With contract talks expected to start this week, Manhattan Beach teachers say they've waited too long for the district to find its way out of a once-precarious financial situation and are placing salary increases on the front burner.
But the school district is wary of depleting its reserves with potentially devastating cutbacks on the horizon.
"We give a top-notch education thanks to the support we have, but some of our teachers are hurting," said Karl Kurz, president of the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association. He said teachers have not received a raise since 2007.
The teachers in the highest salary schedule column, which is based on education credits earned, are impacted the most, Kurz said. The schedule is structured to give the most tenured teachers a less than 1 percent pay hike after year 15.
"In real terms, many of these teachers have taken nearly a 20 percent pay cut over the course of this decade because of the rising cost of living and stagnant pay," he said.
In the early 2000s, while other districts were "booming," Kurz said, Manhattan Beach was struggling with mismanaged bonds and excessive debt. Now that times are better and reserves are stable, teachers' salaries need to be adjusted.
"Some of the teachers, if they're the only income, can't own a house in Southern California," he said. "They've been teaching forever and some of them still live in apartments.
Many have to tutor on the side or take on a second job, he said.
In neighboring cities, like Redondo Beach, teachers make 2 to 6 percent more, adding up to $90,000 over a teacher's lifetime, he said.
"With our compensation package placing us in the bottom third of L.A. County, teachers will not be attracted to come to or, just as important, stay in our district," he said.
Kurz, a science teacher at Mira Costa High School, told the board recently that in Manhattan Beach, the No. 3 district in the state, the teachers are not treated accordingly. His speech was greeted with a standing ovation by more than 150 teachers and principals who had packed the room to show their unity.
"Every year we have become more dedicated to the students, parents and this district and we have never faltered," said 10-year second-grade teacher Lori Desmond. "We are asking to be given a fair market value pay increase that compares to the high caliber of excellence you hold us to. We have proven to the parents and district that we are worth more than what we are paid."
"It's not just that the teachers at MBUSD deserve higher salaries, it's that all the students deserve teachers who have higher salaries," Mira Costa High School student Yuan Wang told the board.
Rick Bagley, deputy superintendent of administrative services, has to look at the big picture when he steps into the union negotiations March 22. If the extended sales and income tax initiative proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown doesn't pass in November, Manhattan Beach Unified will lose $2 million in state revenue annually over the next several years.
The district also could see a "significant hit" if the governor's proposed "weighted formula" passes, which would adjust state revenues given to schools based on the number of students identified as English learners and/or those in need of free and reduced priced meals.
"Since we don't have many students in those categories, we wouldn't get much money back," he said.
The amount of money given to the district per student annually, currently $6,791, could drop by nearly $1,000, Bagley said.
The district has reserves, he said, but they might not last. Bagley struggled to present to the county a balanced budget three years out that maintains the district's reserve requirement.
"We're probably going to need to hold on to as much of it as we can," he said. "Teachers say, `You have the money and you should give it to us because we deserve a raise.' And they do. We're saying a raise is ongoing. That's forever. This money is not ongoing and forever. Once you spend (the reserve), it's gone. They don't replenish."
Although the union contends MBUSD's total compensation is far below neighboring districts, Bagley believes otherwise.
The district pays employees the value of 80 percent of the least expensive family health insurance plan, while the teachers pay 20 percent. A single person will get most, if not all, of their benefits covered by the district, Bagley said.
"If you look at salary plus benefits, Manhattan Beach is very competitive," he said.
The teachers also have other added benefits over surrounding schools, Bagley said.
"(Other districts) have higher class sizes, they have combination classes, they have furlough days, they have kids in the classroom that don't speak the language, they might not have as good a health benefit plan" as MBUSD, he said.
If the district doesn't dip into its current $16.3 million reserve to plug potential deficits in the future, Bagley said, the alternative is increasing class sizes, which in turn, leads to layoffs, a move the district avoided for 2012-13.
"We've cut maintenance, administrative and clerical staff as far as we can without doing serious damage to the district," he said.
Assuming the November tax initiatives pass, the district will see a $3.1 million shortfall at the end of 2011-12 and a $3.4 million deficit in 2012-13. If the initiatives fail, the district will have the same deficit in 2011-12, but a $5.9 million deficit in 2012-13, with reserves shrinking to $2 million in 2013-14.
"We can give raises, and we can cut people to pay for the raises," he said. "That doesn't make any sense."