ATASCADERO — To remind school board trustees that they are some of the lowest paid teachers in San Luis Obispo County, five Atascadero Unified School District teachers presented prepared speeches asking for competitive pay at a board meeting Tuesday.
A room full of teachers showed up in solidarity. The teachers made it clear that they were not there to voice disapproval on the district, as they all expressed satisfaction with their work and colleagues. Their main focus was to express their desire for equal pay comparable to neighboring districts within San Luis Obispo County. Negotiations involving the school budget and teacher salaries will begin in January of 2018.
“Our low salary standard in the county makes it hard to retain teachers — makes it hard to hire teachers,” AHS teacher Robin Dery said after presenting graphs of various teacher salaries (first year vs. 16-year teachers) with salary caps and minimum salaries. “We’ve become a training ground. They come here for the first couple of years, get their feet wet, and apply somewhere else. We’re a training ground. I don’t like that. I mean, I like getting new blood in but I also like them to stay. It makes a big difference to our kids to have some consistency and a little stability.”
In recent years Atascadero Unified teachers have been the lowest paid teachers compared to Coast Unified (Cambria), San Luis Coastal, Lucia Mar Unified, Paso Robles Joint Unified and Templeton Unified, according to Dery’s data. The only exception, according to Dery, has been first-year teacher salaries. In that case, Atascadero Unified teachers receive the second lowest salary after Templeton of the six districts, according to Dery’s graphs. She said Atascadero ranked sixth lowest in salaries of those counties for teachers with more than 15 years of experience with 75 additional credits. AUSD teachers with ‘topped-out’ salaries (more than 25 years of experience), Dery reported, were last in line again, with the lowest salaries of those six districts.
According to ed-data.org, the average teacher salary in Atascadero Unified School District in 2015/16 was $67,147.
Though AUSD teachers have seen an increase of about $2,500 in pay since 2011/12, the rest of the county experienced an almost $8,700 increase, according to the ed-data chart. Ed-data reported average salaries from lowest to highest in 2015/16 as: Shandon Unified $59,142, San Miguel Unified $61,094, Lucia Mar Unified $64,375, Templeton Unified $65,305, Atascadero Unified $67,147, Cayucos Elementary $68,953, Paso Robles Joint Unified $69,275, Coast Unified $74,752 and San Luis Coastal Unified $75,065.
The averages include all kinds of variables that affect pay: the number of years and experience each teacher increases or decreases each pay, and the type of teaching position varies in pay from P.E. teachers to special education teachers to classroom teachers of varying grades and subjects. Of the teachers who spoke at the podium, many were 30-year (plus) teachers, with years of experience and tenure. Suzanne Hogan, who has been an educator in the district for 33 years and teaches honors English and psychology at AHS, said though she finds Atascadero Unified a wonderful place to work for many reasons, she found herself, according to what she’d seen of district priorities, unable to recommend her district to her friend’s daughter, an aspiring young teacher who recently received her teaching credential. She would like to see teacher salaries made top priority.
“I love what I do, unfortunately though I see a small black cloud looming in our district,” Hogan, who shared she will be retiring within the next five years, said. “I know that our salary is lower than that of neighboring districts. Our high school teachers teach one more instructional period than do high school teachers in those better paying districts. Our salary schedule for teachers is not competitive. Just ask those who’ve left our district for greener pastures, taking their skills, their lessons, and in one case, a whole program.” Hogan was hopeful. “Fortunately we seem to be getting back on track. Not only do we have a contract, but also, from what I hear, negotiations are in progress.”
Several of the teachers talked about the difficulty keeping teachers until the ‘married to the district’ stage. They expressed concern that ‘rockstar’ new teachers bypass the teacher vacancies for higher paying districts, or will use AUSD as a “training ground” for the district they will move to when the pay does not sustain their financial needs.
AUSD teacher Pamela Blakeman pulled out a string of textural drawings her class of 33 5-year-old students made in class at part of a ‘Meet the Masters’ art program. She said creative, exciting projects like these and others may become extinct as less qualified, less motivated teachers fill the spots of the “rockstar” teachers who seek better pay. Blakeman also commented that her class has a growing number of special needs students.
“Eighteen percent [of my class] come with special needs,” she said. “It’s higher than I know is the average. Last year it was over 30 percent that came in with special needs out of 32 students. That’s an awful lot of students and an awful lot of responsibility that I have.”
“Teaching is our calling,” long-time technology teacher Cheryl Hockett of AHS said, citing how research proves paying teachers competitive salaries leads to motivation and job satisfaction, adding that she came to the podium to advocate for her colleagues. “It’s also our livelihood. Our salary and benefits are no longer competitive.” She said the young teachers are just trying to to pay their bills and get established. “Our mid-career teachers are raising families and trying to pay for their kid’s college. Some are trying to help adult children get launched or helping aging parents or just looking at eventual retirement. I’m also looking at the new colleagues who haven’t been hired yet. The ones we need to fill the hard-to-fill positions like the one I’m covering right now – those rockstar teachers. We want them to come to us. We want them to choose us and stay with us. Not be shipped to a neighboring district, but to get to those years when they kind of ‘marry’ the district, right?”
Each board member thanked the teachers for attending the meeting, expressing gratitude for their service. Superintendent Tom Butler said he feels hopeful the negotiators involved in January’s budget will represent their concerns.
Trustee Donn Clickard, a former teacher, said, “Thank you to the teachers who spoke and the ones who came tonight. I was you for 34 years and I know what we’re talking about. I appreciate your getting up here and sharing with us in the manner that you did.”
You may reach Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions and/or feedback.