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Teachers at the San Diego Unified School District are paid significantly less than their counterparts at other large, urban school districts in California, according to a voiceofsandiego.org survey of the 11 largest districts in the state.

But San Diego teachers continue to enjoy full, free medical benefits for themselves and their families at a time when many districts have been pushing costs onto their employees.

Local teachers are due a series of pay raises beginning in July that they bargained in 2010. But the district wants them to forgo or delay that raise, and possibly take further pay cuts, to balance its budget. If all six of the labor unions agree to district-proposed concessions, it would avoid more than 1,600 worker layoffs, maintain current class sizes, save music and arts education, and preserve critical student services like counseling and nursing.

In response, San Diego Education Association, the teachers union, says San Diego teachers are already compensated poorly compared to other districts. Our survey showed that’s true not just on a countywide level, but also statewide.

So far, the teachers union’s leadership has refused to come back to the table to renegotiate the contract. If San Diego Unified is to be successful in convincing its teachers union to compromise, our survey shows the district will have to ask them to take a step back even further on the salary rung when compared to their peers in similarly sized districts across California.

The district at least will have some company in asking for healthcare changes, as school districts around the state are hoping to push more healthcare costs on to their employees.

Rising health insurance costs are a leading source of concern for the school board. San Diego Unified now spends about $12 million per month on healthcare costs. That’s about $148 million each year that the district can ill afford to spend when it’s also running an estimated $122 million budget deficit. It has proposed making its more than 12,000 benefit-eligible workers contribute toward health care. That’s what some other districts around the state have already done.

On the whole, however, teachers at California’s large urban districts have held onto their coveted benefits, and local teachers want to know why they should agree to benefit cuts when they’re already getting paid less than their counterparts in other cities.

“We work very hard for our money,” Candyce Schauer, teachers union representative for James Madison High School said. “We gave up five furlough days already. We gave up $1,000 each year. You can’t get blood from a stone.”

School board member Scott Barnett, who proposed the healthcare changes, acknowledged seeking the sacrifice wasn’t fair.

“But life isn’t fair,” he said. “This isn’t a question of what’s deserved. I believe our employees deserve that pay raise. It’s about what we can afford.”

‘A Well-Paid Poor Person’

Schauer has spent the past 34 years working as a teacher in the deaf and hard of hearing program at Madison High in Clairemont. Though it was tough, she said, she has managed to raise three children as the primary breadwinner of her family of five.

“Earning as much as I do, it’s like being a well-paid poor person,” Schauer said. “Coming up with money to pay for a house is hard; I’ll be paying on this one until I’m 83 years old. As a family, we were never able to take vacations.”

Schauer, 60, currently earns about $64,500 annually.

That’s significantly less than some teachers with the same years of service and equal qualifications throughout the state. In Long Beach, 100 miles north, she would earn $13,500 more than she does now. She’d earn $9,700 more at the Garden Grove Unified School District in Orange County, the state’s 11th-largest district.

And it’s not just experienced teachers like Schauer who earn less than their counterparts around the state. Indeed, new teachers in San Diego are paid particularly poorly compared to others in California.

Take Jillian Ryan, who teaches English and U.S. history at Pershing Middle School in San Carlos. She’s worked at San Diego Unified for four years.

Ryan earned a master’s degree in education from UC Davis, which bumped her up the salary schedule. She earns about $47,500 annually. If she worked at Capistrano Unified in Orange County, the state’s ninth-largest district, she’d earn $16,300 more per year. She’d earn $12,900 more in Garden Grove and $7,600 more in Long Beach.

Other districts around California also reward teachers more generously for attaining master’s degrees than San Diego Unified.

Highlighting a large chasm in teacher pay, educators in Capistrano Unified with a master’s degree and 10 years of experience working at the school district earn $23,000 more than teachers in the same position in San Diego.

Compared to the average of the 11 school districts surveyed, San Diego pays:

• About $6,400 less to its new teachers,

• About $7,200 less to teachers with master’s degrees and 10 years of service,

• About $700 less to teachers with master’s degrees and 17 years of service.

Good, But Not Unusual, Benefits

Despite their poor pay, San Diego teachers at least get full, free medical benefits. They’re offered a choice between four HMO plans: Kaiser and three versions of UnitedHealthcare with different coverage levels. They can also choose a PPO plan through UnitedHealthcare.

But their benefits aren’t unique.

Los Angeles, San Diego and Long Beach, the state’s three largest school districts, representing nearly 1 million students, all offer medical benefits at no cost to teachers and their families, regardless of the type of plan they choose.

Seven of the 11 districts surveyed offer at least one healthcare option at no cost to employees, which include family coverage. One of these, Corona-Norco, offers three options for no-cost single coverage for teachers.

Large urban districts often offer full benefits because of the presence of powerful unions, said Ron Bennett, president of School Services of California, a school district consultancy firm.

That used to be the case for smaller districts, too, Bennett said.

“The standard for districts 20 years ago was the fully paid benefit,” Bennett said. “Then the 1990s recession hit and they started putting constraints on benefits. Now, over the last four years of this recession, districts are moving in the direction of pushing for even more constraints.”

Now, the trend within California school districts is that most make at least some of their benefit-eligible employees pay for health care, Bennett said.

This shift has been driven by a combination of swelling healthcare costs and dropping state funding.

