Click photo to enlarge
School Employees picket over proposed Mt. Diablo School District cuts in as they emerge from the Mt. Diablo school district office building on Carlotta Drive and chant "Save Our Benefits" and other slogans regarding budget cuts on Tuesday June 15, 2010 in Concord, Calif. The group of about 200 went from Monte Gardens Elementary to the district offices picketing before the district board meeting. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Staff)

The math is simple: California schools have less money than most other states, but their teachers are the most highly paid in the nation.

Per pupil spending, on the other hand, trails the national average by about $2,500.

Until the financially troubled state government finds more money to invest in its public schools, which make up more than half of its general fund spending, something has to give.

School budgeting has become a zero-sum game.

California school districts spend more than half of their dollars on teacher pay and benefits. In better times, when education funding rose each year to keep pace with the cost of living, so did salaries. But the state now gives schools less money for each student than it did in 2005-06, when the average teacher made 11 percent less.

To make payroll, districts are laying off teachers and loading more children into each classroom. They are cutting secretaries, assistant principals, custodians, aides, instructional coaches and security. They are closing schools and slashing supplies. They are shrinking the length of the school year.

In the East Bay alone, more than 130,000 students from 14 districts will have their school years cut short, according to a Bay Area News Group analysis. Students in Alameda, Newark and Knightsen will be in school for 175 days, a week less than the national average, at a time when the president is calling for a longer school year.


Advertisement

Such reductions could take a toll on a public education system that already trails the nation in graduation rates, student test scores and funding. California ranks 44th in the nation in per pupil spending, giving $8,826 for each student in grades K-12, versus $11,372 nationally, according to a recent report by the California Budget Project. The United States Department of Education estimates 71 percent of California high school students in the class of 2008 graduated on time, compared to 75 percent of their peers nationwide. Just 59 percent of the state's eighth graders showed they had at least "basic" skills on a 2009 national math assessment, compared to 71 percent of their peers in other states.

Even before the state's fiscal crisis came to a head, staff were scarce in California schools. In 2007-08, the Golden State had the fewest school employees per student in the nation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

As school boards grapple with further state cutbacks and the end of federal stimulus aid, students can expect to see even fewer employees when they return to school in the fall. As a result, they might find dirtier hallways and bathrooms, crowded classrooms and distracted teachers.

A 'devil's bargain'

David Plank, a Stanford University education professor and the director of the nonpartisan research center Policy Analysis for California Education, said if current state funding trends hold, one of two possibilities will play out: Teachers accept cuts in pay and benefits to preserve jobs, or they protect their wages and benefits, resulting in layoffs and reduced services to schoolchildren.

"We pay teachers less or we have many fewer teachers," he said.

Or both.

No East Bay districts have made an outright cut in the pay scale, and only one reported freezing built-in salary bumps, or "steps." But teachers in about 20 districts have made other sacrifices, mostly by agreeing to work -- and be paid for -- fewer days. Teachers in the West Contra Costa, Martinez and Acalanes Union districts will pay a greater share of their rising health insurance premiums.

To bridge the rest of the gap, all but a handful of districts have thinned their teaching ranks and placed more children in each class. Not long ago, first-grade teachers in Hayward, Antioch and Mt. Diablo schools taught 20 children at a time. Now they will have 30 or more.

Even if districts protect employee compensation by making reductions elsewhere, teachers are likely to feel their working conditions deteriorate, said Judith Warren Little, a professor of education at UC Berkeley.

"It's a devil's bargain, in a way, because we do have good evidence that working conditions have tremendous impact, in the end, over whether teachers leave or stay," she said.

On the other hand, Warren Little said, districts with higher salaries are better able to attract strong teachers, who play a big role in the quality of a student's education.

Oakland, for example, is one of the lowest-paying school districts in the county. Its new teachers earn about $39,000, plus benefits, and the average base salary is $53,800. When Juliana Jones, the 2007 Alameda County Teacher of the Year, left Oakland for the Berkeley school district, the middle school algebra teacher received an instant raise of about $10,000.

"I find tons of teachers who have left Oakland and moved to Berkeley," Jones said in an e-mail. She added, "It was a very good move for me -- and as you can see, profitable!"

