Backpacks of students hang outside a bungalow style classroom at Johnson Elementary School on Sept. 14, 2022. Funding would be used to replace the older style bungalows.
Backpacks of students hang outside a bungalow style classroom at Johnson Elementary School on Sept. 14, 2022. / File photo by Ariana Drehsler

Todd Maddison is the director of research at Transparent California and a founder of the San Diego Schools and Parent Association education advocacy groups.

Anyone who follows K-12 education will tell you we’re facing a crisis. 

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) numbers expose declines in academic performance to unprecedented levels, confirming what the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) reported last year. 

We are depriving a generation of kids of the quality education they need to succeed. That needs to be fixed. 


Anyone who attends school board meetings has heard the problem is “lack of funding from the state.” We are told this by people you would expect to know that per student revenue has grown at a rate almost three times faster than inflation (8.44 percent/year) in the last decade. At least according to California Department of Education (CDE) numbers

In San Diego Unified, growth has matched this pace, growing at a rate of 8.10 percent/year, from $9,973/student in 2013 to $20,107 in 2022. Again, almost three times inflation.

Any private business whose revenue per customer increased three times faster than inflation would be popping corks, not complaining. And using those profits to improve their business. But not our education industry, where we hear griping and see declines in quality, not improvement.

At SDUSD, the latest state reporting shows only 53 percent of students meet standards for English and only a miserable 41 percent making the grade in math. Both are significant declines from the last full data set, published in 2019. 

One number has not declined – employee compensation. From SDUSD’s own payroll records, obtained using a legal public records request and posted for anyone to see on the Transparent California website, data show in 2022 the median total pay of a full time certificated employee was $102,024. For comparison, the latest U.S. Census Bureau data shows private workers with equivalent education in San Diego County made $87,784.

And this doesn’t account for the additional benefits teachers receive in contributions toward their retirement. 

Last year, teachers had 27.8 percent of their pay contributed to their retirement. That’s a whopping 17.6 percent more than private workers, where total retirement contributions typically average 10.2 percent. In dollars that’s almost $18,000 extra each year. To match take home pay while funding their retirement you and I would have to make $120,000/year. 

But… that’s not enough. The SDUSD Board recently approved a bonus raise adding 15 percent over the next two years. In 2025 private workers will have to make $138,000/year to hold even. 

Meanwhile, you would think this means SDUSD is looking at a bright financial future, but there are dark clouds ahead.    

The approval process requires the district disclose the costs and terms. The County Office of Education’s response to that disclosure says, in bold face and underlined, “the district will need to make budget reductions of approximately $129 million by fiscal year 2024-25 and an additional $53 million in 2025-26 in order to remain fiscally solvent and meet the required minimum reserve.”

This disclosure requires the district indicate what “specific impacts on instructional and support programs” there will be to fund the agreement. SDUSD’s admits to the need for cuts but says nothing specific about them. 

Fortunately, we have school boards, whose job is to be vigilant and stand up for the interests of our kids, right?  You might expect trustees to speak up. Not at SDUSD.  If you watch the video of the board meeting, you see exactly 75 seconds of discussion. 

The only board comment is a congratulation for the negotiating team.  A team now in line for a “me too” raise, which applies the same raise to their own paychecks. Applied to the chief business officer (who made $250,000 last year) this may result in a raise of $37,500 by 2025.

Whether SDUSD employee pay is “too little, too much, or just right” is a judgment call for parents, but shouldn’t that judgment be informed by full disclosure of who is benefiting by how much and what the impact will be to kids?  Is hiding the damage to education of kids to increase the size of your own bank account not reprehensible?

Next we will see the Board approving cuts and complaining – once again – that it’s because they need more funding. We will not hear them tell us it’s because they allowed employees to give that money to themselves.

This is not unique to San Diego Unified. I’ve watched many such “negotiations” in districts across California, and they almost always go this way. The interests of adults are always prioritized over kids, with boards completely derelict in their duty as protectors of education.

Joe Biden says, “don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.”  We can see what San Diego Unified values, and it’s not the education of kids.

Update: This post has been updated to clarify the comparison of private workers are those in San Diego County.

Todd Maddison is the director of research at Transparent California and a founder of the San Diego Schools and Parent Association education advocacy groups.

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  1. Why is the median salary comparison San Diego vs US? SD has one of the highest costs of living int he US

    1. Thanks for pointing that out.

      The US Census Bureau report doesn’t allow you to save parameters when linking to them, but the numbers quoted are for San Diego County.

    2. I work as a maintainance worker and I came from a labor union that paid slightly better but less benefits. San Diego is expensive and much of my check goes to rent. I am grateful for the 15% which will really give me breathing room.
      As a graduate of our school systems, I don’t think its our education systems fault but rather 2 things: 1) California gets alot of immigrants and they have to learn English and that affects all their studies which brings our numbers down. Its not a bad thing, we just can’t compare it to states where everyone has the advantage of already speaking the languahe 2) culture. We live in society where people think they can become a youtube star and make alot of money. When I went to school, and this is just my personal experience, alot of kids didn’t take it serious and that wasn’t because of the schools funding.

