For Healthy Teacher Raises and Class Size Reduction

At the school board meeting on Tuesday, the board will consider a three-year contract with the teacher’s union. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to support the proposed contact. In my opinion a sensible contract would enable the district to do two things: provide a healthy raise AND restore smaller class sizes and make other improvements for students in our district. Thankfully, there is plenty of money to afford both of these things due to our recent high property tax revenues, driven by an 11.26% increase this year.

But the proposed contract does not follow this common-sense path.  Instead, the board has tentatively approved a contract that will use the entire surplus to provide salary raises that are well beyond what are needed to attract and retain excellent teachers. That’s not fiscally responsible for the school district, it’s not good for our students, and it’s shortsighted for teachers who would also have benefitted from smaller classes and reduced workloads.

The proposed contract raises teacher salaries by 12% over the next three years, beginning with a 5% raise for the current school year (2015-16) at a cost this year of $7.3 million. It also provides for bonuses totalling 2% in 2017 and 2018, for an additional $2.8 million. With additional raises that are built into the “Step and Column” salary schedule, salaries will go up by nearly 18% over the next three years, raising the district’s annual compensation costs by $25 million a year in 2017-18.


I am a progressive liberal Democrat, a strong supporter of unions, and of fair, competitive pay for our teachers. As in the past, I support a substantial pay increase for teachers, to maintain our position at or near the top of the local and state labor market for teachers. In this case, I would support a more prudent, but still healthy increase of 3% each year (amounting to nearly 5% each year with built-in Step and Column increases). This alternative proposal -- call it the “3+3+3 Plan” -- would be sufficient to enhance the district’s ability to recruit and retain excellent teachers. And it would provide enough funds to hire 35 additional teachers for next year.

If we increased teacher salaries by 9% over 3 years rather than 12%, we would free up over $4 million a year beginning this fall (and save $2.9 million in the current school year). That amount would pay for 35 new teachers beginning next year -- enough to reduce average class sizes in our high schools by nearly 6 students. This would give each high school teacher 30 fewer students in their teaching load. Alternatively, we could reduce class sizes in our elementary schools by 3 students.

Those are huge impacts that would pay dividends for our students and teachers every day, in the form of increased connectedness, lower stress, and a better learning and working environment for everyone.

Hiring new teachers to reduce class sizes is particularly critical with the news that the district is not meeting its commitment in board policy to limit high school class sizes to 28:1 (with 22:1 in ninth and tenth grade English and Math classes). Many our our classes are far too large, with well over 30 students each. One estimate, released just last week, concludes that it would take 6 teachers in our middle schools and 15-18 in our schools to meet these minimum commitments. The contract that is set to be ratified tomorrow makes that impossible.

But under the “3-3-3 Plan” alternative, we could meet our class size commitments with plenty of money left over for additional class size reductions in elementary or secondary grades. We should simply not be spending money in unnecessary compensation when the district’s class size commitments are not being met.

Understanding the Budget

A historically high property tax revenue increase of 11.26% in 2015-16 yielded a budget surplus of $8 million. Earlier this year the board adopted $773,000 in program additions for 2015-16. Together with the $7.3 million in salary increases in the proposed contract, there is virtually no money left from the surplus for other district needs. It’s important to understand that these pay increases are permanent: each 1% increase in compensation adds $1.4 million in ongoing costs, forever.

For the last six months, the school board has been discussing how to use the budget surplus in the form of “program additions” beginning in 2016-17. These include items like new teachers in middle school and high school to meet the district’s class size commitments, full-day kindergarten, support for small learning communities at Paly and Gunn, funding for high school athletics, breakfast for elementary school students to ensure they are ready for school, reading specialists, and so on.

Unfortunately, spending the entire surplus on raises means these needs will not be met. The staff proposal reflects this: the latest proposal adds only 6 teachers across our five middle and high schools, omits funding for small learning communities, cuts kindergarten full-day funding nearly in half, and reduces funding for breakfast from $300,000 to $100,000. Worse, even these modest additions require a budget with a $1.3 million operating deficit (funded out of reserves), and a property tax revenue estimate that is $1.1 million greater than it would be if the City’s estimate were used.

