Public education, like many sectors, continues to struggle with employee recruitment, retention and morale coming out of the pandemic.
Tri-Valley teachers have said they are feeling the financial burdens of high inflation and a prohibitive housing market -- and that without appropriate compensation packages, they will either be forced to move school districts or leave the industry altogether.
"We have a nationwide teacher shortage; we're feeling the crunch even more in the East Bay and the Bay Area, a very expensive area to live," Laura Finco, president of the San Ramon Valley Education Association, told the Weekly.
"It's hard to interest, particularly, entry-level educators to come work here if you can't provide them with the compensation that's going to make their life livable," Finco added.
The Weekly has been diving into the numbers and talking with union and district leaders across the region since the start of the school year to offer an in-depth look into what districts really offer in terms of compensation to their teachers.
"The State Legislature continues to honor the importance of education in their budget. We look to our school district to continue to prioritize our local school budget to support our students with the best resources and supports, best class sizes and best educators," Cheryl Atkins, president of the Association of Pleasanton Teachers, told the Weekly.
The salary schedule
With each district operating differently, and faced with meeting different needs, it can be difficult to assess a standard on how "well" the educators are compensated given the many bureaucratic procedures, including as basic as navigating the salary schedules.
"Every school district is a little bit different," said Ahmad Sheikholeslami, assistant superintendent of business services for the Pleasanton Unified School District.
"It's the way the size schedule was built, negotiated, so on and so forth. No two salary schedules are alike and sometimes that's what makes comparisons between one school district and another school district difficult," he told the Weekly.
Pleasanton teachers are compensated via a 20-year schedule, while Livermore Valley and Dublin are paid on a 24-year schedule. Each year the educators advance, they can receive a recurring raise until that upper year.
"When we negotiate, the salary increase goes to all teachers as the entire salary schedule is adjusted. Additionally, teachers see salary improvements when they move on the schedule from one year to another," Sheikholeslami said. "Depending on where they are in the salary schedule some teachers may not see a step increase. Teachers with 20 years at PUSD don't see that step increase but do benefit from negotiated salary increases."
San Ramon Valley Unified School District's schedule, on the other hand, goes up to year 21 and then teachers get another raise in year 25.
Given the pay timeline, it often happens that the most experienced and seasoned teachers do not get wage increases toward the end of their careers.
And while unions and districts across the Tri-Valley work on bettering relationships in order to negotiate better compensation, it's not information that is easily accessible to the public.
"Students deserve the best -- the best being the highest quality education, teachers and learning environment," said Larry Spotts, California Teachers Association regional representative and member of the East Bay Coalition for Student Success. "There are many laws and regulations at play when it comes to bargaining or discussion about the educators' compensation rates. It can be hard for the public to get a clear picture of what is going on and even harder for the unions to try and negotiate fair salaries."
In May 2022, PUSD and APT approved a new collective bargaining agreement between the district and the union that included a 3.25% salary increase and 2% additional compensation benefits.
The contract, which is open for negotiations every three years, covers the next three academic years.
In addition to the 3.25% increase to the salary, an additional 0.25% was added to the increase with the approval of a 2022 Public Agency Retirement Services memorandum of understanding for retirement incentive. This brought the total salary increase to 3.5% in the ratified 2022-23 APT contract.
According to a PUSD human resources brochure, Pleasanton pays more than the surrounding districts in Alameda County at Step 1, which is the tier where teachers start when they first get hired.
The chart shown in the brochure outlines how depending on how much in-class experience a teacher has, one could make anywhere from $69,000 to roughly $79,000 a year, depending on a range of factors such as higher education, certifications and special skills. According to the 2022-23 Alameda County Teachers Association salary schedule report that was filed to the Alameda County Office of Education, the average annual salary for teachers in the county is just under $70,000.
However, according to Atkins, inflation is hurting everyone -- including teachers. And the fact that the district received a 13.26% increase in new ongoing money from the state and only gave teachers a 3.5% salary increase, did not sit right with her.
"Many teachers are hurting, some work two jobs to make ends meet," Atkins said. "Last year the state added more money to the base to help with rising inflation costs ... We asked for the district to reopen the negotiations due to the high amount of new money the district received but they were unwilling to open the closed contract."
