The Santa Cruz County County School System, Explained: From No Schoolhouses to 10 Districts

Almost half of Santa Cruz County students attend school in a single district.

PUBLISHED DEC 8, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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More than one in 20 California students attend school in Santa Cruz County.

More than one in 20 California students attend school in Santa Cruz County.   Eugene Zelenko / Wikimedia Commons   GNU FRee Documentation License

Four of Santa Cruz County’s 10 school districts consist of nothing more than a single elementary school. Those tiny districts—the Bonny Doon district’s enrollment was just 142 in 2019—are throwbacks to the earliest days of education in the county. The other three are Happy Valley Elementary School District—founded as a single-school district in 1864—Mountain Elementary School District, and Pacific Elementary School District.

When Santa Cruz County was incorporated on February 18, 1850—about seven months before California became a state—there were no schoolhouses at all. Schooling took place in people’s homes, as well as in churches.

It wasn’t until 1857 that the first school building was constructed, according to a history compiled by former Santa Cruz Sentinel reporter and prolific local historian Margaret Koch, author of the 1978 book Going to School in Santa Cruz County: A History of the County's Public School System. (Koch, a fourth-generation resident of Santa Cruz, died at age 92 in 2011.)

That was the Mission Hill School on Mission Street in Santa Cruz, on the site now occupied by the Santa Cruz City School District headquarters. The building was a one-room schoolhouse built at a cost of $2,233, about $71,000 in 2021 cash. Five more school buildings went up over the next four years, and in 1879 the Mission Hill schoolhouse was replaced by a new, multi-floor structure as public school enrollment grew.

Santa Cruz County Home to More Than 1 in 20 California Students

Today, Santa Cruz County has grown into one of the state’s busiest school systems, at least comparing the student population to the overall number of people who live there. With just under 271,000 residents, Santa Cruz County ranks 25th among California’s 58 counties in population but its public school student population of approximately 40,551, as of 2019-2020, makes up about 6 percent of the total enrollment in the state, or slightly more than one of every 20.

Even with the wide variety of school districts, one appears to dominate the county system. Almost half of Santa Cruz County students go to school in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD), with its 16 elementary schools, six middle schools and three high schools—plus eight charter and alternative schools, as well as the Watsonville/Aptos/Santa Cruz Adult Education program.

About 90 percent of the district’s students belong to ethnic and racial minority groups—compared to about 66 percent for all 10 school districts in the county. More than half of Pajaro students, 56 percent, come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, according to a survey by U.S. News and World Report.

The high percentage of disadvantaged students accounts for the fact that, though the Pajaro Valley district has somewhat less than half of the county’s students, the district received about 60 percent of all federal and state aid allocated to county school districts, according to an analysis by Lookout Santa Cruz.

In 2021, Pajaro Valley was set to receive more than $98.4 million of a total $166 million in aid to the county’s schools. That comes to $4,979 per student in state and federal cash. The district receiving the lowest amount of aid, on a per-student basis, was San Lorenzo Valley Unified—a mostly rural district with approximately 5,400 students in five schools—at just $1,015 per student.

Headquartered in Watsonville, Pajaro Valley Unified is easily the largest of Santa Cruz County’s school districts. The second largest, with 6,660 students between its elementary and secondary schools, is the Santa Cruz City School District. Santa Cruz City High Schools have 49 percent minority student enrollment, far less than Pajaro Valley, and also less than the statewide average of 77 percent, but Santa Cruz City Elementary has approximately the same minority enrollment as Pajaro Valley’s elementary schools.

Politics and Schools: An Uneasy But Inevitable Relationship

The county’s 10 districts come under the jurisdiction of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education and Superintendent Faris Sabbah, who was elected to the post in 2018, running unopposed to replace retiring, four-term superintendent Michael Watkins. The outgoing superintendent  hand-picked Sabbah as his replacement.

Sabbah had served as the county’s deputy superintendent since 2016, after two years as assistant superintendent in Monterey County, and 14 years as the Pajaro Valley district’s director of migrant education. Sabbah himself is an immigrant, relocating to the United States from Iraq at the age of nine, then spending his teenage years in Ecuador, his mother’s native country.

Though the county’s superintendent must be elected, each of the 10 school districts in Santa Cruz County is overseen by its own appointed superintendent who is hired and can be fired at the will of a board of trustees—who are elected. Pajaro Valley, for example, is run by a seven-member board. The district is divided into seven electoral “areas,” and each area votes one representative onto the board of trustees.

In January of 2021, the PVUSD trustees suddenly and without explanation fired the district’s superintendent, Michelle Rodriguez, who had been hired in 2016 and in 2020 awarded a new contract at $222,820 per year through 2024. The abrupt termination came just one day after Rodriguez’s father had passed away.

In other words, superintendents who are appointed are no more free from politics—and perhaps less so—than elected superintendents. But elected school boards are often contentious and Santa Cruz County is no exception.

Grand Jury Investigates School Districts

A 2016 report by the Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury singled out the Soquel Union Elementary School Board, which oversees a district with about 2,000 students in nine school facilities, for “a breakdown of community trust” beginning the previous school year.

“The issues include teacher salary negotiations, enforcement of the District Residency Policy, incomplete and inaccurate accounting of home and school club contributions, and Brown Act violations,” the grand jury wrote in its report. “All of these stresses combined to create an atmosphere of distrust.”

The following year, the grand jury once again investigated the Soquel Union district, finding that while many of the problems noted in the 2016 report had been resolved, the districts’ board still frequently violated the Brown Act, which is California’s open meeting and public information law. Among other transgressions, the board went into closed session with no opportunity for the public to comment, where they hiked the salary of the district’s superintendent. The grand jury also found 17 instances of the board simply failing to include closed session items in their public minutes.

In another 2017 report, the grand jury slammed the Pajaro Valley district for a lack of transparency in how it spent funds from Measure L, a $150 million bond issue approved by voters in 2012, with the funds earmarked to upgrade the district’s various school facilities. 

“The lack of a complete, comprehensive, and updated list of all Measure L projects planned, completed, or approved by the Trustees, makes it impossible for the public to be informed,” the grand jury found. The jurors also reported that the district did not provide adequate information to the Citizens Oversight Committee, which is required by law to oversee how the bond funds are spent.

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