Quick Take:

More than 50 teachers of the Soquel Education Association asked the five-school Soquel Union Elementary School District to rapidly bring up their wages. Their pay ranks at the bottom of the local districts, in one of the nation’s least affordable markets.

Soquel Union Elementary School teachers, claiming they’re the lowest-paid teachers in the county, are demanding a raise.

More than 50 teachers — members of the Soquel Education Association, a branch of the California Teachers Association — showed their support for better pay at Wednesday’s meeting of the Soquel Union Elementary School District board of trustees at New Brighton Elementary School. They wore red shirts, emblazoned with “SEA” stickers representing their union. As association vice president D-R. Martin told the board that the teachers want an 8% increase, they gave a standing ovation.

The union began bargaining for a “reopener” in the fall for the current school year and is still in negotiations on it. The overall negotiations could conclude in a one-year or multiyear contract.

At this point, Soquel Education Association President Gordon Barratt says the district has offered teachers a 3% increase. Citing confidentiality, SUESD Superintendent Scott Turnbull said he wouldn’t confirm the 3% offer.

Currently, teacher salaries within the five-school district range from $42,309 to $85,742. While some districts might have lower starting pay for uncredentialed teachers, Lookout’s analysis of comparative salaries within Santa Cruz County indicates that the district’s credentialed teachers indeed rank the lowest or among the lowest of any multischool district. The union estimates that the district also has the lowest benefits contribution.

In fact, Soquel Union Elementary School District salaries lag behind neighboring Live Oak School District by almost 20%. For example, a starting salary at Live Oak School District is $51,037, while at SUESD it’s $42,309.

Soquel union leaders cite this comparison: For the 2020-21 academic year, the average teacher salary for elementary school districts in the state was $85,345, while their average salary was $67,782. Pacific Elementary and Happy Valley Elementary — two of Santa Cruz County’s single-school districts — have the lowest salaries on their schedules, but they are for uncredentialed teachers or for teachers with less experience.

The Soquel Union Elementary School District comprises about 1,700 students and more than 104 teachers among its five schools — New Brighton Middle, Soquel Elementary, Main Street Elementary, Santa Cruz Gardens Elementary and Opal Cliffs School.

Teachers and supporters wearing red at New Brighton Middle School
Teachers and supporters wearing red were much in evidence as the Soquel Union Elementary School District board met at New Brighton Middle School. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“We’re underpaid. We’re not competitive. We’re losing a lot of teachers; our turnover rates are extremely high, it’s gonna get even higher,” Barratt said. “We’re worried about what’s going to happen at the end of this year.” He said the district saw a 28% turnover rate this past year.

Administrators acknowledge that SUESD is the lowest- or second-lowest-paying district in Santa Cruz County, depending how pay is compared across salary levels.

“However you slice it, we are one of the lowest-paying districts in the county and, by some metrics, the lowest-paying district in the county,” Turnbull said.

Turnbull attributes the low pay to declining enrollment and a lower-than-average number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch and/or are English learners, foster youth or homeless, for which the state provides additional funding. The state of California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) provides for such populations.

“The way schools are funded in our state, LCFF is complex and, from a fiscal perspective, produces ‘winners and losers,’” Turnbull said. “Our district is an ‘LCFF loser.’”

As for declining enrollment, over the past three years, the district’s student count fell by more than 10%, from about 1,900 to about 1,700.

Further, the district has not been able to raise additional taxpayer support.

Seeking another way to get more funding to increase teacher pay, Turnbull said the district tried to pass a parcel tax in 2018 and 2020. Both attempts failed as voters narrowly missed the 66% yes vote needed.

The district currently spends about 87% of its budget on salaries and benefits.

“We simply do not have those funds available to us to offer an ongoing raise of that magnitude,” Turnbull said of the 8% demand.

Parents and students turned out in support of the SUESD teachers.

The district cannot afford the teachers’ demand and remain fiscally solvent for the next three years, according to Turnbull. He says while the district agrees its teachers should be paid more and wants to pay them more, it has offered “the maximum amount that we can offer and still maintain a certified budget.”

Whatever the district’s issues, teachers say an immediate 8% increase would alleviate some cost-of-living pressures and make SUESD a more competitive district.

Michelle Spahn, a second grade teacher at Soquel Elementary, has been teaching in the district since 1995. She said she never thought she would consider leaving, but after years of minor raises, she has started to consider it.

“We’ve always been told we don’t get a lot of funds,” said Spahn. “That’s been the ongoing story.”

Paid about $80,000 a year and living singly, she said she can’t afford to buy property.

The teachers’ union has conducted its own member survey. It found that about 38% of members said they experience financial strain making monthly housing payments. A total of 41% said they avoid financial strain with additional income from other household members.

Clearly, the district’s issues are more widely shared — and confirmed by a 2019 analysis by USA Today that found Santa Cruz was the least affordable city for experienced K-12 educators.

Over the years, Spahn said she has become nervous that if she were to lose the studio she has rented for the past 15 years, she wouldn’t be able to find an affordable option considering the current average prices for studios in Santa Cruz.

“I’m lucky now, but I’m afraid I won’t be lucky forever,” she said.

The previous time teachers in the district organized to demand better pay before the board of trustees was about eight years ago, according to Donna-Renee Martin, a 24-year district veteran. She’s a third grade teacher at Main Street Elementary and union vice president, and has seen the harder times.

“We had gone through furloughs,” she said. Recessions, too, have taken their toll.

Between the 2009-10 and 2012-13 school years, the district went several years without a pay increase, said Turnbull.

The parties plan more negotiations over the next week.

Barratt is unclear how those talks will go, of course, but points to the big turnout at the meeting.

“We have to hope that we made an impact,” he said.
FOR THE RECORD: This article has been updated to reflect the terms of the pay increase the Soquel Education Association is seeking.

After three years of reporting on public safety in Iowa, Hillary joins Lookout Santa Cruz with a curious eye toward the county’s education beat. At the Iowa City Press-Citizen, she focused on how local...