Atkins was referring to when the union attempted to reopen renegotiations last year before moving on to the 2023-24 contract. While the district negotiating team said it was not prepared to reopen the 2022-23 contract that the APT ratified last year, they expressed their eagerness to return to the table for next year's negotiation process.
For that reason, Atkins recently told the Weekly that members of the APT and teachers had gone to the Sept. 14 PUSD Board of Trustees meeting to make their voices heard on a newer pay increase proposition.
The APT has had two recent negotiation sessions with the district, with another one scheduled for this week (with the results pending as of press time), to ask for a 15.5% raise -- according to Atkins, the district had offered 6.25%. She said after surveying the teachers, roughly 98% of them said, "not good enough."
"We believe that there's money there," Atkins said. "We don't believe that what we're asking is unreasonable. We know that there's more money than the 6.25%."
The main difference between all the Tri-Valley districts in terms of salary schedules boils down to the change in pay over the years, which is where Pleasanton falls behind compared to its neighbors.
Livermore, for example, starts off teachers in their first year from roughly $69,000 to $73,000 -- depending on their number of teaching years under their belt, according to the 2023-24 Livermore Education Association salary schedule.
But the union and the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District recently approved a compensation agreement, which includes a 3% ongoing salary increase for the 2022-23 school year, retroactive to July 1, 2022, as well as the 4% previously negotiated and added to the 2022-23 salary schedule.
"We were happy to announce that we were able to reach an agreement in a timely manner with our district, so we're starting the year with a contract and we're hopeful for continued successful negotiations," LEA President Aimee Thompson said.
The salary schedule also includes an additional 6% ongoing increase for the current school year.
Before the new salary schedule, Livermore ranked 14 out of 19 nearby districts including the neighboring communities of Pleasanton, Dublin and the San Ramon Valley. Under the newly approved salary schedule, LEA leadership said that Livermore will rank sixth.
But what makes this particularly interesting, according to a website created by Foothill High School engineering teacher Gary Johnson titled "Pleasanton Students Deserve the Best", is that while PUSD does pay more in the first year -- up to roughly $79,000 depending on previous experience -- there is a negative correlation over the years between both salary schedules.
"While PUSD does start higher ... the longer you stay in PUSD, the worse you are doing," Johnson wrote on the website. "By year 10, LVJUSD is paying more, so anybody that is still working in PUSD after 10 years is a sucker."
While the average rates can vary on teacher experience and credentials, Dublin Unified School District was shown to pay the highest salary in the Tri-Valley, followed by PUSD, LVJUSD and SRVUSD, according to a 2022-23 Dublin survey.
"The district and DTA are equally committed to working collaboratively on behalf of our most important resource -- our staff," DUSD Superintendent Chris Funk told the Weekly.
He shared that earlier this year, the district and its educators made several agreements related to their contracts. "Most recently in the spring of 2023, we finalized seven agreements that will directly and positively impact our instructional programming for students during the 2023 to 2024 school year," he said.
"The district looks forward to continuing negotiation sessions scheduled soon to discuss compensation and other mutually agreed-upon topics," Funk added.
Funk expressed that the Dublin district values transparency, and compared to neighboring districts DUSD is shown to have some of the highest teacher salaries.
"Our most important resource is our staff, who work to create positive teaching and learning outcomes every day. To this end, we start with a compensation package that puts us at the top of the nearby and comparable school districts," Funk said.
According to the 2022-23 Dublin Unified School District certificated salary increase schedule, first-year teachers with the district can earn anywhere from nearly $77,000 to $92,000 depending on their experience.
"Dubin Teachers Association leadership has invited DUSD management to join our DTA student-centered approach to negotiations. So far, management has not adopted that approach," said DTA president Allison Malone, a math teacher at Dublin High School.
Malone explained that there is often a disconnect between the district leadership, and those in the classroom teaching the students.
"Our members insist on negotiating provisions that guarantee our students get the best support, the best class sizes and the best educators. DUSD management doesn't seem to have the same understanding of what our students need to thrive as our DTA members have," Malone added.
Recently, Dublin received an 8.22% increase in state funding known as Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) for the 2023-24 school year.
Despite the additional funding, Malone said the educators have not seen an increase in salary, benefits or other resources.