  2. I think that the issue is not teachers’ pay but the ever increasing administrative costs at all levels (local, state, and national). Kids don’t have basics like textbooks and school buses but administrators make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year; that’s unsustainable. If nothing changes, parents are going to have to pull their kids out of public schools because not only are financial resources continually being taken from the students, but the instruction they’re receiving is very substandard.

    1. This is why we need school choice. If families were given the allowance handed over to public schools to shop options instead I bet public schools would shape up real quick in order to attract students. Currently they offer a poor education but they have guaranteed customers so no incentive to improve.

      1. Absolutely.

        If news that SDUSD was failing academically resulted in parents leaving, and that departure made it harder to pay their executive team a quarter-million or more a year, we’d see improvement.


    2. You are so so right. The writer of this article is plain ignorant and doesn’t understand the school systems at all then why did he write it?

  3. I graduated from Hoover High in 1959 when CA schools were ranked first in the nation. In the 1960 school year, the SDUSD spent $390 per student (about $4000 in today’s money). Teacher’s unions lacked power and there was no federal department of education pushing unfunded mandates. Now ranked 48th in the nation, CA schools are run by progressives funded by the teacher’s union. It’s time to get start teaching the basics instead on CRT and DEI.

    1. I watch a lot of board meetings from districts around the county. We often see meetings discussing CRT and DEI issues that get hundreds of parents attending, and many lined up to speak.

      But meetings where they take millions from the education of their kids to give to themselves? Crickets.

      Like the meeting here, where NO one spoke, and the entire $65M giveaway was addressed in 75 seconds.

      Issues like CRT and DEI are important, certainly, but how our districts spend their money is MORE important, and gets far less attention.

      Ditto for media attention. We do see occasional articles pointing out how the “fiscal cliff is approaching”, but when our media reports on labor negotiations we virtually never see them asking school districts “what do the people who are demanding a raise really make right now?” (or using public data to do those calculations), and “what are you going to cut from kids to pay for this bonus raise” is never a question.

      Isn’t “knowing the consequences of your decision” an important part of making good decisions?

      1. Todd Madison, I agree. My kids used to attend San Diego Unified, after witnessing first hand what you’re describing we left the district. Many parents are not aware of the terrible financial decisions the district is making and how their children are being harmed by these decisions. For example, I remember that about ten years ago the district essentially took away all English learner instruction and only funded the administrative costs.

    2. CRT and DEI are nothing but smoke and mirrors. They are distractions that get a lot of attention and pull that attention away from the things that really matter.

      It’s like being annoyed by some kid playing ding dong ditch and chasing them around the front yard while a group of people are in the back burning your house down.

    3. Social is always how they distract public from actual economic issues & ur comment proves it works.

  4. Teacher compensation is the number one way to recruit quality people into the education sector. $100k does not go far in San Diego. Can public education (and education in general) do better- absolutely. However, we need teacher wages that incentivize teaching as a viable career choice. Investing in our teachers is always the right thing to do because investing in teachers means investing in our children. I’m sorry that you are on record stating otherwise.

    1. “I’m sorry that you are on record stating otherwise.”

      Perhaps you can copy and paste some actual text from that record?

      I’ve never said teachers should not be fairly paid. Right now, as said in the article, a teacher in SD Unified makes $32,000 or more than they would make using the same education in private industry.

      If you don’t feel that qualifies as being well paid for their career choice, perhaps you can tell us what differential you would consider fair? I’d love to hear it.

      1. But what you are saying is absolutely not true, and you are willfully ignoring the fact that you have already been corrected on it. Your teacher salary data is for San Diego Unified, and the data that you use for the “private sector” is for the entirety of United States via the Census Bureau. You are clearly either not prepared to engage in a good faith discussion or you are simpleya partisan hack who bends data to meet a predetermined outcome. Either way, we’d all be better off if you stayed silent on any of the above issues and allowed more serious stakeholders to weigh in. I am sorry to say that the education system clearly failed you.

  5. Where does the median income for teachers come from? Does your certificated income include administration?

    The quickest way to hit 102,000 is SDUSD as a teacher is having a Master’s degree plus 84 additional units of schooling plus 12 years experience. Most teachers stop at Master’s so they would have to be reaching for 23 years to get that amount.

    I guess I’m just skeptical of that being the median teaching salary, unless we are including inflated salaries for district employees that maintain credentials but don’t actually teach any more.

  6. The issue is that all of the neighboring school districts were already paying teachers significantly more. With the 15% raise, they have a better chance of competing with neighboring districts for new recruits. I was offered a job with San Diego Unified but went with another district in order to make 20k more.

