Nan Austin

Teachers want raises, but Trump cuts and little new money are coming

Modesto Teachers Association show support as the union and Modesto City Schools hold a mediation session May 17, 2017.
Modesto Teachers Association show support as the union and Modesto City Schools hold a mediation session May 17, 2017. Modesto Teachers Association

It’s a bad time for teachers counting on a raise.

Modesto City Schools and the Modesto Teachers Association reached a stalemate on salary negotiations for 2016-17, making it likely teachers will be waving goodbye to their classes without a contract. Their 2015-16 contract, signed in February 2016, included a 6 percent phased-in raise.

At Monday’s Modesto school board meeting, one speaker threatened that without a better offer, teachers might not be back in the fall, though the union has not mentioned a strike and there are several procedural steps to go before it would be legal.

Ripon Unified teachers also reached an impasse, heading for a summer showdown.

But a convergence of forces will make it difficult for many districts to spend more on their single highest ticket item: teacher salaries.

The average California teacher salary in 2016, by the way,was $77,179, up 4.2 percent from 2015, notes a Sacramento Bee analysis.

1. Soft state revenues

The governor, the legislative analyst and school finance experts at School Services of California all are talking about a mild recession in “winter is coming” terms.

The slightly higher estimate used in Gov. Jerry Brown’s May revise would stop a planned deferral – meaning schools will be paid on time – and pay down unfunded pension liabilities, but send very little more discretionary funds to schools. The budget still must pass lawmakers’ scrutiny.

2. Retirement system costs

The California State Teacher Retirement System (CalSTRS) rates will rise more than the state’s cost-of-living offset.

Teachers will contribute 9-10 percent, depending on when they were hired, for the foreseeable future, but employer contributions for teacher pensions will be 14 percent next year, about a 2 percent hike. School finance expert Terri Ryland told Modesto trustees that future CalSTRS rate hikes likely will mirror those in place for the California’s Public Employee Retirement System (PERS), which will take 28 percent of wages from the employer side starting in 2024-25.

Any raise comes on top of that cost, and adds to it.

Adding insult to injury, an Education Next report released May 16 calls teachers’ separate retirement systems a bad deal for the profession. The American Federation of Teachers disputes the report’s conclusions and recommendations. The union blames excessive fees paid to investment managers for funding shortfalls.

In California, nearly 3 in 10 teachers leave the profession within the first five years, before benefits accrue, and only 4 in 10 teachers will stay in the system long enough to earn back what they put in. There are pay-back provisions and workarounds for public-sector jobs, but overall this is a system designed to serve longtime teachers. Most who come from, or change to, another profession face a retirement plan reset.

The average teacher pension in California was $45,432 in 2015, with 61 the average age of retirement, according to CalSTRS actuarial data. For comparison, the highest Social Security benefit possible is $32,244 a year, starting at age 66, with the average being $16,104, calculated by Money. While public safety employees with PERS are limited to 90 percent of earnings when they retire, CalSTRS has no such restriction. At 42 years of service, teachers tip the scales to earn more in retirement than they did in the classroom.

For inquiring minds, the highest CalSTRS benefit paid in 2016 (to an administrator, not a teacher) was $422,239, lists Transparent California. Though that is an outlier, 47 CalSTRS pensions topped $250,000.

3. Proof of positive

After several years of trial runs, 2017-18 plans for spending extra state funding meant to help poor kids and English learners will face extra scrutiny to show effectiveness. It may be tough to show that raising existing salaries or adding administrative layers will improve student outcomes.

More money to get extra training, provide summer fun courses, lower class sizes, lengthen school days or work at high-needs schools, however, would. Those, as well as teacher coaches, more counselors and summer art- and sports-linked classes, are among supports that different districts in this region have added using those extra dollars.

This year, Modesto district bought PCs for its high schoolers (for 2017-18), replaced school roofs and an aging school cafeteria, and created a security force to replace pulled Modesto police school resource officers.

4. Federal cuts looming

While state money will raise a tick, the federal budget proposed by President Donald Trump would cut funding to public schools and slash supports for low-income families. Schools will take the brunt of providing supports for affected children, and keep in mind 68 percent of Stanislaus County children come from low-income families.

Title I provides extra help for poor children. The Trump budget plan would not lower it but would dilute its effect. Instead of going to schools with the most poor children, it would be doled out as a set amount for each low-income child at every school – a windfall for wealthier neighborhoods traditionally shut out of Title I funding and a blow to schools in poor areas.

Extra funding through Title I is proposed for schools of choice, including private schools. Those will be granted state by state, with California unlikely to participate.

Special education would stay flat, about 15 percent of the average cost to local districts, but the Republican health care plan’s cuts to Medicaid would leave districts holding the bag for therapy and mental health services that kids with disabilities receive at school.

The state would lose federal funding for career courses like FFA, business classes and manufacturing programs, as well as after-school programs. Entirely eliminated are federal grants for arts in education, gifted programs, Special Olympics, literacy programs, some preschool supports, community schools and on-campus child care.

For colleges, Pell Grants (the main college scholarship for low-income students) would remain, but other federal financial aid would be ended or reduced, including work-study grants. Simplification of the overly complex student loan process is also proposed, with a single payback plan that sets payments at 12.5 percent of graduates’ income, ending the obligation after 15 years.

“There were a lot of tough tradeoffs in this budget,” said Erica Navarro, budget services director with the U.S. Department of Education, in a press call Tuesday.

Local school districts, too, will face tough tradeoffs to make raises happen this year.

Every day counts: It’s never too early to get kids in the habit of coming to school every day. The Stanislaus County Office of Education held its first Head Start Attendance Awards on Tuesday, honoring 23 youngsters with the highest or most improved attendance. Ditching high school correlates with low grades, but it’s the little squirts – those in kindergarten and first grade – who miss the most days and fall behind in basic reading skills.

Point of personal privilege: For those who have followed my occasional columns about the travails of school from a mom’s perspective, I offer a coda. My youngest graduated from 150-year-old McDaniel College in Westminster, MD, last weekend – with honors in both majors and the Dr. Reuben Holthaus Award in Philosophy. No more in-the-moment school reflections (until grandkids).

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin