In 2011, San Diego Unified promised teachers raises it didn’t have the money to make good on. To make that work without laying off staff, teachers agreed to delay those raises and took extra furlough days. Kids and teachers dealt with larger class sizes.

Now, the district is looking to clear its obligations and invest more in education programs. Unfortunately, it’s facing even bigger budget shortfalls for the coming years.

And yet, it’s considering a new round of across-the-board pay raises.

Since spring, the district and the San Diego Education Association have been at the bargaining table working out the terms of their next contract. Because that negotiation happens behind closed doors, it’s tough to know precisely where the district and union are at. But we know enough to see some of what’s at stake.

SDEA posts negotiation updates that show us a few items on the table, like teacher evaluations, class sizes and additional counselors.

All of those are important, but the biggest impact would come from the 6.5 percent across-the-board pay raise the union is asking for, which would be a huge hit to an already strained budget. (Note that these pay raises would be on top of the step pay raises that happen automatically, based on time served.)

The union’s argument for higher wages is straightforward: If you want to attract and retain the best and brightest teachers, you have to be willing to pay them. This is especially important considering the teacher shortage California school districts could see in the next five to 10 years.

Lindsay Burningham, SDEA president, said if San Diego Unified wants to compete with other districts for top-notch staff, its pay has to be comparable to what they could receive elsewhere. Hence, the 6.5 percent, a number she said the union arrived at by comparing teacher pay in other districts.

Besides, said Burningham, the district hasn’t exactly been thrifty when it comes to central office staff. Central office staff have seen recent pay raises – in some cases up to 20 percent – she said. New, high-paying positions have been created at a time when the percentage of the budget spent on teachers has been on the decline.

“For us, this isn’t about the budget. It’s about budget priorities,” said Burningham.

Essentially, asking for higher salaries is what a teachers union does. But outside of arguments about whether teachers deserve a raise, it’s worth considering the implications of any raises right now.

How We Got Here

In June, when the district was putting together its budget for this year, it didn’t know exactly what funding it would get from Sacramento. So the budget was a sort of moving target.

It created a three-year budget strategy. More funding was expected through the tax hikes in Proposition 30, which delivers extra money to schools. Similarly, the district expected more through the Local Control Funding Formula, which allocates funding to districts based on their share of disadvantaged students.

That money would be phased in until 2020, and until then the district could use surplus revenue it had squirreled away from years of selling property. Finally, it seemed, breathing room was in sight.

But then the district got walloped by some bad news: It would have to contribute substantially more to CalSTRS, the state pension system for teachers. A lot more.

This year the district will have to pay an extra $3.1 million into CalSTRS. Next year it’ll owe $19.3 million more. The year after, an additional $22.2 million. All of which came as a surprise to the district.

The pension system is complicated, but it basically works like this: Members, school districts and the state all contribute to the pension system at negotiated rates. That money is invested and whatever it grows into is what’s available to pay teachers when they retire.

The system took a major hit in 2008 and never recovered. The state realized that the pension fund was going to run out of money by 2046 if everybody didn’t pitch in more.

But that’s not fair, trustee John Lee Evans argued at a July school board meeting. Unlike what happened in the city of San Diego, CalSTRS’s problems didn’t have anything to do with decisions that were made at the local level, he said. Why should the district be stuck with the bill?

Salary decisions, however, do factor into pensions.

And fair or not, it has to be paid. But it also effectively cancels out revenue from Prop. 30, something critics predicted would happen.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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