Teacher Compensation in SFUSD
How does teacher pay in SFUSD compare with neighboring districts and what can be done to increase it?
SFUSD and UESF (the union representing its teachers) are currently negotiating a new contract. According to Cassondra Curiel, president of UESF, many teachers in the district aren’t paid enough to live in San Francisco1. Indeed, a common refrain among teachers of my acquaintance is to bemoan the low salaries in San Francisco and talk about how they could earn twenty or thirty thousand more if they worked on the peninsula. This post will examine whether that’s true and what can be done about it.
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Who to Compare With?
My usual practice is to compare SFUSD with other large (>10,000 student) unified school districts across the state. That doesn’t seem appropriate in this context because SFUSD operates in the Bay Area labor market so only Bay Area comparisons are relevant. I’ll compare SFUSD with all school districts in the 6-county Bay Area (i.e. Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara) that have at least 1000 students. We have salary and benefits data for 81 of these districts. The principal ones with no data are Mt. Diablo Unified, Piedmont City Unified, and Pacifica Elementary.
The threshold is set so small (1000 students) because San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Marin have many small Elementary School Districts that aggregate into larger high school districts. For example, Burlingame Elementary, Hillsborough City Elementary, Millbrae Elementary, San Bruno Park Elementary, and San Mateo-Foster City all feed in to San Mateo Union High. It’s always tricky to compare districts of vastly different sizes and to compare unified school districts with elementary and high school districts but it’s necessary in this case because those are the districts SFUSD is competing with for talent.
Teacher Salary Structures
First, a primer on how teachers get paid. Teacher salaries in all districts are a function of qualifications and experience and are set out in a table. The qualifications determine which column of the table is used and the experience determines which row is used. The number of columns and the number of rows (steps) can vary from district to district.
The columns are typically based on a degree plus a certain number of qualifying semester hours of further education. For example, a column might be labeled BA+30 and apply to a teacher with a BA and a further 30 semester hours. SFUSD, for example, distinguishes between “emerg/intern” employees and regular employees and has three education-based columns for each: BA, BA+30, BA+60. That’s fairly minimalist. Palo Alto has 7: BA, BA+15, BA+30, BA+45, BA+60, BA+75, BA+90. Berkeley also has 7, with the highest being BA+84. Las Lomitas Elementary in San Mateo has the most gradations: 24, maxing out at BA+90.
Each column has a certain number of steps. A step is equivalent to a year and the salary typically, but not always, increases with each step. Districts vary in the number of steps and how much experience is needed to attain the maximum salary. In SFUSD, 63% of staff are in the BA+60 column, 23% in the BA+30 column, 8% in the BA column, and only 6% in any of the three “emerg/intern” columns. A teacher reaches the maximum salary on step 26. In Berkeley, the maximum salary is lower but it’s reached earlier, after 23 years. In Palo Alto, the maximum salary is higher but it’s reached later, after 30 years. Because of the flexibility districts have in creating their salary schedules, a standard way to compare salary tables is to focus on a particular qualifications/experience point and compare how much a teacher with that specific combination of qualifications and experience would earn in each district. The conventional comparison point is BA+60, step 10.
Here’s a chart of the salary for teachers with BA+60 at step 10 in all Bay Area districts.
A few things stand out:
Salary varies a lot by county. Santa Clara districts offer the highest salaries and Contra Costa counties the lowest.
Salary varies a lot within each county. San Mateo in particular has a number of districts that offer far higher salaries than San Francisco and a number that are significantly lower. That teacher who talks wistfully about what they could earn in San Mateo, chances is probably thinking of San Mateo Union High or Sequoia Union High where a BA-60 with 10 years experience could earn $26k or $19k more than in SFUSD, and not the closer Jefferson Union High (which serves Bayshore, Belmont, Brisbane, Daly City, and Pacifica) where the salary levels are $15k lower than in SFUSD.
Teachers in high school districts earn more than teachers in the elementary school districts that feed in to those high schools. That’s not universally true (Jefferson Union High is one exception) but the average high school teacher earns 14% more than the average elementary school teacher in the Bay Area districts. The purest example can be found in San Rafael where a BA+60 Step 10 teacher earns 14% more in San Rafael City High than in San Rafael City Elementary, the one elementary school district that feeds into it.
