PAEA members protests outside thre district office.  “We don’t want to lose (educators) to districts that pay higher,” PAEA President Teri Baldwin said. “We want to attract and retain the best educators for our students.”
The Compensation Conundrum
Luca Vostrejs
PAEA members protests outside thre district office. “We don’t want to lose (educators) to districts that pay higher,” PAEA President Teri Baldwin said. “We want to attract and retain the best educators for our students.”

The Compensation Conundrum

PAUSD, PAEA reach ratification of two-year contract, ending negotiations impasse

Before the most recent board of education meeting, over 300 teachers marched outside of the district office, calling out to oncoming cars rushing down Churchill Ave. while displaying handcrafted signs that sway with the wind. Slogans ranging from “WTF? Where’s The Funding?” to “I’m a Math Teacher and these numbers DON’T ADD UP” were drawn over boards, advocating for the teachers’ union goal: to achieve a desired pay raise.

Though the Palo Alto Educators Association and the Palo Alto Unified School District negotiate teacher salaries almost every year, and while district-union contracts are up for renewal every two or three years, negotiations this year were more difficult than most, highlighted by the district and union’s joint decision to declare an impasse and have a state mediator get involved. 

“This is actually the first time in a very long time and certainly the first time in my 11 years of teaching that we’ve hit an impasse,” English teacher and former PAEA negotiator Mimi Park said.

PAEA, which represents certified staff –– teachers, counselors, librarians and other licensed professionals — initially asked for an 8% on-schedule raise, this year. The district countered with a proposed 2% raise. 

Later, the district proposed a 3.5% raise with a $4,000 one-time bonus while PAEA asked for a 5.5% raise. Because neither party would budge on salary, a state mediator was brought in to bridge the gap.

On May 6, the district and the union finally reached a tentative agreement of a 4% raise effective July 1, 2023, and a 1% off-schedule payment for this year and a 4% raise for next year. This tentative agreement was ratified by teachers on May 17 by a 515-47 vote.

Superintendent Don Austin said the district and union rules for negotiations are set through state and federal guidelines.

“The district management team has a team that represents our Board of Education in the process, and the teachers have their own representation team, which includes a California Teachers Association representative along with the union president and whoever they select as their team members,” Austin said.

Regardless of these rules, though, physical education teacher Peter Diepenbrock said this year’s negotiations have been particularly difficult.

“I’ve been here 27 years, and I’ve been through lots of different negotiations,” Diepenbrock said. “I don’t ever remember it being this contentious or people being as upset and frustrated.”

Austin, however, said he didn’t see it that way. 

“Overall, they weren’t very different,” Austin said. “One year, the initial proposals were very close to each other, so we settled quickly. This time, we weren’t close to each other when it started.”

But Chief Business Officer Carolyn Chow said involving a state mediator is seldom necessary.

 “It is a little bit unusual for our district,” said Chow. “It’s been about 15 years since Palo Alto was at an impasse and needed a mediator to help us get through our negotiations.”

Negotiations this year lasted nine months, starting in September, and Austin said the reason for the prolonged discussion was due to the abundance of PAEA requests for contract changes.

“We had more requests this time,” Austin said. “It took us longer to go through each of those requests. Salary and benefits is an expense to the district, and we have to weigh that as part of the overall budget.”

He also said bringing in a mediator was necessary to keep negotiations moving forward.

“I never, never, for a second, thought that bringing in a mediator was a loss,” Austin said. “I thought bringing a mediator is sometimes what you do to get unstuck, right? So we got there. We knew we’d settle.”

PAEA President Teri Baldwin said a considerable number of teachers were in favor of the mediation. 

“The vast majority of the teachers supported the impasse and (having) a mediator come in,” Baldwin said.

Despite initial difficulties, Baldwin said all parties involved with the negotiations worked together professionally to come to a resolution.

