As the state’s funding of public education decreases, local school districts like West Contra Costa Unified have been forced to make painful cuts in expenses, including the biggest expense by far—teacher compensation.
For WCCUSD, that has translated to no cost-of-living increases, a shorter work year, and reductions in health benefits, including elimination of full health insurance coverage for retirees.
WCCUSD academic performance and teacher pay compared to other districts
The budget squeeze has increased public attention on teacher pay in the debates over academic quality in WCCUSD schools, where some people see low API scores and graduation rates an indicative of a substandard education compared to other districts with higher test scores and graduation rates.
Such perceptions are seen as responsible for a sizeable number of El Cerrito families sending their students to private schools or other school districts, like Albany Unified next door, where the district-wide API score last year was 882—compared to 707 in WCCUSD. Albany’s graduation rate for 2010-2011 was 87.1 percent, significantly higher than the 74 percent in WCCUSD.
At the same time, Albany’s average teacher salary in the 2010-2011 school year ($65,760) was more than $10,000 higher than WCCUSD’s ($53,775).
In fact, according to the Education Data Partnership Web site, in the 2010-2011 school year, WCCUSD had the lowest average teacher salary among all school districts in Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties (except for eight that did not report statistics).
According to the same statistics, WCCUSD’s lowest offered teacher salary ($35,931) was smaller than all other districts’ except three, and its highest offered teacher salary ($74,235) was the eighth smallest.
Many observers naturally feel that part of the solution for WCCUSD is to pay teachers more.
"It is hard to find an experienced teacher willing to work in this district," one reader wrote on Patch.
"I watch families with school aged kids leave as soon as they have the wherewithall to do so," wrote another reader. "...We don't want underfunded schools that are full of both youth violence and underpaid teachers."
School Board President Charles Ramsey acknowledged that lower salaries make WCCUSD less attractive as a place to work than other districts.
“It helps create a situation where we can’t compete, and that’s why we have a revolving door of young teachers,” he said.
But Ramsey added that the district’s ability to raise teacher pay is tightly constrained, and education experts say the situation is too complex to conclude that higher teacher pay will necessarily lead to better test scores or education quality.
No strong link between teacher pay and API scores
El Cerrito Patch’s analysis of teacher pay in the 28 unified districts in Contra Costa, Alameda and Solano counties found no consistent correlation between teacher salary and API scores. (See attached graph, first one to the right of the two photos.)
While looking at West Contra Costa and Albany school districts alone suggests a correlation, the inclusion of many more districts presents a scattered picture from which no clear correlation can be drawn.
The district with highest average teacher salary (New Haven), for example, is in the bottom half of districts ranked by API scores. And the district with the highest API scores (Piedmont) is not in the top fourth of districts ranked by average salary. The district with the second highest API scores (San Ramon) ranks 12th in average salary among the 28 districts compared.
Comparisons of salary alone don't tell the whole story since benefits comprise an important part of compensation, but comparative apples-to-apples data for benefits is not as readily available. When comparing a relatively large number of districts, salaries offer a rough guide to the relative total compensation.
A much stronger link is found between API scores and the percentage of students on free or reduced-price meal plans—an indicator of family income levels—indicating that API scores are more strongly correlated with the socioeconomic character of the community than with teacher pay. (See attached graph, second one to the right after the two photos.)
The statistics suggest that low teacher pay is not a source of the district's academic challenges but another symptom of the district's limited economic resources.
Finding solutions requires an understanding of the interplay of several key elements, experts say.
How big of an impact do teacher salaries have?
Norton Grubb, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Education, has researched how a wide range of inputs, including teacher salary, affect schooling outcomes.
Grubb said that teacher salaries affect education in two ways: attracting qualified teachers to the school district, and retaining them.
“About 25% of teacher of turnover is determined by salary,” he said. “The other three quarters is determined by things like the way they’re treated in the schools, the resources they have, and whether they have decision-making power in the schools.”
Grubb said urban school districts, like WCCUSD, often take in young, inexperienced teachers, who leave after a few years for a suburban school district.
“They’re so to speak training grounds for suburban school districts,” he said.
According to the Education Data Partnership Web site, in the 2010-2011 school year, 7.7 percent of WCCUSD’s 1,425 teachers were in their first year of teaching, or approximately 110 new teachers.
Ramsey characterized WCCUSD as having a “revolving door of young teachers” who are inexperienced, but not necessarily bad educators.
Teacher salary and test scores
While increasing teacher salary may affect WCCUSD’s ability to attract experienced teachers and prevent them from leaving, would a pay boost necessarily translate to measurable gains in the classroom?
Not necessarily, said Judith Warren Little, Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Education, especially if measured by test scores.