Bonuses and Average Salaries
All districts offer bonuses in addition to salary. The types of bonus available and the bonus amounts vary greatly from district to district but they are always based on credentials, experience, or assignment, never on quality.
Most districts offer bonuses in the range of $1000 to $3000 to teachers with masters degrees. Many offer further bonuses to teachers with doctorates. San Francisco is one of just six in the Bay Area to do neither. The others are: Novato Unified and Tamalpais Union High (both in Marin), Jefferson Elementary and South San Francisco Unified (both in San Mateo), and Gilroy Unified in Santa Clara.
Half of the districts offer bonuses for becoming “National Board Teacher Certification”. San Francisco’s bonus, at $5,000, is the most generous and one-tenth of all SFUSD’s teachers have obtained that certification. Tiny Las Lomitas Elementary in San Mateo county is the only other district to offer $5000 and it worked there too: nearly 20% of its teachers have obtained the certification. In fact, SFUSD accounts for more than half of all the teachers in the Bay Area who are board certified even though fewer than 10% of Bay Area teachers work in SFUSD.
About one-third of districts offer bonuses for special education assignments and San Francisco is one of them. Uniquely, San Francisco also offers 4-year and 8-year retention bonuses and bonuses for teaching in hard-to-staff schools.
I guess the lesson is that teachers, like everyone else, respond to incentives. If, like Berkeley, you give them more money for obtaining more education credits, they do so. If, like SFUSD, you give them more money for obtaining national board certification, they do that instead.
Given that salary scales and bonus rules can differ so much from district to district, another good way to compare districts is to compare the actual average salaries of teachers including the bonuses they earn. Depending on the experience and qualifications of the teachers in a district, the average may be above or below the BA+60, step 10 mark. BA+60 is the highest column in SFUSD and, as we’ve seen, about one-third of teachers are not on that rate. That means the average salary in SFUSD ($84,756) was only 95.5% of the BA+60 step 10 rate. That’s the second lowest3 percentage of the 81 Bay Area districts with more than 1000 students. In 67 of the 81 districts, the average salary was higher than the BA-60, step 10 point.
Contrast SFUSD with Berkeley. In Berkeley, 60% of teachers fall into the BA+84 column and a further 10% of teachers fall into the BA+72 column. A BA+84 teacher with 10 years of experience earns nearly $5000 more ($87136 vs $82294) than a BA+60 teacher with similar experience. Since so many teachers qualify for the higher rates, the average salary in Berkeley ($87269) is not just higher than the BA+60, Step 10 rate ($82294) but higher than the average salary in San Francisco ($84756).
Here’s a graph of the average salary by district.
We can see that SFUSD’s average salary is not just lower than most districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara but also lower than most districts in Alameda and Marin.
School District Revenue
School districts are not for-profit corporations. There are no shareholders seeking dividends. There are no managers looking to cut costs in order to boost profits to drive up the share price and increase the value of their stock options. All the money that comes in is going to get spent. The only question is what to spend it on and reasonable people might differ on priorities. Somebody who is arguing that a particular expense is wasteful is doing so because they think the money would be better spent on something else.
California sets a target funding level for each school district using a formula based on attendance and the proportion of students deemed to require extra help. The funding formula does not take the local cost of living into account. A district in an area with high costs receives no extra funding than an area in a poor part of the state.
School districts receive their primary funding from local property taxes. The state then gives the district however much it needs in order to reach the target funding level. There are no huge income differences between districts that are dependent on state funding because the theoretical maximum is only about 50% more than the theoretical minimum. But if a district’s income from local property taxes exceeds its state-determined target funding level, the district keeps the excess and receives only “basic aid” from the state. Many of these basic aid districts are found on the peninsula and some of them have a lot more revenue than state-funded districts.
Most districts in the East Bay are dependent on state funding but many districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara are basic aid districts. San Francisco is an interesting case. It is not a basic aid district but it receives so much money from local sources due to voter-passed propositions that its total general fund revenue per student far surpasses that of any other large district and rivals that of some basic aid districts.
Extra Revenue Means Higher Salaries
The more money a district has (as measured by General Fund Revenues per student) the higher its average salaries tend to be (R-squared = 0.4). Districts in Santa Clara pay higher salaries than districts in Contra Costa because they can afford to do so, not because districts in Contra Costa don’t value their teachers.
