A key point has been lost among the rhetoric, sign-waving and accusation accompanying the San Diego Unified School District’s recent move to lay off one in five teachers at city schools: The concessions the district is asking for to save hundreds of teachers’ jobs will not reduce the pay of a single San Diego teacher.

Rather, the fracas over concessions is a fight over just how much teachers will get in pay raises between now and 2014.

About half of the teachers at city schools will get pay increases over the next two years even if the union agrees to forgo a slew of additional raises it was promised in 2010. That’s because teachers at San Diego Unified get automatic pay increases of up to about 4 percent most years until they reach the top of the district’s pay scale.

Most local teachers are still working their way up that scale. For them, the choice is stark: Settle for the guaranteed annual raise, and help hundreds of teachers stay in the classroom; or hold onto the extra raises they’ve been promised and watch class sizes balloon. If they choose the latter option, most of those teachers will see their salaries rise more than 16 percent over the next two years.

The San Diego Education Association, the union that represents local teachers, plans to survey its members soon to see whether teachers think the promised raises are worth the disruption more than 1,000 teacher layoffs will surely bring to city schools.

For some teachers, that’s a choice between pay raises or keeping their job. For others, who are capped out at the top of the district’s pay scale, it’s a choice between giving up any pay bump at all or watching colleagues get laid off.

But for about half of the district’s teachers, the trade-off is between just how much their paycheck will rise and how many kids will be squeezed into their classroom.

Some voices within the teachers union are calling for a third way to solve the crisis that would avoid both layoffs and concessions. And the union is setting its financial experts on the district’s budget to try and find a solution hidden within the figures. But so far there’s little evidence that a third option exists in anything but rhetoric.

Teachers in San Diego rank at the low end of the salary spectrum compared to teachers at other local school districts and large urban districts across the state, though they do have comparatively generous health care benefits.

But, at a time when San Diego Unified is struggling with a crippling deficit, and with no relief in sight from the state, the real choice for most local teachers isn’t about how much their pay will be cut.

It’s about how much it will increase.

Automatic Pay Raises

Under state law, every school district in California operates under a salary system known as “step and column.”

The concept’s simple: Most years, public school teachers get automatic salary increases from one year to the next simply for having worked for a year at the district. That’s known as a “step” increase.

Or, teachers can increase their salary even further from one year to the next by gaining academic credits from a university or by completing a master’s degree or doctorate. This is known as a “column” increase.

The idea is to reward teachers for both experience and academic achievement, thus encouraging them to stay at the district and continue their education throughout their career.

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These raises are entirely separate from other across-the-board salary increases that school districts periodically agree to with their labor unions. Teachers at San Diego Unified last had their pay raised in this way in 2007, when the school board agreed to boost salaries across the scale by about 4 percent.

These kinds of increases raise the salaries of every teacher, regardless of where they are on the step and column pay scale.

For example, a teacher with a basic bachelor’s degree who started the 2011-2012 school year with five years of experience earned a salary of $44,464. Next year, with an additional year of experience under his or her belt, that teacher would earn $46,149 after their step raise.

But if salaries are increased next year across the board by an additional 7 percent because of the raises agreed to in 2010, that teacher would see their pay rise over the year to $49,454, a total increase of 11 percent.

San Diego Unified school board Trustee Richard Barrera said step and column increases are a time-tested method of rewarding teachers who want to stay in the classroom long-term. The raises guarantee teachers see their incomes rise according to their experience and expertise, he said.

“You don’t get promoted to some higher position as a teacher,” Barrera said. “There’s not a career ladder for teachers where you move up in an organization over time, like you would have in other professions.”

But the step and column increases are also a near-constant strain on the school district’s budget. Next year, the automatic raises are estimated to cost the district an estimated $17 million, or enough to pay for about 200 full-time teachers.

So far, the district hasn’t even talked about asking teachers to forgo these automatic raises. Rather, it wants to renege on a contract it signed with the teachers union two years ago that is set to boost salaries across the board on the first day of the school year.

Five Days Off in Exchange for Smaller Raises

In 2010, the school board made a deal with the union: If teachers took five unpaid work days off for the next two years, the board promised it would raise pay for all teachers in the third year by more than 7 percent.

The deal allowed the district to shave roughly $40 million off its budget over the next two years, giving it some much-needed breathing room at a time when the state continued to cut into education funding.

The teachers union at the time portrayed the deal as a successful bargain: A deal that would hurt, but not decimate, local teachers.

“This will be painful for our members, who dig into their own pockets every day to pay for classroom supplies. But we can live with this,” then-SDEA President Camille Zombro told The San Diego Union-Tribune at the time.

The unpaid days off amounted to a salary cut of about 2.7 percent for all employees. For teachers at the top end of the district’s pay scale, that meant a net loss: They would see their paychecks get smaller from one year to the next.

