Throughout the history of public education, funds have rarely been adequate to get the job done.

Going back almost 128 years, the first Santa Maria High School District, which covered Guadalupe, Orcutt, Sisquoc, Gary and Los Alamos, opened for the fall semester in 1891. Sessions during its first year were held in one room in a brick grammar school located on Main Street, with its first principal receiving a salary of $80 per month. This building was torn down in 1914 to make room for the first unit of the Main Street School.

The second- and third-year classes of the high school were held in Lucas Hall on West Main Street. However, this was a temporary arrangement as plans for the new building were already under way.

Then, as now, there was the ever-present problem of money and from where would it come?

The founding trustees were faced with the problem of trying to pass a 10-year bond issue of $13,000 against heavy opposition. Evidently, many people felt that eight years of schooling were enough for any youngster, as the bond was defeated.

The trustees then tried to levy a special tax, but this action quickly stirred up a hornet’s nest when opponents not only threatened to not pay their taxes, but questioned the validity of the trustees’ right to impose the tax in the first place. However, a court decision involving another high school district on the same type of bond issue, supported the levy of this special tax.

The debate continued as the question of location came up for voting, with some of the board members favoring the donation of 10 acres of in the Fairlawn Addition. However, with a margin of just two votes, the site of the present Santa Maria Union High School was passed and bought from Ezra Morrison for $1,500. Construction began in January of 1894 on a 10-acre tract of land on South Broadway and was completed in June of that same year.

The first graduating class took place in 1896 with four graduates, Kenneth Adam, Ruth Libbey, George Meritt and Flora de Witt. Additional construction continued throughout that period and, in 1922 the auditorium with its 100-foot tower was built.

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In 1964, in order to correct dangerous conditions and to conform with the Fields Earthquake Act, the original bell tower was torn down, the auditorium and theater facilities were reduced in size and the second-story portion of the school was condemned and closed for educational purposes.

However, the spirit of Santa Maria Union High School flourished.

Ethel Pope, known and loved for her keen sense of humor and general caring about the welfare of her students, became the dean of girls in the school in 1921. In addition to teaching English, “Poppy” staged many shows in the tile-roofed auditorium during her 31 years tenure at the school. As a fitting tribute, the school officials dedicated the Ethel Pope Auditorium to this woman who gave so many loving years to the school.

Now comes the story of Jeanette and the ghost, which some say still haunts the auditorium.

The story, which probably every Santa Maria High School student knows by heart, goes back to one night in the early days of the school when Jeanette, a drama student, rode her bicycle to the school to perform in what was to be her last performance in the senior play. In spite of the rain, she arrived to play her part and, from all reports, her performance was spectacular, the best that she’d ever done. The next day, Jeanette’s mother called the school to report that her daughter had been killed while crossing the street the day before.

Since that day, Jeanette has reportedly been seen on the catwalks in the auditorium, in the dressing room below the stage and even looking out the windows in the upper story of the auditorium.

However, I haven’t heard anything about Jeanette for many years.

The Santa Maria High School District, one of the oldest high school districts in the state, has a history of producing leaders, scholars and athletes that is unequaled throughout California.

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Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 623-8193 or at shirleycontreras2@yahoo.com. Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.