Districts like San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland pay salaries that are way below what their revenues would suggest they can pay. In San Francisco’s case, the crude regression suggests that, given its revenue levels, SFUSD’s average salaries could be $17,700 higher than they are. Some of the districts that pay a lot more than San Francisco have more revenue than it does. But Fremont Union High receives $2000 less per student and pays its teachers $30,000 more. Superintendent Wayne’s old district, Hayward, receives $3700 less per student and pays its teachers $15,000 more. Dublin Unified receives $7000 less per student and pays its teachers $11,500 more.
Extra Revenue Means More Teachers
The other thing districts do with extra money is hire more teachers. This relationship is even stronger (R-squared = 0.58) than the one to average salary.
One reason SFUSD’s salaries are so low is that SFUSD spends its money on extra staff, not on higher salaries. SFUSD employs 72.6 teachers per 1000 students. That’s more than Mountain View-Los Altos Union High (63.1 per 1000), the district that offers by far the highest average salary. It’s more than the second-highest paying district, Santa Clara Unified (60.8 per 1000). It’s more than San Mateo Union High (58 per 1000), the highest paying district in San Mateo. Among unified school districts, it trails only Palo Alto (75.0 per 1000). All the districts mentioned above that pay their teachers so much more than San Francisco can afford to do so because they employ far fewer of them (Fremont Union High: 45.63 per 1000; Hayward: 54.8 per 1000; Dublin 59.6 per 1000).
San Francisco is not alone. Berkeley and San Jose have also adopted the model of lots of jobs but low salaries.
As we’ve seen some districts employ more teachers; other pay them higher salaries. We can control for this jobs-salary tradeoff by looking at total teacher payroll (i.e. number of teaching jobs times average salary). Given how much income a district receives, how much does it spend on teacher salaries versus other activities such as facilities maintenance or new payroll system implementations or lawyers’ fees? As you might expect, this is a much stronger relationship (R-squared = 0.71).
It is noticeable that SFUSD now sits much closer to the regression line i.e. the amount it invests in teacher salaries is close to what would be predicted by its revenue.
Salary is the largest component of employee compensation but it is not the only one. SFUSD offers the standard range of benefits (health, dental, vision, and life insurance) to its employees. The district pays for 100% of the $7,750 cost of the district’s cheapest and most popular health plan which is a Kaiser plan for a single person. That’s on the low wide in comparison with most other districts but whether that’s because the SFUSD plan is less generous or SFUSD is getting a discount for bringing far more enrollees is impossible to say.
Some employees need insurance for spouses and families. Others don’t need insurance at all because they are covered by their spouses’ plans. The cost to the district of its contributions to all employee benefit plans comes to about $8700 per employee.
It would be nice to be able to compare that with other districts but the data makes that comparison problematic. About half of the Bay Area districts show more than 100% of teachers enrolled in their health or dental plans, which should be impossible. School Services of California, which is responsible for collecting and collating the data from school districts, told me some districts may be including non-teachers (i.e. “classified” employees as opposed to “certificated” employees) in their reported numbers and this could lead to the number of enrollees being greater than the number of teachers. Even if we exclude those from the comparison, SFUSD’s costs per employee appear to be significantly lower than most other districts. Whatever the actual numbers are for other districts, I am convinced that employee benefit costs are not any part of the reason why SFUSD’s average salary lags other Bay Area districts.
Retiree Health Benefits
Just over one-third of the Bay Area districts provide benefits to retirees for at least a few years after retirement. San Francisco is one of the few (17 out of 81 in the Bay Area) that provides lifetime benefits to retirees. Even among those 17, San Francisco stands out. SFUSD is the only district where there are more retirees claiming health benefits than there are current employees (4,552 vs 3,648). The cost of these retiree benefits works out to about $25mm or $6800 per CURRENT employee.
SFUSD also covers health benefits for retirees under age 65. There are only 267 of these, which is just as well because their health insurance is very expensive. The cheapest Kaiser health plan for a single person costs SFUSD $7,750 for a current employee, and $4,425 for a retiree over 654 but nearly $16,400 for retirees 65 and under. Paying for the benefits for retirees 65 and under costs SFUSD a further $1463 per CURRENT employee.
Other districts are not so generous. Here is the total expenditure on retiree benefits per current employee for each of the districts mentioned above or labeled on the charts: San Mateo Union High $0, Dublin $0, Oakland $0, Palo Alto $381, Santa Clara $458, Hillsborough $509, New Haven $734; Las Lomitas $787; Mountain View-Los Altos $1251, Sequoia Union High $1739, Berkeley $1894, Hayward $2515. In contrast, SFUSD spends nearly as much on retiree health benefits ($6800 + $1463 = $8263 per current employee) as it does on employee health benefits ($8700).
