Dozens of people are seated in a meeting room. Several are kids. One has a big sign that says, "Keep teachers in Berkeley."
Teachers, pictured here with supporters at a March School Board meeting, are asking for higher compensation. The district could look to voters to fulfill that request. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

With BUSD teachers and officials agreeing that educators are underpaid, the district might try something novel for Berkeley: turning to voters to help pay for teachers’ raises.

Berkeley Unified could put a special tax measure on the March or November 2020 ballot to raise money for teacher compensation. Proponents say its passage would help a cash-strapped district pay teachers sufficient salaries and allow BUSD to remain competitive with other school districts during hiring season. BUSD still had more than 80 unfilled staff positions — mostly classified employees, not teachers — during the first week of school this year.

District staffers are recommending the March primary election for what they’re calling the “Berkeley educator recruitment and retention tax.” The board could decide as soon as next Wednesday to pursue that path or not. If the district goes with the March option, leaders would have until December to come up with the details, including the tax amount, and measure language.

At the Sept. 4 board meeting, officials seemed open to the idea.

“I do think we’re going to have to find another source of funding in order to compensate our teachers the way they deserve to be compensated,” said board member Judy Appel. “If we want to continue to have a quality district, that means we have to have quality teachers…It’s either, come up with this alternative way to fund our teachers or really, I think, eat into the high quality of our district by cutting things we don’t want to cut.”

Unsurprisingly, Berkeley educators were pleased to hear district officials speaking their language. The teachers union contract expired last spring, and educators are saying they need higher wages than what’s on offer.

“The ballot measure that the district is speaking of will be a necessary part of a solution to keep our teachers and our classified staff in Berkeley,” Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT), told Berkeleyside.

Berkeley teachers say small class sizes are no longer enough to draw educators to the district. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Some officials had previously worried they would be testing voters’ patience by putting forth three different ballot items the same year. Both the BUSD facilities bond measure and maintenance special tax are coming up for renewal in 2020. The board has not officially decided whether to put those measures on the ballot.

In a presentation to the board, Natasha Beery, BUSD director of community relations, said an initial poll of likely voters suggested there’s support for all the proposals. According to BUSD, more than 90% of survey-takers said they believe teachers are underpaid, and 72% said they’d vote for all three potential measures.

In the past, Berkeley voters have been eager to help out the district, through previous iterations of the facilities bond and maintenance tax, as well as the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program, which received a whopping 88% of the vote last time it came up.

“We’re very fortunate to live in a community that strongly supports our schools,” Beery said. But she acknowledged “there’s a significant tax burden in Berkeley.”

Beery also displayed a chart showing BUSD falling $8,000 below the average among comparable districts in certificated staff compensation in 2017-18, based on data from School Services of California. Berkeley teachers can make roughly between $44,000 and $91,000. Nearby districts like Albany, West Contra Costa, San Francisco and San Leandro pay their teachers more on average, when taking into account salary and benefits.

A number of those districts have already done their own ballot measures for teacher and staff compensation.

“We’re not only having trouble filling positions, we’re competing with other districts,” Beery said at the meeting. Unlike BUSD, some of those districts have access to state funds reserved for those serving large low-income populations, she noted.

Appel and board member Julie Sinai said they were surprised to see BUSD in the bottom of the batch.

Beery said BUSD’s failure to pay teachers as much as its counterparts do has contributed to the vacancies seen throughout the district this year.

When students arrived in their new classrooms Aug. 26, BUSD was still looking for 19 new teachers, 13 special education aides, two bus drivers, and dozens of other employees.

“This is exactly what we knew was going to happen as our salaries became more uncompetitive with nearby districts,” Meyer said.

Voters line up outside a school in 2018. In 2020, they could be asked to help pay for the salaries of those working inside of it. Photo: Pete Rosos

District data provided to Berkeleyside actually show that the number of classified staff vacancies has remained consistent over the past three school years. There were two bus driver openings in 2017 and 2018 too, for example.

BUSD was not able to provide data on previous teacher vacancies by publication time.

But the union said the scramble to hire teachers in time for the start of school is a new phenomenon. Meyer, who was an economics teacher at BHS before taking the union job this year, said he remembered just two or three open positions at the start of 2018-19.

“For the first time in recent memory, BUSD has vacancies at multiple sites in multiple subjects,” Meyer wrote in an email to school families.

BUSD has historically been known as a desirable workplace for teachers, who are wooed by the small class sizes and strong community support. But lately, as housing prices have skyrocketed, many employees have left the district or even the Bay Area for higher wages or cheaper rents. Teachers have broken down in tears at School Board meetings saying they love their jobs but can’t afford to raise their families on their incomes.

The union has never accused the district of grossly misusing funds or intentionally neglecting teachers. District leaders and their employees are both quick to blame the current situation on decades of underfunding by the state.

Union representatives say they know the district can’t easily afford their demands, but they say it’s the executives’ jobs to figure out how to adequately pay teachers. Last year, the union asked for a 12% raise over two years — a big jump from the 1% raise settled on in the former contract. BFT is also demanding caseload caps for special-education teachers, saying those educators are overworked and can’t sufficiently serve the students they’re assigned.

For a district that just slashed $3.8 million from its budget — cutting central-office positions, counselors, safety officers and others — those aren’t small asks.

But with new top leadership on both the district and union sides, negotiations could go in a different direction as they start back up this fall. Some teachers are hoping for more sympathy from new Superintendent Brent Stephens, who once led the Oakland teachers union through its 1996 strike.

The two ends of the bargaining table will come face-to-face next Wednesday, when teachers are planning a rally before the Sept. 18 School Board meeting. Some of those demonstrators might stick around afterward to see if the board makes a decision about the ballot.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...