“In the beginning, the relationships were a little strained,” Baldwin said. “But, we are professionals and treat each other with respect. We weren’t personally attacking the board; it was about us discussing our value within the district.

Austin agrees.

“We still have great relationships with our bargaining team,” Austin said. “I think people think we’re all fighting and upset with each other. That’s just not the case.”

District Finances

Not every teacher loves the current agreement, though. English teacher and PAEA site representative Hunter Reardon said because of inflation, the value of teacher pay effectively decreases over time.

“Every year, inflation is continuing,” Reardon said. “The 2% raise (that the district offered) would not even keep up with inflation. Our pay would still be going down.”

But as a public school district, PAUSD can only do so much to pay its teachers, Austin said.

“There’s a limit to what a public school district can do to maintain peace with some of these realities,” he said. 

Even though the PAEA and PAUSD eventually settled on a 4% on-schedule raise, the raise fell short of keeping up with inflation in 2023 — 4.33%, according to the Federal Planning Bureau.

And Austin said moving forward the district will not necessarily work to have raises to keep up with inflation.

“We don’t want people leaving us to go to other places around here,” Austin said. “But we’re not going to keep up with inflation rates. If inflation at some points in the last few years has been over 8%, we’re not going to match that.”

Several nearby districts, such as the Mountain View-Los Altos Union School District and Fremont Unified School District, though, pay higher maximum salaries than PAUSD.

English teacher and PAEA site representative Erin Angell said her salary would be significantly higher at other districts, and that moving to Fremont Unified would also provide better benefits.

“If I’m teaching in Palo Alto the max salary I can make is $154,300,” Angell said. “But if I’m going to teach at Fremont Unified it’s $169,000. And if I’m teaching in MVLA, it’s $192,000.”

EdData, a website offering comprehensive data on districts as recently as 2022, shows on average, a teacher working at PAUSD in 2022 earned $122,868. When looking at other districts in the area, the average salary is higher: at Fremont Unified School District, the average teacher salary was $125,454, and the average teacher working at Mountain View-Los Altos Union School District, earned $152,464. 

For teachers, another contentious point is the District’s financial reserves. PAUSD has over $135 million that it could spend on teacher raises. Paramesh said these reserves should be used to improve the school.

“What I’ve heard so far is that a lot of the funds are sort of in reserve right now and are not being used and sort of are accumulating interest,” Paramesh said. “And so that doesn’t make sense to me. I think we should be using those funds on the teachers which by extension supports the rest of the school and the students.”

However, Chow said the $135 million in reserves is for when finances might be tight. 

“The money comes from years in which we had funds that weren’t expended, and they went into the ending fund balance,” Chow said. “Some of it is largely intentional. When the times are good, it’s easier to set money aside.”

Austin agrees and said the $135 million in reserves will significantly decrease because the district is already planning on using it to pay for things like summer school salaries and childcare for hundreds of families. According to the district’s website, the total amount the District can spend out of reserves barring an emergency is slightly under $19 million.

“Our recalculated reserve numbers will go down the second we sign these agreements,” Austin said. “But reserves are like a bank account — when you take the money out, it’s just gone. There’s no money coming back in. So if this group now says, ‘You can afford this as paid on reserves,’ Absolutely. But I have to keep the district solvent for the next 20 years, not this one year.”

Work Experience

While maximum salaries for other schools are higher, Austin said teachers stay in PAUSD for working conditions and 

“It’s not just a snapshot of a salary; it’s salary plus contract,” Austin said. “When you combine salary and contract, I’d stack us up against anybody.”

According to EdData, in 2022, PAUSD’s maximum contribution for staff health and welfare benefits comes out to be $27,774 for each staff member. The same year, MVLA offered a maximum of $35,247 for each staff member. And FUSD provides even higher benefits, with a maximum of $43,064 for each teacher.

Austin said because PAUSD offers more benefits, such as lower class sizes, the situation is more complicated than just comparing educator salaries across districts.