But for the majority of the district’s teachers, the furloughs didn’t mean a pay cut, per se.

Because of the built-in step and column increases, the real impact of the furloughs was to make each teacher’s annual raise smaller than it would otherwise have been.

For example, a rookie teacher who started working at the district at the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year was set to receive an automatic pay raise at the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year of about 3.7 percent. After the union agreed to furlough days, that raise dropped to just 1 percent.

But it was still a raise. And it also came with five fewer days of work for adults &mdash and a week less school for children.

The full impact of the 2010 labor deal has recently become clear. The school board made the deal based on a gamble that the state’s economy would rebound by 2012, and that they would be getting more money from the state.

That hasn’t happened. Instead, the state is considering cutting billions of dollars of education spending in the middle of next year if a tax increase on November’s ballot fails to pass.

At the start of the 2012-2013 school year, the furlough days are set to expire and the raises will start to kick in. In total, those changes will cost the district $45 million next year and $72 million the year after, dwarfing the $40 million the district says it saved over the last two years.

Because the raises are staggered (employees get a 2 percent raise on the first day of the year, another 2 percent raise halfway through the year, and a final 3 percent raise on the last day of the fiscal year,) the full cost of the salary boosts won’t hit the district’s books until the 2013-2014 fiscal year.

By that time, assuming no concessions are agreed to, more than half of the district’s teachers will also have received two years’ worth of step increases.

If the current deal stands, most of those teachers will be making more than 16 percent more than they are right now.

At the Top of a Shorter Ladder

Teachers at the very top of the district’s pay scale bore the brunt of the 2010 labor deal.

For many of those teachers, the 2.7 percent cut introduced by the furloughs was just that: A cut in their pay from one year to the next, since they didn’t have any automatic step raises waiting for them.

The last time those teachers had received salary increases was three years earlier, in 2007, when the union negotiated across-the-board raises of about 4 percent for all teachers.

But that same deal had also come with a significant, and seldom-discussed, overnight pay boost for the district’s highest-paid teachers.

The 2007 deal lowered the threshold for reaching the top of San Diego Unified’s salary schedule by six years. As a result, hundreds of teachers got extra pay raises years earlier than they would have otherwise.

The 2007 deal was a big one for teachers with more than 16 years of experience.

Many saw their pay increase by about 10 percent overnight as a result. Some teachers found themselves right at the top of the pay scale six years sooner than if the deal hadn’t happened.

“If you were lucky enough to be on your 16th year of service when that deal was made, your salary immediately jumped to that top step,” said Rick Knott, a former district chief financial officer.

But the big pay boost five years ago has done little to assuage the district’s most experienced teachers.

Those teachers, many of whom have devoted their careers to San Diego Unified, are isolated from layoffs and stand to gain the most from a tough stance by the union on concessions.

And, many of those teachers have seen the district claim doom and gloom before, only to recall most, if not all, of the promised layoffs before the beginning of the school year.

Facing the prospect of missing out on the raises they were promised two years ago, the district’s older, more experienced teachers are primed for a showdown with the district. But that’s a showdown their younger, less experienced colleagues are less eager to walk into.

A Schism Among Teachers, and a Third Way

The current discussion over whether the teachers union should make concessions has deepened the divide between local teachers.

That’s not just because teachers at city schools are laid off on a last-in, first-out basis. It’s also because older, more experienced teachers stand to lose the most from the concessions currently on the table.

Teachers at the top of the pay schedule have nowhere left to go. The only way to increase their paychecks is to hold firm to the contract they signed in 2010.

But every dollar a teacher takes in a raise is a dollar that can’t be spent retaining another laid-off teacher. It’s a Catch-22 for those older teachers: They want their pay raises, but they also don’t want to see fellow teachers laid off.

That’s why the teachers union has been so aggressive in seeking a third way to solve the district’s crisis that doesn’t involve either concessions or layoffs.

They say the district can trim fat and free up millions of hidden dollars in its budget that could be used to hire back teachers.

That sort of fiery rhetoric, which is endorsed by labor leaders like Zombro, is enticing to teachers: It’s a promise that the district’s woes can be fixed, and that the schism between teachers can be healed, without anybody losing their job or their promised pay raise.

But, so far, all Zombro and others advocating for this third solution have offered is indignation.

There have been few details offered to back up the claim that the district actually has the resources stashed away to prevent layoffs or concessions.

And, while it may be tempting for teachers to believe that the state’s budget will somehow turn around, and the promised cuts to education funding won’t materialize, there is no indication from Sacramento that such a scenario is even possible.

Without some third solution, then, attention will continue to focus on the battle between layoffs and concessions.

Or, more accurately, it will continue to focus on the battle between layoffs and pay raises.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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