It’s worse than that. In the past, districts adopted a pay-as-you-go approach, simply paying the retiree healthcare costs as they occurred. But healthcare costs rise faster than inflation and the number of eligible retirees increases over time. With a pay-as-you-go approach, these OPEB (“other post-employee benefits”, including healthcare, dental care etc.) costs would eat a bigger and bigger portion of the district budget. The best practice for districts is to set aside a separate fund to pay for future retiree healthcare costs in addition to paying the current year’s retiree costs. SFUSD has started to do that but it has a long way to go. SFUSD’s unfunded OPEB liability is over $1 billion, which works out to about $20,000 per student, far higher than any other Bay Area school district. To begin the process of funding that liability, the district wanted to set aside $50mm up front and then at least $10mm per year after that. This may be necessary for the long-term financial stability of the district but, in the short term, any money spent on reducing unfunded OPEB liabilities is money that is not available for teacher salaries.
It is absolutely true that average teacher salaries are much lower in San Francisco than in many neighboring districts. The primary reasons for this are:
given the number of students, SFUSD employs employs far more teachers than other districts.
teachers receive a huge proportion of their total compensation in the form of retiree healthcare benefits. Teachers in other districts get higher salaries instead.
There is nothing wrong with employing extra teachers or giving lifetime healthcare benefits to retirees. But it is important to acknowledge that an inevitable consequence is lower salaries. It is heartless to raise the hopes of teachers that this contract negotiation will finally address the salary gap without having an open discussion about what would be required in order to win more than cost-of-living adjustments.
What would be required in order to raise salaries to competitive levels?
Reduce the number of administrators and other certificated employees not employed in classroom teaching. The district has done quite a bit in this area in response to the structural budget deficit. I’m not sure how much scope there is for further reductions.
Consolidate and rationalize elementary schools. Middle schools and high schools do not need to be cut because their class sizes are in line with Bay Area averages. But there are too many small elementary schools and the class sizes are much smaller than in other Bay Area districts. This consolidation might not even require forced layoffs. The district cannot staff the classrooms that it has, forcing it to scramble to find substitutes, and there is sufficient employee turnover every year that the elimination of positions would only require the reassignment of teachers from schools that close to those that stay open. Some people have warned that the district might be forced to close schools because of declining enrollment or a structural budget deficit. I’m going further and saying that schools should be consolidated, even if there were no attendance or budget issues. The difference is that all the money saved by eliminating positions would go to increase the salaries of the employees that remain.
Create two pay scales: one for those who wish to have the retiree benefits and one for those willing to forego them. New employees willing to forego the retiree benefits would receive the value in cash, and thus would earn close to $10,000 extra in salary per year. This might appeal to many people, particularly those making mid-career shifts into teaching who today are paying for the retiree benefits in the form of a lower salary but who have no hope of fully vesting the benefits.
Other Salary Observations
Some other random observations from studying the salary and benefits database.
SFUSD offers 180 instructional days. All bar five districts match that number. Three (Hillsborough Elem, Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High, and Sunnyvale Elem) are at 181, Millbrae Elem is at 182 and Berryessa Elem. is at 183.
SFUSD requires 184 service days for teachers. That’s on the low side. There are three districts at 182 but most are at 185 or 186. Three are at 188 and Menlo Park City Elementary is the highest at 189.
Across Bay Area districts, the average middle school principal earns 7% more than the average elementary school principal and the average high school principal earns 14% more than the average elementary school principal. In San Francisco, middle school principals earn 5% more on average than elementary school principals and high school principals earn 9% more. This suggests that San Francisco’s high school principals in particular deserve a raise.
The superintendent’s salary of $328,879 is the seventh largest in the Bay Area. Five of the districts that pay more are in Alameda but the highest paying of all is Fremont Union High in Santa Clara.
For convenience, I will refer to everyone as “teachers” but the data covers all certificated employees, which means not just teachers but also administrators and (in SFUSD’s case) librarians and counselors.
Only Mountain View-Whisman (at 94.9%) was lower.
It’s cheaper for retirees over 65 because they are required to sign up for Medicare