Ann Elliotts third-grade students filed quickly into her classroom after recess on a recent Thursday and took a seat on the floor surrounding her chair.
Then, she pulled out a Mad Libs game so they could work on parts of speech.
I need an adjective, said Elliott, who has taught at Dorothea Lange Elementary since 2006. I need a noun. Whats a noun, everybody?
The students giggled when she read the results of a story on why one should go to college. You can get a degree as a bachelor of hamburgers, read one line.
Elliott, named San Luis Obispo County Teacher of the Year in 2012, gushed about her school, colleagues and students families in a recent interview.
But a few years ago, when her two children were in college, she checked out pay scales of other nearby districts.
She would take a pay cut initially if she left Lucia Mar Unified School District but could ultimately make more money and retire earlier. Still, Elliott never submitted an application, reluctant to leave those families and the district where she has worked for 25 years.
When I first came, they were competitive, she said of the salaries at the South County district. But now the pay gap is so big between Lucia Mar and some other nearby districts, including the San Luis Coastal district and those in Santa Maria.
Were at the bottom, and when youre at the bottom, its hard to attract teachers, she said. If you can drive 10 minutes north and make another $10,000 to $15,000, youre going to do it.
Teacher salaries vary widely from district to district in San Luis Obispo County. In some districts, lower salaries could lead to concerns about how to retain teachers.
Raises are rare
Teachers in the Lucia Mar district have long worried that lower salaries could deter some teachers from applying, or prompt others to leave after just a few years.
The average teacher salary in the Lucia Mar district which stretches from Pismo Beach to Nipomo, and serves about 10,500 students was $61,302 last year. By comparison, the average teacher salaries in the San Luis Obispo school district and two districts in Santa Maria are at least $9,800 more.
The Lucia Mar average ranks near the bottom when compared to teacher salaries in San Luis Obispo Countys nine other public school districts and three districts in northern Santa Barbara County but its not the lowest.
That distinction goes to the San Miguel Joint Unified School District, which reported an average teacher salary of $56,173 in 2013 (the number includes five furlough days that year). At the other end of the scale, the Cayucos Elementary and San Luis Coastal districts each reported average teacher salaries of about $71,000.
The data comes from information the school districts report each year to the state education department.
It should be noted that the average teacher salary in some of the countys smallest districts, including Pleasant Valley, Shandon and Cayucos could be skewed because of their small staff sizes.
Also, the average teacher salary may have been lower because more experienced teachers retired and were replaced by new teachers at lower pay. Or, the average salary might have been driven down by furloughs, which some districts instituted during the recession.
Another way to compare salary scales among districts is to look at starting pay. The pay for beginning teachers ranges from about $35,000 to $36,000 in two of the North County districts to $43,414 in the San Luis Coastal district.
In general, many teachers have seen their salaries only marginally increase since 2008 a testament to the tough budget-cutting years of the recession, when the countys 10 districts collectively cut $50 million from their budgets over a five-year period.
Still, teachers did see salary increases.
While some districts did not give out raises, teachers did continue to receive annual step increases, which are based on a teachers length of service with the district.
The current outlook is more positive as Californias economy picks up, county schools Superintendent Julian Crocker said. Also, school districts are now being funded differently, with money coming in part based on the demographic profile of the students they serve, among other factors.
Districts will generally see increases in their revenue over the next couple of years, Crocker said. Looking at the governors state of the state (address) and budget, hes been very consistent in trying to provide additional resources for public education.
Some districts may use the revenue to boost salaries, or replace positions or programs cut during the recession.
A complex picture
Paso Robles Joint Unified is one of the districts where the average teacher salary appears to have remained flat between 2008 and 2013.
But that doesnt tell the whole story.
In addition to teacher furloughs, which lowered the overall average, the district has had 33 teachers retire between the 2009-10 and 2012-13 school years, said Elizabeth Wilson, assistant superintendent of business. The district had 304 full-time-equivalent teacher positions in the 2012-13 year.
If some teachers are replaced with less experienced teachers, the average teacher salary will drop as a result, she noted.
Teachers took six furlough days in the 2011-12 school year and a dozen furlough days in 2012-13, which equaled 3 percent and 6 percent cuts, respectively.
It has been very, very hard on the teachers, and Im working as hard as I can to try to get them to restore in any way possible some of that pay, said Jim Lynett, executive director of the teachers union, Paso Robles Public Educators.
Teachers did continue to receive annual step increases of 3 percent to 5 percent a year, and those who continue their professional education can also earn salary increases of between 2 percent to 4 percent a year, Wilson said.