    1. That would be great to know. Do you have any data on number of qualified applicants per open position, now vs past history?

      Usually districts will publish that periodically. In Oceanside (my district) they do as a part of the “personnel commission” report annually.

      In the last year OUSD got five fully qualified applicants per job, which is exactly the same as the year before. In private industry, getting five qualified applicants per job would be a luxury, not a problem.

      How do SDUSD’s numbers compare?

      Also, do the surrounding districts you mention allow transfer of more than 6 or so years of seniority? Normally that’s rare, transfers of seniority are capped somewhere between 6 and 10 years, which means more senior teachers would never leave for another district.

      Does the district present data on number of teachers leaving for other districts (or higher pay elsewhere?) That’s a stat I’ve never seen from any district – which is curious given in private industry if you were losing employees the first thing you would do is collect data to find out why.

      If we feel the need to take $65 million from funding available to educate our kids to solve a problem, one would think the District would justify that with data showing that problem actually exists….

  7. Something looks way off on your math, or you did not explain it very well?

    “…data show in 2022 the median total pay of a full time certificated employee was $102,024. For comparison, the latest US Census Bureau data shows private workers with equivalent education made $87,784. Over $32,000/year less.”

    That’s about $14.5k by my eyes, plus you appear to be comparing to a US mean rather than a San Diego specific mean? You need to compare their pay to local salary, because these teachers live here.

    Please re-vise your errors

    1. Yes, you are correct. An error in the editing process (mine, not the editors here.)

      As I outline, with the additional contributions to retirement that private employees don’t get, a private worker needs to make $120K to have a comparable compensation level. $120K minus $87,784 is about $32K.

      With that, a private worker would have to make $32K more/year than the $88K in order to fund their retirement and have as much money left in their check to put into the bank as a certificated SDUSD worker.

      As I was revising the original I apparently moved a sentence into the wrong paragraph. I can’t “just change it” but we’ll clarify here and I’ll ask if they can update.

      Thanks for pointing this out.

  8. The parents share the blame for mediocre academic performance. We keep trying to make school easier by reducing rigor and lowering expectations. No child left behind was a disaster. It held back the high achieving students and did little to help the poor performing ones. If you want to improve test score make school harder, raise expectations in the earliest grades and hold students and parent accountable who simply treat school as day care. Of course this won’t happen because it doesnt fit the soft California political agenda that refuses to admit that parents, family and culture are directly linked to academic success. Blaming the teachers is easier than changing the culture.

    1. Max. I agree with you. From my experience as a student, parent, and now grandparent in San Diego it has generally been the case that the poor performing students are the ones that lack parental support and or control.

  9. The solution is more of the following:

    1. Masks
    2. Vaccinations
    3. Remote learning
    4. Referrals of frustrated parents to the FBI as domestic terrorists
    5. Focus on gender, race, and politics into less meaningful topics like math, reading, writing, and critical thinking.

    It’s not about money. It’s about tribalism, hubris, greed, laziness, and abject stupidity. None of those can be fixed without gutting the system so it is no longer an ideological super-PAC and returns to the sole task of educating children.

    All that aside, I found your article informative and well written. (I’d have lost the end quote, as it seems woefully ironic, but whatever.)

    1. I use the end quote deliberately, in the hope that it might enlighten those who are on Biden’s side on most things. You can’t agree with him on that but ignore the fact our districts largely focus their spending on things that benefit adults, not kids.

      1. You make some good points but spending money on adults does help the kids if it means less employee turnover and better teachers. Adults get pay raises from time to time regardless of profession which isn’t automatically bad just because the adults are being paid the salary.

    2. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Your post was far more interesting and eloquent than mine was.

  10. Additionally, San Diego Unified has a few General Obligation (GO) bonds still outstanding, and if at all, barely executed. This is another terrible drain on the San Diego Unified tax payer.

    2008 Prop. S was a $2.1 billion bond measure – approved.
    2012 Prop. Z was a $2.8 billion bond measure – approved.
    2018 Measure YY: a 3.5 Billion San Diego Unified School District Bond Issue – approved

  11. I’ve got a math question here. If you give a 10% retro-active pay raise and then give a current 5% raise, wouldnt that make it a 15.5% raise?

  12. I am a SDUSD employee and work very hard to earn my paycheck plus I often buy rewards for student’s with my own money.
    San Diego is an extremely expensive city – if our school district was in rural Texas than maybe your opinion would be reasonable.

  13. Remember that comparing teacher salaries with private sector workers with equivalent education levels ignores the days worked. Teachers work about 8 months a year, while the private sector requires about 11 months a year.

    Such public vs. private salary comparisons ignore the fact that teachers with more than two years on the job are all but impossible to fire for anything but criminal activity. They have rock-solid de facto tenure.

    Ask people in the private sector how valuable that job security is.

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