Staying Competitive in Compensation and Working Conditions

Recruiting and retaining excellent teachers is a key goal for PAUSD, and one that I fully support. But there is no evidence that we need such large compensation increases in order to continue to achieve that goal.

Palo Alto has historically paid salaries that are near the top of the market, and offered great working conditions -- in the form of small class sizes, safe schools, ample professional development, and similar benefits. Among the 16 “competitor” districts that our HR department tracks, Palo Alto is the only district besides Mountain View-Los Altos (MVLA) High School District that is consistently in the top 6 across the salary schedule. Among competitor districts with 10 or more schools, who represent the bulk of the market, Palo Alto is at the top of the list for every category. Statewide, Palo Alto has the highest average teacher salary out of 171 K-12 unified districts with more than 4,800 students.

When talking about local competitor districts, the most often mentioned is MVLA. MVLA is an outlier in teacher compensation, paying between $10,000 to $25,000 a year more than any other district, depending on seniority and credentials. However, MVLA has a higher student/teacher ratio than PAUSD. In any case, MVLA is a small district and it simply does not have the size and teacher turnover it would take to significantly affect PAUSD’s recruiting and retention, even if the district loses an occasional candidate to MVLA.

Another study, by School Services of California, shows PAUSD in relation to a set of 16 comparable districts including MVLA, Los Gatos-Saratoga, and San Mateo. PAUSD spends a higher proportion of our revenue on teacher salaries than any other district in the list, as well as high school districts and unified districts statewide.

The truth is, teachers’ pay will continue to outstrip inflation under either proposal. Since 2012, teacher salaries have gone up by almost 12%, and by 2017 salaries will have risen by nearly 26% under the proposed contract -- or 40% with step and column increases included. From 2012 through 2017, the cost of living increase in the Bay Area will be around 18.5%, assuming current trends continue. A 3+3+3 rather than 5+4+3 raise would still have teacher salaries increasing well ahead of inflation.

Over the last few years, some districts (particularly those that rely on state funding) have posted very high raises and budget increases. On its face, that may seem to challenge PAUSD’s competitive position for teachers. However, those increases reflect the state’s effort to restore a reasonable level of funding in those districts, after years of budget cuts. High raises off a low base still result in lower pay than in PAUSD. Moreover, PAUSD’s record of consistent pay increases is attractive to teachers who understand the benefits of a basic aid district with high property values. A large local basic aid competitor, Fremont Union High School District, recently raised its salaries by 7.7% this year, but it has much lower revenues per student than PAUSD and is still substantially behind our district in compensation, and has higher class sizes.

attrition.pngNot surprisingly, teacher attrition data demonstrate our continued success in retaining teachers. Out of a workforce of over 800 teachers, 220 left the district over the past five years. The largest number, 87, retired. Only 23 teachers in five years left for other positions, an average of 4 teachers per year. The rate of departure has been constant over this period. There is simply no evidence of an exodus of teachers from PAUSD.

Similarly, there is no evidence that the district has had to hire less qualified teachers in order to fill open positions, or that teachers are turning down Palo Alto for compensation reasons. Teacher applications for open positions for K-5 and subject area teachers are up over last year at this time, despite the statewide teacher shortage in California. And a major factor that unnecessarily limiting our applicant pool is that our HR department does not use the “Common App” of teacher employment in the state. Switching to the most commonly used software is an obvious fix.

Putting Students First

The job of the school board is to ensure that the district uses taxpayer funds wisely to attract and retain excellent teachers, through compensation and great working conditions. That job requires balancing compensation against other needs -- primary among them achieving class sizes that work for students and teachers. In my view, the proposed contract does not meet that test. I’ll oppose it at the school board, but I’ll continue to work to put students first in all our future decisions.


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