"Management refuses to place a salary offer that will retain and recruit the best on the table. Management has offered a significant cut in DTA member purchasing power by offering only a 1% salary increase," Malone said.
Many Dublin teachers feel the key to peaceful and productive negotiations is to understand the teacher and student perspectives.
"Our DTA student-centered approach to negotiations needs to be adopted by management," Malone said. "When that happens, we'll make sure that all our students have the best."
While the salary range in the San Ramon Valley is lower than the other three districts (first-year teachers make anywhere from $61,000 to $69,000), Finco said that the union's most recent agreement with the district coupled with the positive relationship between both negotiating parties reassures her that improvements can be made in the future.
"This past year ... we were able to secure an 8.5% salary increase," she said. "We did that in four bargaining sessions in less than three weeks. When you have something like that happen it's because management and labor are on the same page when it comes to recognizing the need for professional compensation."
She also said that while there is room for improvement when it comes to SRVUSD teacher salaries, the fact that the district has one of the highest compensated superintendents in the state makes her believe that the district will do the same for their teachers.
"We're not quite there. There's still room for improvement on that, but we are able to offer our educators, I think, a better compensation," Finco said. "I do believe we are able to offer a better compensation package for our teachers than our neighboring districts and again that is because we've got a student-focused, positive labor management relationship."
SRVUSD officials said that working with the union was a priority, and that the district recognizes the value of competitive compensation for teachers in order to maintain a quality level of education.
"We understand that our ability to provide innovative and inclusive learning environments for students is dependent upon our most valuable resource, our staff," SRVUSD officials said in a statement to the Weekly. "For this reason, we are committed to working collaboratively with all of our union partners to provide the best possible compensation package that allows the district to recruit and retain a high-quality, diverse staff."
According to Sheikholeslami, there are a lot of factors to consider when talking about salary increases in general.
Districts receive funding from the state based on enrollment from the LCFF. The state had given districts a grace period during COVID, but most districts like PUSD are now dealing with lower enrollment meaning less money.
However, this past year PUSD saw a roughly $6 million increase in its LCFF funding from the 2022-23 adopted budget and its cost-of-living adjustments, which both go toward the unrestricted general fund. PUSD had also received roughly $13 million in new restricted dollars, Sheikholeslami said.
But the problem is that those restricted dollars, while a lot, can only go toward funding specific programs and services such as maintenance, arts, music and departments like special education.
"Those restricted dollars, in that one time, are not really meant for ongoing salary increases," Sheikholeslami said. "That's what makes it a challenge is a lot of people saw 'Oh, my God, the district got such a significant amount of money,' not realizing such a large portion of them were restricted."
He also said that on the unrestricted side, those funds helped stabilize the budget so that the district wouldn't exceed its expenditures, otherwise known as deficit-spending.
"We were projected to deficit-spend almost $7.7 million," Sheikholeslami said. "But then when you look at the first interim that got adjusted ... It went from that ($7.7 million) to about $4.7 million."
He said at the end of the day, the main differences in how districts decide their compensation packages is that each district has to prioritize which programs it wants to mainly fund, how many teachers the district has to hire depending on the class sizes and what benefits it wants to offer.
Health and medical benefits
Finco's point about benefits is another topic in the overall discussion regarding compensation throughout the Tri-Valley. And also one where Pleasanton seems to once again fall short.
"We are no longer at the top (in salary) and we are at the bottom of the surrounding districts when it comes to healthcare benefits," Atkins said.
Apart from access to vision and dental, the Pleasanton human resources brochure mentions the health benefits for employees in line with CalPERS health benefits -- a maximum of $5,000 including all CalPERS-required contributions.
Atkins said as the APT moves forward with negotiations, she and the union want to see 100% full medical coverage.
"If you're taking medical in the district, that's a really tough one," she said. "If you're somebody that needs family medical, well ... there's your paycheck."
She said that with their medical benefits costs going up 11%, the little bit that the district has offered them is not enough.
"Right now we get $5,000 and they've offered us $8,000," Atkins said. "With the 11% increase, really that's not giving anything to anybody."
Across the rest of the Tri-Valley, however, other districts provide better health plans.
