The past couple years have been a financial bloodbath for teachers in California. Educators have fled school districts—and, in some cases, the state—taken early retirement, and endured endless cycles of pink slips and uncertainty. But a recent move by the Coastal Unified School district to increase salaries shows that some districts, at least, have navigated the economy’s choppy waters with room to spare, which raises the question: Will teachers in other districts abandon ship in favor of larger paychecks and greater job security?
In January, Coastal Unified School district decided to increase salaries five to seven percent. Everyone—including management, teachers, and classified employees—will reap the benefits over the course of the next three years.
Coastal Unified School District Director of Personnel Ryan Pinkerton explained the rare phenomenon of a school district with cash to spare, by saying simply, “We’re in good shape in terms of the district and where it’s going.”
Though the raises will take place across the board, there’s a slight differential between teachers and non-teaching staff. Teachers will receive an overall raise of 6.6 percent and non-teaching staff will see a 7 percent increase in their pay.
The salary increases also came with the first early retirement incentives for Coastal Unified in more than 10 years. Thirty-nine teachers in the top pay tier chose to take the buyout, which Pinkerton says will save the district more than $1 million each year.
The retirement of 39 of the district’s most seasoned and well-paid employees leaves more than just wiggle room in the district’s budget.
“Of course we look at whether or not we need to fill those positions,” Pinkerton explained. “And if we don’t, that could affect programs and things like class sizes.”
But Pinkerton insists the increased savings to the district have an overall positive effect and that Coastal Unified’s pay scale offers the luxury of selecting the crème de la crème among a new crop of teachers. In short, everyone wants to be in bed with the school district that’s waving around pay raises in this economy.
“Last year, we had a few hundred applications for our elementary school openings,” said Pinkerton, adding that most of the teachers hired into the district come from Cal Poly or from the surrounding area, in part because of the cost of moving and living in San Luis Obispo County keeps the number of outside applicants low.
Jessica Djuric was one of the teachers hired for this year’s elementary school vacancies. Djuric grew up on the Central Coast, received both of her bachelor’s degrees from Cal Poly, and student-taught in Lucia Mar Unified. She was hired to teach a 2nd and 3rd grade combo class at Bishop’s Peak Elementary.
She saw online that the district was hiring and decided to apply. Djuric said that, like her, hundreds of others were vying for a few positions within the district. Despite what she described as a rigorous interview process, she’s (not surprisingly) thrilled with the outcome.
“The hiring process was very selective,” she explained, “and the interviews were quite intensive. The district did a fantastic job hiring all the new teachers they did.”
Djuric said the turnover in staff within the district has changed the classroom dynamic.
“This is a wonderful district to be in. Having new teachers means you have people who are familiar with the newest research and the newest technology,” she said. “Still, some of the teachers here have been teaching for 20-plus years and have so much knowledge to share; so all the employees have a focus on student success. If someone finds a great lesson plan, they’ll say, ‘Look, it’s not just my strategy, this is something I’ve found effective and you should try it.’ So, it’s great being a part of that kind of team.”
Djuric said that her class size—along with that of the rest of Bishop Peak’s primary classes, or the K-3 level—haven’t been affected by the early retirements. Her combo class has 21 students, and the rest of the primary grades cap off at 25. As far as Coast Unified is concerned, everything’s coming up roses and unicorns.
“We’re kind of living the dream,” Djuric explained. “This is a very comfortable district to be in. Everyone in the district office is looking for ways to support you and make you a more effective teacher. The district wants student success, so they did a lot of thinking about what they could do to support that. They recognized that schools need teachers for students to learn and schools need smaller class sizes.”
But according to the communications liaison for Lucia Mar’s Teachers Association, Donna Kandel, it’s choppy waters for neighboring district Lucia
“Morale is pretty terrible,” she said. “Raising salaries doesn’t seem to be a priority.”
According to Kandel, teachers have begun to look elsewhere for positions that pay enough to support the cost of living in and around the county. Districts like Coastal Unified prove to be a tempting option for newly certified and trained teachers looking for a leg up.
“Teachers who have been teaching in this district for three or five years are so far behind the pay schedule,” she said. “Teachers in that first pay tier are starting to look at the benefits of jumping ship. It’s just a shame, because we train them here and then they leave for another district.”
Part of the financial inequity stems from how the two districts receive their funding. Coastal Unified is run and operated on the revenue generated from property taxes, while Lucia Mar remains at the mercy of the state budget.
Lucia Mar Unified Chief Business Official Dr. Raynee Daley said the way the two districts are budgeted is a key factor in employee salaries, along with the tabling and bargaining process.
“That’s always subject to negotiations; that’s always going to go to tabling and bargaining,” she explained. “We’re still sort of reeling at the current governor’s proposals … we’re just looking forward to more positive budget findings.”
Daley said the district is working within tight financial limitations. Still, she said the teachers in her district have always put students first.
“We have a very professional group of teachers who are focused on improving student learning, and they are a highly professional, competent group of people to work with,” she said.
Kandel believes the district is missing vital opportunities to retain its teachers and has instead made drastic staffing cuts over the last several years.
“The district office now admits that those cuts were a mistake,” Kandel explained. “But that hasn’t really translated into an apology or restitution.”
Tabling and talks of pink slips will be taking place on March 15 for Lucia Mar teachers. Kandel hopes the district will soon start catching up to the pay schedule.
“We are losing really great teachers,” she said. “The goal needs to be to correct the inequality.”
Intern Maeva Considine can be reached through News Editor Colin Rigley at firstname.lastname@example.org.