Board approves smaller raise for high school teachers

Massive enrollment growth and rising pension costs cited as budget constraints

Teachers in the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District will get bigger paychecks for the current school year, but not by much. A negotiated agreement with the district this year offers a 2% increase in salaries retroactive to July 1, 2018 -- the lowest since 2013 -- at a time when teachers say they are pricing them out of the Bay Area.

While the raise was negotiated with the District Teachers Association (DTA) behind closed doors, district officials say the extraordinary growth in student enrollment in recent years, along with rising pension costs and slower property tax growth, are all putting a strain on the district's resources.

The school board voted unanimously at the May 6 board meeting to approve the contract with the DTA for a 2% increase to teachers across the salary schedule, with pay based on years in the district and level of education. It also includes a sizable one-time payment equal to 2.85% of salaries. Taken together, the agreement will cost the district an extra $2.3 million.

Mountain View-Los Altos has a long-standing reputation for having among the highest teacher salaries in California, with the latest raise bringing the range to $84,475 for starting teachers to a maximum of $159,627. While the enviable salaries tower above the state average, teachers in the district readily admit it's still tough to make ends meet and afford a home in Santa Clara County, where the median income for a family of four now exceeds $125,000.

Despite the relatively high salaries, this year's agreement marks the lowest salary increase in five years, a big divergence from pay raises ranging from 4.6% to 6% since the 2014-15 school year. Associate Superintendent Mike Mathiesen told the Voice that the state's ever-increasing demand for districts to pay into California's teacher pension fund, CalSTRS, along with the rising costs of benefits, are putting a strain on the district's resources, and played a factor when considering employee raises.

Unlike other districts in the region, however, one additional factor is having an outsized effect on the district's bottom line: a historic increase in enrollment.

Bucking countywide declines in enrollment and decadeslong drops in local birth rates, the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District is witnessing a massive influx of students, with enrollment climbing from 3,881 in the 2014-15 school year to 4,394 this year, according to state data. None of the other 30 districts in the county come close to that level of growth.

Enrollment across all public schools in the county is at its lowest point since 2011 at 267,224 students, and enrollment in the feeder districts for Mountain View-Los Altos -- the Los Altos School District and the Mountain View Whisman School District -- has been flat or on the decline over the same period.

"MVLA is somewhat unique in the county in regard to our enrollment growth," Mathiesen said, citing data provided by the county's office of education.

Demographic reports from 2016 show that the high school district was bound to have more students, if only because of the rapid housing development in the pipeline in the city of Mountain View. District officials were told to expect, at the highest, 4,382 students in the district in the 2018-19 school year -- 12 students fewer than what enrollment is today.

With an additional teacher required for roughly every 25 students, Mathiesen said the district has had to bear the brunt of rising costs caused by new hires.

DTA president David Campbell said he was told by district administrators during negotiations that the annual $93 million budget was tight and couldn't sustain anything above a 2% raise, which falls short of annual inflation and average wage growth for the year, both regionally and nationally. In order to pay the one-time payment equal to 2.85% of salaries, teachers association representatives were told the district had to dip into a special reserve account, Campbell said.

With so little in the way of discretionary spending left in an annual budget approaching $100 million, Campbell said union representatives plan to have ongoing talks with the district.

"Our plan is to enter into discussions with the district about creating a budget that directs the maximum number of dollars possible into the district's classrooms to meet the education needs of our students -- your children -- but (assures) teachers that their current salaries not be eroded by inflation and high costs of living in the Bay Area," Campbell said.

The pay raise by the high school district affects salaries for the 2018-19 school year, meaning a significant retroactive payment to catch up. The Mountain View Whisman School District, on the other hand, reopened negotiations with its teachers' union last week for the upcoming 2019-20 school year, which includes possible changes to salaries, class sizes, hours and other aspects of the contract agreement.

The Los Altos School District reopened negotiations with its teachers' union in October last year for the 2018-19 school year, and has yet to approve an agreement.

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