two children, both of whom attend Twin Oaks Elementary, said while she and other parents understand the district’s need to make tough decisions, many feel the layoffs went too far.
“I don’t find it surprising at all that they have to do this…but this was really on the high side in terms of the cuts,” Holman said. “We’ve had a lot of teachers that already left or retired, so it’s a fact that we don’t even have enough teachers in the first place and now you’re going to be cutting a hundred more? These kids have already lost so much in the last couple of years because of the pandemic and not having that traditional learning experience. I think that we’re going to find so many more students falling through the cracks simply because teachers are overwhelmed.”
Tyler Eytchison, who teaches fourth/fifth combo classes at San Marcos Elementary, says that the loss of so many teachers at one time is extraordinarily harmful to the continuity and stability of students’ education, especially given the already significant staff turnover that happened during the pandemic.
“For our kids, it’s extremely disheartening,” Eytchison said. “We know that having students come into a school where they can see more than one friendly face, that’s huge…kids get close to their teachers and to have that kind of continuity taken away from them, I mean it’s just devastating.”
At San Marcos Elementary, Eytchison said that only 12 out of 34 of the school’s teachers have been guaranteed to retain their jobs past this round of layoffs.
According to Pluciennik, the news is also crushing the morale of the district’s remaining teachers, who have already been overwhelmed by the stresses of the pandemic and the recent failed contract negotiations with district officials.
“They can’t believe this is happening, their morale was already so low for other reasons, and this is just another step in that direction,” Pluciennik said.
Gabrielle Lieberg, whose son goes to Mission Hills High School, said that the layoffs are just another blow to a group that has already suffered disproportionately during the past two years of the pandemic.
“My opinion is that after three years of horribleness we’re adding more horribleness to them, it just really feels like teachers don’t deserve what we’re heaping on them, that we need to find a better way to show appreciation for all they’ve been through than more layoffs…,” Lieberg told The Coast News. “I think in general that teachers and healthcare workers had it really tough and we’re adding to an already heavy burden.”
Pluciennik said that he’s now been put in the difficult place of telling some of the recently laid-off educators they may want to seek employment elsewhere rather than waiting to get re-hired by the district.
“The worst part about all of this is I’m having to tell people that if you get offered a contract somewhere else, take the contract, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your job back,” Pluciennik said. “I don’t like to lose teachers but I’m telling them if you get a job offer take it—and that’s really not what our profession is about, it’s about building a family long-term.”
Given that the school districts surrounding San Marcos seem to have avoided making similar cuts to educators, parents expressed skepticism in regards to whether SMUSD administrators are appropriately allocating district resources.
“It would seem to me that if the other districts aren’t having to do this, then some of the people in charge of our budget need to have a conversation about what they’re doing to avoid layoffs, that certainly seems in order,” Lieberg said.
Holman agreed, suggesting the district has made a series of financial miscalculations going back years before the current superintendent.
“I just don’t know if they’re allocating the money in the way that they should be…I think it even goes back to the previous superintendent before Dr. Johnsen…and it doesn’t seem like anybody has been doing anything to get us out of that situation… It’s not something that happened overnight, really it’s not a surprise at all, but this goes back to years and years of mismanagement.”
Ventetuolo emphasized that the district only looks at staffing reductions as a last resort when it comes to fiscal decision-making.
“Budget reductions are first made through non-staffing reductions, then by evaluating every vacant position, considering reorganization of positions or functions for increased efficiencies, considering funding sources, and shifting resources when possible,” Ventetuolo said. “Additionally, SMUSD worked with the San Diego County Office of Education to offer eligible classified employees an Early Retirement Incentive Program with the goal of reducing the number of layoff notices that would need to be issued.”
In a statement, Mayor Rebecca Jones said while the news is devastating, it’s a mistake to put all of the blame for the layoffs on the current district administration.
“I’m heartbroken that so many teachers are slated to be laid off, many teachers in our district are also residents and I don’t like to hear of anyone being laid off in our community,” Jones said. “…It is important to note that the majority of the board and the superintendent have not been serving the district for a long period of time. These budget struggles did not just begin during the pandemic. I believe the current board is in a tough financial position, one that has been long-standing but has gotten more challenging due to the loss of students during the pandemic.”
For Ashley and Brooklyn, they can’t stand the thought of losing Jena. Ashley wrote an impassioned letter to Johnsen on Tuesday, begging the superintendent to reconsider the layoffs.
“I am pleading my case and begging you, on behalf of Brooklyn, who will be an absolute mess and her heart totally crushed to pieces, if Jena doesn’t stay at DPS. Whatever it takes, I will do! I would pay her salary out-of-pocket if I could,” Ashley wrote.
“You cannot afford to lose her! I am telling you right now, in my daughter’s entire educational career ahead, Jena will have had the most last impression on her, and she will tell you that when she is 18 years old. Teachers like Jena don’t just come and go. You hold on tight to these truly special gems. It would be the biggest mistake and loss to let her go.”