The teachers started out with nine furlough days this year before negotiating down to six, and filed a grievance arguing the district should have reduced the number of furlough days to three.
Paso Robles was the only district in the county to have furloughs this school year.
No one likes furlough days. However, the board is charged with making sure the entire district remains in sound financial shape, Wilson said.
While Paso Robles teachers have gone without raises, the superintendents salary has risen about 6.8 percent since the 2008-09 school year. However, Superintendent Kathy McNamara was taking furlough days three years before the teachers did, Wilson said.
McNamaras salary schedule provides for a 3 percent increase each year for six years.
The superintendent position for Templeton Unified saw the largest five-year increase, a 19.6 percent jump from 2009 to 2013.
The salary for that job increased in 2011 when the district hired Joe Koski at $150,000 a year.
The county Office of Education conducted the superintendent search, which included a salary survey of similarly sized districts in San Luis Obispo and neighboring counties. The office recommended the salary increase to $150,000 a year from $133,130, and the Templeton school board agreed.
Koski has received a 3 percent raise each year. He noted that Templeton teachers have received annual step increases of 3.5 percent each year.
The Templeton school board also recently approved a raise for teachers of 2.48 percent a year for three years, in addition to the step increases. Meanwhile, 37 teachers retired from the district between 2008-12, which decreased the overall average teacher salary from 2008-13. The district has about 115 teachers.
The superintendent salary data from two other North County districts shows a far different picture. Since 2009, the superintendents pay dropped 71 percent in Pleasant Valley Joint Union Elementary, and nearly 57 percent for San Miguel Joint Union Elementary.
In each case, the current superintendent is a retired educator who came back to work and whose pay is capped per state law.
Pleasant Valley Superintendent Gilbert Campos said the money he saved the district allowed it to give teachers a 5 percent raise in the 2011-12 school year, which retained some teachers who might have searched for jobs elsewhere.
We were the lowest (paid), and my feeling is that the kiss of death of any school or district is a constantly changing staff, Campos said. It wreaks havoc on the instructional program because it doesnt maintain continuity.
Gains at Lucia Mar
In the Lucia Mar district, teachers are hoping for a 12 percent raise over three years. In June, they received a 2 percent increase retroactive to July 1, 2012.
Superintendent Jim Hogeboom also received a 2 percent raise, bringing his salary to $167,851, according to an amendment to his employment agreement.
The teachers hadnt had a raise for five years beyond their annual step increases, Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association President Donna Kandel said.
Its been difficult, she said. Weve seen a lot of our colleagues leave. Weve lost a lot of teachers, sometimes long-term, highly skilled teachers not necessarily just for higher- paying jobs but also because morale was low.
Without competitive pay, she said, the district invests a lot of time training young teachers, only to lose them to districts with higher salaries.
Nobody wants to be a farm team, said Raynee Daley, Lucia Mars assistant superintendent of business. I know theres that perception, but I dont think we are really experiencing that. We havent had a difficult time recruiting teachers.
At the end of the 2012-13 year, 34 teachers left the district. Of those, 10 left for other jobs, four left to stay home, and 20 people retired, district spokeswoman Amy Jacobs said.
The Lucia Mar district this year received about $2.9 million from the state under its new funding formula. Some money has been used to restore programs and positions cut during the past few years.
In addition, the district hired 65 new teachers this school year, some to replace teachers who left, some to reduce class sizes in the lower grades and others to replace positions cut during the recession.
Having a competitive salary is one of the school boards top priorities, Daley said.
We want them to come in and feel that the salary is comparable to the cost of living, she said.
School district funding falls into 2 categories
School districts have traditionally fallen into two funding categories: revenue limit districts and basic aid districts.
Revenue limit districts receive a certain amount of per-pupil funding each year, with the money coming from local property taxes, and the state backfilling the rest.
Basic aid districts receive funds from local property taxes and dont need the state to make up the difference because property values in the area are high.
The countys three basic aid districts are Coast Unified, Cayucos Elementary and San Luis Coastal.
The way Californias education system is funded is changing dramatically, however. In the short term, each year districts will get additional money based on student attendance and the percentage of a districts children who are low-income, English learners and foster youths, according to EdSource, an independent nonprofit organization.
Some revenue limit districts may see up to a 4 percent increase in funding, depending on their demographics, county schools Superintendent Julian Crocker said.
Basic aid districts would probably only see their funding increase with rising property taxes.
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