According to Little, research has found a very weak correlation between higher teacher salary and higher standardized test scores—a finding further supported by the Patch analysis of API scores and average teacher salary.
While the state of California has used API scores—based on standardized test scores—to rank and evaluate schools and districts for the last 10 years, both Little and Grubb said standardized tests are not ideal measures of teaching quality.
“People just look at test scores, and just make judgments about the quality of education in those districts,” said Grubb, the author of The Money Myth: School Resources, Outcomes, and Equity.
But the reality is far more complex. Two of the main issues, Grubb said, are that API scores are not properly designed as a valid measure of changes in education over time, and that standardized tests do not control for family background, which has a large influence on student performance.
Family background is made up of many smaller factors, like parental education, language spoken at home, and family income level.
While parental education has the largest impact on student success, Grubb said, factors like family income level—which can be measured through the proxy of the percentage of students on free or reduced price meal plans—also have significant influence.
What impacts quality of education in the classroom?
While teaching salary is important in regards to attracting teachers to a district and convincing them to stay, Little said day-to-day working conditions teachers face—like their relationships with other teachers, parent involvement and classroom resources—have a greater impact on quality of education in the classroom.
“If you want to attract people in to teaching and make them take it seriously as a career, then you have to pay them more,” she said. “But that won’t be enough to really drive large-scale improvement. You’ve got to then make it a place worth working in. You’ve got to supply the kind of climate that’s motivating.”
While factors like community involvement and professional development opportunities play a large part in developing this sort of climate, Little said her experience in schools has showed her that the state of the school facilities also makes a significant difference in morale.
In recent years, WCCUSD has spent millions of dollars through bond measures to renovate and reconstruct facilities.
Diane Brown, president of United Teachers of Richmond (the union for all teachers in WCCUSD), said these new buildings are a plus for both educators and students.
“Our teachers and our students, they deserve schools that are safe and schools that can provide the resources that they need to do their job,” she said.
Retiree benefits costs make salary increase difficult
Two school board members said the district’s ability to raise teacher salary is tightly constrained primarily because of the cost of retiree benefits.
According to the WCCUSD 2012-2013 budget, retiree benefits are expected to cost approximately $20 million this fiscal year.
An agreement between the United Teachers of Richmond and the district in the 1970s provided uncapped lifetime health benefits for retired teachers.
In essence, for as long as the retiree lived, they would receive full health insurance coverage and the district would pay the premium.
School board member Madeline Kronenberg said the agreement made sense at the time it was instituted, but the rising costs of healthcare in the last decade have put a tremendous strain on the district’s budget.
The WCCUSD 2012-2013 budget states that the district’s long-term liability was $495 million in 2008, and if the lifetime retiree benefits had remained, the liability would have risen to $550 by 2010.
In the most recent contract—ratified at the end of 2009—between the district and the UTR, the two parties agreed to eliminate these lifetime benefits for any teacher who retired after June 2010.
Though these changes dropped the district’s long-term liability to $385 million, according to the budget, the district is still paying for the lifetime benefits of 2311 teachers who retired before July 2010.
While the number of retirees with uncapped lifetime benefits decreases every year, health insurance premiums nevertheless go up, school board President Ramsey said. The budget accounts for a projected 9.6% increase in premium costs for 2013.
“We can’t do anything about the commitment we’ve made to our retired employees who are receiving benefits,” Kronenberg said. “All we can do is seek additional funds.”
This financial commitment, worsened by the lack of state funding, is the primary reason the district has been unable to increase teacher salaries, according to Kronenberg and Ramsey.
What exactly are teachers receiving?
When the most recent contract between the United Teachers of Richmond and the school district went into effect, there were significant changes for teachers’ compensation packages.
Teachers who retired before July 1, 2010 are guaranteed uncapped lifetime health benefits, but any teachers who retired after that date, and any who will retire in the future, are not.
Instead, retirees receive $450 per month for health benefits if they have worked at least 10 continuous years in WCCUSD—with two exceptions.
First, teachers who had worked 20 or more years in WCCUSD as of June 30, 2010 will receive $750 per month for health benefits when they retire.
Second, teachers hired after 2006 will receive only the minimum employer monthly contribution (as determined by the California Public Employees Retirement System Health Benefits Program) when they retire.
But retiree benefits are not the only thing that changed.
Prior to 2010, the district covered the full cost of healthcare premiums for teachers and their dependents. But in 2010, the district switched teachers to a tiered cap benefit program—meaning the district pays a set monthly amount for benefits, and if a teacher’s premium costs more, the difference is subtracted from the teacher’s paycheck.
In 2012, the district gives $610.44 for an employee with single coverage, $957 for two-person coverage, and $1237 for family (three or more people) coverage, according to the district website.
