Mountain View Whisman School District teachers will be getting a 3% pay raise this year after school board members voted to increase salaries, regardless of what the new coronavirus may do to quash economic growth and slash state funding.
The unanimously decision at the Saturday morning board meeting grants salary increases for the bulk of the district's employees, including principals, supervisors and management staff, as well as an additional one-time bonus equal to 2.5% of employee salaries. The agreement will cost the district $2 million in the current 2019-20 school year and $1.2 million in ongoing costs for future years.
The big question at the meeting was whether the district can afford the pay bump amid a maelstrom of budget uncertainty. The spread of coronavirus in Santa Clara County prompted public health officials to shut down schools and nonessential businesses last month, which was swiftly followed by a statewide order, and it's unclear when they will be able to reopen.
Along with a significant drop in economic activity, district staff say they're still not sure whether schools will even be permitted to open on the first day of the new school year in August. The exact cost of switching to distance learning -- which includes buying Chromebook laptops and food services staff working overtime to provide meals for children -- is a moving target
Some of those costs could conceivably be paid for by emergency federal funds, said Chief Business Officer Rebecca Westover, but it's going to be a while before the district sees any of that money. It typically takes one to two years for money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reach local school districts.
Former school board member Chris Chiang cautioned trustees against the pay raise, arguing instead for a freeze as the state braces for an "unprecedented" drop in funding. He said the district has done a good job ramping up salaries in recent years, but doing so now would be risky.
"Anything to secure their job from future layoffs would be even more welcome in these uncertain times," Chiang said in an email, read aloud during the meeting. "It would be a tragedy to pink slip educators next year because of spending this year."
School districts across the state are already requesting that the state take action to dampen the fiscal effects on public schools, calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to avoid slashing state funding for schools and ease mandatory payments into the state's teacher pension fund, CalSTRS.
Despite the concerns, Westover said the district should insulated from the fallout of the coronavirus for now. Public schools in California are being "held harmless," meaning that state funding will be maintained regardless of drops in student attendance, and that the true impact of the virus and likely won't be felt for years.
That's because Mountain View Whisman, like neighboring school districts, is fully funded through local property tax revenue, making it less dependent on a healthy state budget. The district's budget forecast largely depends on how much assessed property values rose or sank that year, and it's going to be a while before that puts a dent in the district's funding.
"Even in the great recession it took us a couple of years to impact us," Westover said.
Trustees swiftly approved the contract agreement with no discussion.
The 3% pay raise is slim compared to past years. Since the 2014-15 school year, the school district has been granting teachers raises averaging 5.7%, with the single largest being an 8% increase in 2016. Before that, many teachers argued that the Mountain View Whisman School District's pay scale was far below comparable school districts, which was leading to a mass exodus of employees leaving the district each year.
With the latest raise, teachers will be making between $65,899 to $118,146, depending on level of education and years of service in the district.
Another divergence this year is that the pay increase will be for the 2019-20 school year, meaning much of the pay is retroactive and will come in a big check to employees in late May. For years, Mountain View Whisman School District was the regional anomaly, granting employees pay raises based on the upcoming school year rather than the current year. Doing so gave employees more stability in knowing what they'd earn in a school year, but also relied on economic predictions that could be wrong.
The turning point, according to Assistant Superintendent Carmen Ghysels, was in the 2018-19 school year when property tax growth slumped below the 5% anticipated by the district's financial team, meaning administrators had to honor the agreement despite the lower-than-expected revenue.
The district's contract agreement with classified staff will be approved at a future board meeting. The California School Employees Association (CSEA) labor union traditionally receives the same pay increase as teachers.