According to Finco, in addition to that 8.5% salary raise, the union was also able to restore some healthcare plan options -- including completely free Kaiser plans -- that improved San Ramon Valley teachers' overall benefits package.
"We have fully paid Kaiser healthcare family, so that right there can be anywhere from $9,000, if you're single, to up to $25,000 a year in additional compensation," Finco said.
In Livermore, the standard Kaiser family plan with LVJUSD is $1,035 a month -- in Dublin their Kaiser monthly premium for a family is $1,096.
But according to Johnson's website, PUSD teachers have to pay $2,375 a month for their medical plan.
"That's over $25,000 a year benefit over PUSD ($20,000 net difference when the $5,000 PUSD stipend is considered)," Johnson wrote. "We again see the negative correlation, though, indicating that PUSD does not value their teachers long term."
Sheikholeslami, however, said that because most of the districts in the Tri-Valley are more or less the same when it comes to revenue and cost per student, it really comes down to how districts divide up their budgets.
"A lot of times school districts with very generous health benefits, you'll see the salary starting points ... being a little bit less," he said.
He said the school districts that are able to pay more, offer better benefits and have less class sizes are able to do so mainly because they receive revenue enhancements such as community funding.
"Without some type of significant revenue enhancement, it's hard to make those significant inroads like increasing benefits, increasing salaries for our staff," Sheikholeslami said.
But salary and health benefits aren't the only things that teachers are looking at when applying to new districts.
The Pleasanton human resources brochure goes on to list other things that are not necessarily related to salaries and benefits like stipends for certain degrees, opportunities for professional development and up to 15 years of service credit.
Service credit refers to the number of years a teacher has been teaching which -- in addition to their education -- can be factored into a new district in order to land on a higher level on the salary scale.
The issue, however, is when districts offer a maximum of service credit years. And that matters a lot to teachers.
"When I moved to Pleasanton I had eight years of previous experience in another district, but I had to start at year six instead of nine because at that time that was the number of years the district was willing to take," Atkins said.
She said that was the norm for most districts at the time.
"That meant as a teacher you had a small window of time to find your forever home in a district," she added. "After a period of time it wouldn't make financial sense to change districts because you would have to give up too many years."
But that norm was eliminated at SRVUSD this past year following recent negotiations between the union and the district, Finco said.
"What that means is if you are a 10-year teacher coming into the district, a 15-year veteran teacher, a 20-year veteran teacher, you got all of that credit on the salary schedule, which means no reduction in salary and in many cases -- and I think this is why we got a lot of veteran teachers coming in -- it was also a huge pay increase. That's big," Finco said.
She said by eliminating service credit limits there are more reasons for teachers to stay in the district and not have to jump from district to district trying for the best salaries.
"We're providing the best compensation. And again, I don't want to sound like a broken record, but that's what's best for the students -- having that stability in the teaching force at a school and at a district is really critical," Finco said.
Thompson said that one highlight of this year's agreement is that it eliminates the previous 17-year cap on service credits under the old agreement, making LVJUSD the second Tri-Valley district after SRVUSD without a service credit cap.
"Now we accept all years of service," Thompson said.
She added that this has already served to help with recruitment to LVJUSD, which was made clear early in the school year.
"We are starting this year with fewer open positions than we did last year, so I think that's evidence that the compensation settlement we reached was able to attract teachers, and our new hire orientation showed that half of new hires this year to Livermore were coming from other districts," Thompson said.
As for Dublin, while the district recently increased the years of experience credit from five to six years, the district will also be exploring options for "increasing the years of experience credit that the district provides to new and existing employees and present those options for consideration as part of the 2023-24 reopener negotiations between the district and DTA," according to the DUSD negotiations update from July 7.
Atkins added that while PUSD did increase the years of service credit it took from six to 15, those service credits have become an important factor for teachers who want to move to districts where their years of experience don't get factored out and they can get paid more.
"Districts now have to compete with each other to attract and retain their teachers," she said. "This includes compensation by number of years, medical and health benefits and working conditions."
"Teachers have left our district for many reasons and yes, some for better pay, better stipends and better benefits," Atkins added. "We are no longer at the top and other districts are taking more years of service which gives teachers more opportunity to decide where they want to teach to be compensated the best."