Berkeley Unified teachers will receive a routine 1% raise next year as well as a 3.5% one-time bonus for the 2021-22 school year, according to a tentative May 26 agreement between the teacher’s union and the school district.

The cost to the district will be just under $4 million, some of which will come from federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Matt Meyer, the president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, said the raise is a small but important step to keep up with the ballooning cost of living in the Bay Area and that it is not related to hazard pay or working conditions during the pandemic.

But the announcement caused a stir at Wednesday night’s school board meeting, as some parents and School Board Director Laura Babitt questioned why COVID-19 funds were being spent on teacher pay and whether the district could make better use of the money.

Babitt drew a sharp distinction between teacher pay and student services, such as reading recovery coaches and liaisons with the Office of Family Engagement and Equity.

“Our families have been struggling this year and they have said to us repeatedly, ‘We need more direct services to our children,'” Babitt said during a budget discussion, asking the district to rethink the agreement if we haven’t “signed on the dotted.” In a follow-up text message, she told Berkeleyside she supports “reasonable increases in compensation for staff” and believes “we can accomplish that goal while still providing more direct services.”

Ethnic studies and social living teacher Alex Day said the conversation at the board meeting unfairly pitted teachers against students and “feels like robbing Peter to pay Paul.” He said teachers, parents and board members were being forced into a “manufactured opposition at this local level” and the real focus should be on getting the government to fully fund education.

“How much money do we get to educate young people?” Day asked, referring to state and federal education funding. “I don’t think it’s enough. I don’t think it’s anywhere near enough.”

Like other one-time bonuses that the district has granted, as in 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-2019, this bonus will be paid for by the general fund and other funding sources. District spokesperson Trish McDermott said some of the bonus money will be paid out of one-time COVID-19 relief funds, though the district is waiting on information about the California budget to figure out the exact proportion.

McDermott said the district uses bonuses and raises as a strategy to retain staff. “One important goal for the district is to remain competitive in the local labor market so that we can recruit and retain a strong workforce for our students,” she wrote in an email, adding that “the staff receiving the one-time payment and 1% raise provide direct services to our students.”

Prior to a 12% raise granted in 2019, Berkeley ranked at the bottom of Bay Area school districts in terms of teacher pay. In 2019-20, teachers at BUSD made as little as $44,863 a year and earned an average salary of $78,700, which still puts Berkeley Unified below the county average for teacher pay, according to a report by the California Department of Education’s School Fiscal Services Division.

The salaries at Berkeley Unified mean that some teachers and district staff are forced to commute from faraway places, which has led the district to start building workforce housing for staff. Unlike teachers in nearby Oakland, Berkeley Unified employees also pay part of their health care premiums.

The teachers union argues that if the district does not provide a sufficient salary, it will be difficult to fill the positions that the district is proposing in this year’s budget.

The combination of increased student needs caused by the pandemic and the district’s budget deficit leaves school board members with difficult choices. At the Wednesday board meeting, Superintendent Brent Stephens explained that it would cost $1.4 million to fund a number of positions intended to support students, such as staff in the Office of Family Engagement and Equity, Bridge, and special education, but that the district could only afford half that amount.

Stephens then tasked the board with determining which of these positions should receive funding. As school board directors began to discuss difficult trade-offs, Babitt pointed out that only 6% of students in the district were English learners. This led to a tense exchange, with Director Ana Vasudeo advocating for more Spanish-speaking staff to serve monolingual Spanish families and Babitt arguing that there are too few such families to justify so much support, given that there are already four Spanish-speaking staff at the Office of Family Equity and Engagement. It was at this point that Babitt also questioned whether the money devoted to the raise could be better spent on direct services to students.

The tentative agreement still needs to be ratified by members before it goes into effect July 1. The new contract will last one year and be renegotiated in 2022.

Correction: Alex Day teaches a class called Ethnic Studies / Social Living, not African American studies.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...