Labor tension

Painful budget decisions have led to picketing, grievances and deadlocked negotiations in a number of East Bay districts. Talks reached impasse in John Swett, Moraga and Liberty Union this spring, bringing those districts closer to the prospect of a strike. Teachers in Livermore and San Lorenzo filed grievances after their district administrations shortened the work year unilaterally, though San Lorenzo teachers reached an agreement in June. Newark teachers cast a vote of no confidence in the district's chief business officer. West Contra Costa teachers nearly went on strike last fall.

In May, the Oakland teachers union rejected a 2 percent raise offer and voted to authorize a longer strike, which -- if called -- could keep children out of the classroom for days or weeks this fall.

"If present trends continue, it would be astonishing if we didn't see more strikes, more job actions by teachers," Plank said. "They've been asked to bear the brunt of the crisis. Patience has its limits, and it's not clear what the endgame looks like."

Given the lack of trust Californians have in the state government, Plank says he expects to see unions protect the wages and benefits they have won for their members, rather than take pay cuts. Even if they make huge concessions to spare services and jobs, he said, who's to say the state won't reduce funding the following year by an even greater amount?

Either way, students lose, Plank said.

"California is doing very badly with its students now," he said. "They lag behind their counterparts in other states now."

Jessica Solano, 16, a student at Oakland High, said her school feels different than it used to. The music department shut down in the spring, she said, and access to one of the school's new computers is limited. It's crowded, and the bathrooms aren't clean, she said. She worries more of her classmates will drop out of school as the conditions slide.

"You don't see students as engaged as before," Solano said.

But Solano, a youth leader for grass roots social justice group Californians for Justice, says she will support her teachers if they decide to strike. They should be paid more for what they do, she said, and such an action would call attention to the fiscal crisis facing public schools in the state.

Brian Rodriguez isn't so sure. The 2008 Alameda Teacher of the Year began his career in Oakland. He said he left the district for Alameda after a five-week teacher strike in 1996, an effort he helped lead, after concluding the district was "rotten to the core."

Rodriguez said he felt compelled to take a stand against the district, which he felt was mismanaging its resources and shortchanging its students. At the same time, he knew the kids were missing weeks of precious class time.

"It killed me to see our students out of the classroom for that long," he said. He added, "It left a lot of bitterness."

Rodriguez said he hoped the Oakland school district won't have to endure the same, destabilizing struggle this year.

"I admire (the teachers) for sticking to their guns, but my gosh, this isn't the right time to go on strike, in my opinion," he said.

'Rigid boxes'

Rick Hess, an education policy analyst and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said public schools have put themselves into "rigid boxes" by setting uniform class sizes and paying teachers based largely on seniority, on a salary scale that includes raises for additional years worked and course credits earned.

The state's average teacher salary in 2007-08 -- $64,000 -- was about $12,000 above the national average, according to the National Education Association.

"We've created a sector rooted in the assumption that every single year there would be more money than there was the year before," he said. "It's as if nobody ever imagined that they'd ever have to cut spending."

Hess said he considered employee furloughs, which are temporary, an ineffective solution for a fiscal crisis that promises to continue for years. It's a bad sign, he said, that districts have resorted to cutting their school year to stay solvent.

"It's amazing how in education, we keep telling ourselves we're about the kids. But then we have to shorten the school year because we can't imagine, heaven forbid, how to trim salaries," Hess said. "It just strikes me as irresponsible management."

Sometimes school district officials find themselves with little alternative. Mt. Diablo's administrators say they need $26.2 million in employee pay and benefit concessions during the next three years to remain solvent. Its teachers, however, have so far refused to bargain with the administration, and negotiations with the district's support staff have stalled.

The future of the Hayward school district -- on the brink of insolvency and state takeover -- might also hinge on a deal with its teachers union. When they return to the bargaining table this week, union leaders might be reluctant to make concessions; Hayward teachers won a two-year, 11 percent raise after a two-week strike in 2007.

To stave off state takeover, Hayward has adopted one of the largest elementary school class sizes in the Bay Area. Teachers and parents at Eden Gardens Elementary, whose students speak more than a dozen languages at home, are bracing for the change.

Tracy Diaz, the former PTA president at Eden Gardens, said she doesn't know how children in kindergarten to grade 3 -- particularly English learners and those with little academic help at home -- will be able to learn with 31 other kids in the classroom and just one teacher.

"Who's going to help them?" she asked.

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.ibabuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.