We identified this juxtaposition in a recent analysis of school finances, which showed that while San Diego Unified has suffered significant cuts in the last few years, those cuts just offset an equally significant ramping up of funding in employee benefits. Since the 2008 fiscal year, San Diego Unified’s cost per employee for benefits has increased an inflation-adjusted 25 percent, from $19,400 to $24,300. Meanwhile, between the 2007 and 2011 fiscal years, state funding per pupil decreased 12 percent.

Barnett says San Diego Unified cannot afford its current system of fully funded health benefits. And while he’s been happy to take part, opting for the district’s most expensive plan at a cost of $1,310 each month, he says he doesn’t approve of giving such good benefits.

“Every dollar we can save on healthcare benefits is the same dollar that can save a classroom teacher,” Barnett said.

He wants teachers to agree to pay for healthcare benefits for the district’s more expensive healthcare plans as part of a package of concessions that would save teacher jobs.

Here’s the plan: If an employee chooses to enroll in any health plan that costs more than what the district is currently paying for the least expensive plan (approximately $900 per employee each month), he thinks the difference in cost should come out of the workers’ pockets. If the union agrees to this, each teacher would be given the choice between free Kaiser care or paying between $100 to $500 each month for more expensive care.

When presented with the cost breakdown, Barnett, who admittedly did not do the calculations prior to proposing the plan, he said he would most definitely end up switching plans if it is approved. He said he can’t justify paying more than $5,400 each year for health care.

Reneging On a Promise

San Diego Unified’s leadership is desperately trying to avoid being caught in another rip current of near insolvency.

The school board has announced that without pay and benefits concessions, more than 1,600 employees will be laid off next year so the district can balance its budget. With concessions from unions of pay and benefits, they claim, no one needs to be laid off.

By seeking concessions, the school board hopes to reverse a promise it made to employees two years ago.

In 2010, the district negotiated a new contract with the teachers union that promised teachers a succession of future pay raises in exchange for employees taking five unpaid days off. Those unpaid days off got the district out of a short-term bind, saving it about $20 million for each of the last two years.

The district was counting on the state’s economy turning around by the time it was due to start making good on the pay increases. That hasn’t happened. Instead, the state has continued to cut education funding, and the district doesn’t have any extra money to fulfill its promise.

The Tale of Two Teachers

Schauer, who serves as the teachers union representative for her school, said she can’t support allowing the district to back out of its promise.

She said the union isn’t convinced such drastic measures are necessary yet, and she personally doesn’t trust the district’s numbers.

But that stance is easier for a veteran teacher to take, as opposed to a newbie like Ryan, who has more to lose if the union doesn’t strike a deal. She’s received a layoff notice each year she’s worked for San Diego Unified, and thinks the union should be at the table, making concessions.

“Individual teachers themselves are willing to negotiate,” Ryan said. “It’s the union that isn’t sitting down. The public needs to know that.”

The district’s budget solution sounded good to its police force. The San Diego Schools Police Officers Association agreed to a concessions deal earlier this month, in exchange for a guarantee that none of its employees would get laid off.

Union president Jesus Montana said his membership agreed to concessions once it was faced with the reality that one out of every four officers could be laid off.

“We agreed so we could concentrate on protecting the students and doing what’s in their best interest,” Montana said. “We did what the teachers union keeps saying they want to do, but we put actions to our words.”

An Alternative Plan

In January, San Diego Unified offered a one-time incentive to workers: Switch to Kaiser, the district’s cheapest medical plan, and we’ll send you a check for $950.

That sounded good to more than 100 employees, who took the district up on the deal.

The district’s offer was a baby step towards addressing the ballooning cost of providing free healthcare benefits.

And the district has included a similar deal within the concessions package it’s hoping unions will agree to this year. Under that deal, employees would receive the district’s Kaiser plan for free, but would have to pay the extra cost of any of the other plans offered.

Other school districts around the state are in the process of making similar changes.

Beginning next month employees of Fresno Unified School District, the fourth-largest district in the state, will see the level of coverage offered under their healthcare plans decrease at the same time their monthly premium contributions will increase.

Elk Grove Unified, which currently offers a plan similar to the one proposed by San Diego Unified, has found that even this setup hasn’t been sufficient to counteract spiraling healthcare costs. Employees are offered the choice between fully funded Kaiser medical benefits and a more expensive HMO, but at a cost.

The district is now in negotiations with its teachers union to try to get them to pay for Kaiser, too.

And in Capistrano Unified, which went through a tumultuous three-day strike in 2010 over pay and benefits reductions, the district has capped any future increases in healthcare costs by limiting its share of the cost to 2010 levels. As medical insurance costs grow, workers will carry the burden.

For teachers like Ryan, the effect of any such deal will be to cut into her monthly salary, dragging it even lower in comparison to other districts around California.

That will hurt, but it won’t stop her coming to work and doing her best each day, Ryan said.

“Teachers like myself don’t teach because of the salary or benefits,” she said. “We do it because it’s what makes us think we are making something of a difference in this world. It gives us a greater purpose.”

Correction: This story initially misstated that school board member Scott Barnett can’t justify paying more than $5,400 each month, instead of each year, for health care. It has since been updated. We regret the error..

Sandy Coronilla reports on local government and education for voiceofsandiego.org. She is on the Armen E. Keteyian Scholarship for Investigative Reporting. You can contact her directly at sandy.coronilla@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0528.

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