“If anyone wants to point to just salary, then they’re neglecting contracts,” Austin said. “There are some districts that pay a little more, but they have class sizes of 29.”

Compared to neighboring districts, PAUSD has about a 17-to-1 student-staff ratio, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. MVLA has an 18-to-1 student-staff ratio, ahead of FUSD’s 23-to-1 student-staff ratio. 

Austin said PAUSD special education teachers teach four out of seven periods, allowing them to have time for preparation and individualized education programs for their students.

However, PAUSD teachers often live far away, which Austin attributes to the high home prices in the immediate area.

“I’m not sure that it’s the expectation for government and state employees to be able to purchase a home in Palo Alto,” Austin said. “It is price prohibitive. It’s why 50% of the residents in Palo Alto rent. That’s an actual fact. The average home price in the Bay Area is well over $2 million.”

Austin also said most teachers live relatively close to Palo Alto, but recognized short commutes distance-wise can still take a long time in the Bay Area.

“We do heat maps, and a heat map is an actual scattergram of the actual home locations of our employees and the overwhelming majority live within 20 miles of the school district,” Austin said. “Now, when you live here, 20 miles can still be a 45-minute or an hour commute.”

However, Greene Middle School teacher Joleen Roach said some teachers she knows are faced with the dilemma of either resorting to side hustles to keep up with rent or having to commute long distances from homes located in more affordable areas. 

“People are having to move because they can’t afford their rent,” Roach said. “And people live really far away anyway. When people live far away, and they have to get second jobs, that affects their ability to teach kids.”

PAEA site representative and Escondido Elementary School teacher Richard Garcia said commutes start very early in the morning for some teachers.

“I know more than a few (teachers) that live down south, and they have to commute for over an hour to get to school,” Garcia said. “They’re getting in here at 7 in the morning. We start at 8. But that means that a commute could start as early as 5:30.”

Even with shorter commutes, teachers who live closer to Palo Alto still face high living expenses. Lupoli said his family is forced to dip into their savings each month, despite how he and his wife are both teachers earning incomes.

“Right now, every month, we are spending more than we make,” Lupoli said. “Not because we have a luxurious lifestyle, but because we need to pay our mortgage. We need to pay for child care, and we need to feed ourselves and our baby.”

Jane Lathrop Middle School math teacher and PAEA site representative Elizabeth Fee said these commutes are hard on teacher lifestyles. 

“Teachers are working long hours. At home at night grading papers, planning lessons, all of those things,” Fee said. “It makes teaching really hard.”

Educator Retention

Austin said the district values teacher retention rates and works hard to keep its teachers.

“We care so deeply about it that we do exit interviews with anyone who leaves us, and we publish the data,” Austin said. “What we’re seeing is our retention rates are exceedingly high, especially for veterans.”

Austin said based on exit interviews, teachers rarely leave because they feel unvalued by the district. 

“For veteran teachers, once you’ve been here 10, 15, 20 years, overwhelmingly, they’re not leaving us to go other places,” Austin said. “And that should not be in any way misconstrued as not valuing retention. We want to keep our best veteran teachers for their entire careers. I just think that message got a little twisted during negotiations.”

But PAEA site representative and Economics teacher Eric Bloom said the district fighting against a higher raise devalues teachers.

“When the district chooses not to give us a competitive raise, it’s saying, ‘We don’t value teacher retention. We don’t value the work that you’re doing,’” Bloom said. “And so I feel neglected.”

PAUSD Board of Education Vice President Shana Segal and Board Member Todd Collins declined an interview request for this story. Board Members Shounak Dharap and Jennifer DiBrienza did not respond to interview requests. Deputy Superintendent Trent Bahadursingh initially sent links to district information related to negotiations but didn’t respond to follow-up requests for an interview.

Campanile adviser Rod Satterthwaite is a PAEA member and so did not directly edit or influence this story. The Campanile had an out-of-state journalism adviser review and give feedback on the story before it was published.

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