UTR President Brown said the change in benefits was a point of contention during contract negotiations in 2008 and 2009, and created discord with the teacher’s union.
Many longtime teachers chose to retire between 2008 and 2010 rather than face the hikes in benefit costs, she said.
According to the Education Data Partnership website, there was a notable decrease in WCCUSD teacher experience in those years, as average years teaching (for all teachers in the district) dropped from 14.1 in the 2007-2008 year to 12.6 in the 2010-2011 year. (See attached graph, third to the right after the two photos.)
While Brown—who became president after the contract was ratified—said she disagreed with the decision to make the changes, she acknowledged that there are several school districts in the Bay Area where teachers must pay the full cost of health benefits.
“What people don’t understand is that a lot of those other districts’ teachers are paying for their benefits out of pocket,” she said. “So it’s difficult to say how competitive we are given the current economic climate.”
Questions on Teach For America
With so many more young teachers in the district, the question arises, where do they come from?
One source is Teach For America, a national organization that recruits recent college graduates to teach in under-performing, low-income school districts.
TFA corps members receive a five-week training in the summer, where they work with and learn from a veteran teacher, and then they begin teaching in the fall, said Danielle Montoya, the TFA regional communications director.
According to Montoya, WCCUSD employed about 75 TFA corps members in the 2010-2011 school year, and about 95 in the 2011-2012 school year. It is not certain how many will be teaching in the upcoming year, but it will likely be fewer than last school year, she said.
These corps members receive the same salary and benefits as any other new teachers in the district and are represented by the UTR, but they are only obligated to teach for two years.
“We support these well-meaning recruits, but we need career teachers, not teachers with two-year commitments,” she said. “It’s doesn’t help our students if they don’t have stability.”
Brown added that there is no shortage of teachers in WCCUSD, with some teachers who were recently laid-off still looking for jobs.
School board member Madeline Kronenberg added that there is less of a need for TFA now than there was in 1990 when the program started.
Brown said she believes the limited training TFA corps members receive does not adequately prepare them for the classroom, and Professor Grubb agreed.
Montoya cited several studies done in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Louisiana as evidence of the positive impact TFA corps members have in the classroom. But those studies also indicated that the majority of TFA corps members did not stay past their two-year commitment.
Tyler Hester, the TFA senior managing director in Richmond, said he is focused on developing a strong partnership with veteran educators in WCCUSD, and supporting TFA corps members who want to make a long-term commitment.
“We have a lot of teachers who have gone on their two-year commitment, because they love the community and what they do,” Hester said. “One of my main priorities is going to be making teachers feel like this is a place they can make a long-term commitment.”
Hester said he did not know how many TFA alumni are still teaching in WCCUSD. Brown said she has requested the information from the district, but has not yet received it.
Should teacher salary change?
While it is difficult to measure the impact teacher salary has on education in the classroom, there is a general consensus between the education officials and teachers that teacher compensation should be higher.
But data from the Education Data Partnership Web site shows that WCCUSD spends less on certificated employee salaries (teachers, counselors, administrators) than most nearby school districts.
Among school districts in Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties, WCCUSD is in the lowest third when it comes to the percentage of its expenditures used on certificated employee salaries and employee benefits. (Employee benefits includes benefits for all district employees.)
Ramsey said the district’s funds are spread thin across many programs, like lifetime retiree benefits and school resource officers, which cost about $2 million annually.
Additionally, Ramsey said the school district has focused on paying off long-term debts, which were incurred in the 1990s when the district almost went bankrupt.
“We’re very fiscally responsible,” Ramsey said. “We just don’t take chances. But that means larger classes sizes at the elementary schools, larger class sizes at the high school, and fewer AP classes.”
According to the California Department of Education website, WCCUSD has positive certification, meaning that no matter what happens with the November election tax measures, the district will meet its financial obligations this year and next year.
But Ramsey said that if Governor Jerry Brown’s tax measure, Prop. 30, does not pass this November, the district will be in serious financial trouble after that.
According to the budget, if the November tax measures fail, the district will suffer $12 million in cuts, which translates to 150 employee lay-offs, 16 fewer days of school, or a 7.5 percent salary cut across the board.
Ramsey said the renewal of the district’s current parcel tax—which is expected to bring in $9.8 million this fiscal year—is also essential to prevent layoffs and class-size increases.
UTR President Diane Brown said she and the teachers recognize the dire financial situation that the state and the district are in, but she said increasing salaries is still at the top of the teachers’ list.
“We all realize that the current conditions are what they are, but that doesn’t that we can’t have that discussion,” said Brown. “It’s not like we’re saying we’re not interested. We need to improve our salaries.”