Carrie Johnston, a first grade teacher at John Muir Elementary, explains the class schedule to her students earlier this year while Ms. Neesa interprets in sign language. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The Berkeley school district will raise teachers’ salaries 12% over the next two years, pay a larger share of their health care costs, up compensation for subs and lower the cap on elementary class sizes from 32 students to 27, according to an agreement between the teachers union and administrators. 

The new contract, which the Berkeley Unified school board approved unanimously on its consent calendar Oct. 12 after months of negotiations, is the largest salary increase since 2019. Much or all of the pay hike will be eaten up by inflation, which hit 8% this year, so teachers aren’t celebrating the same way they did over the 12% raise three years ago.

“People are really feeling inflation and we are going to lose people out of this profession unless we really make some changes,” said Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Matt Meyer. “I do believe that our raises that we negotiated reflect the changes that need to be made.”

Under the contract, all teachers will also move one step up on the salary schedule, so that a second-year teacher would earn the salary of a third-year teacher. This will mean an increase in annual pay of between a few hundred dollars and $2,000 for most teachers, depending on how long they have been teaching, either this year or the following year.

“We’ve been really careful to use the phrase ‘salary increase’ rather than raise because inflation is so high,” said Amanda Toporek, a history teacher at Berkeley High who helped negotiate the new contract.

Here’s an example of how the new contract would impact a teacher’s salary. Before the contract, a first-year teacher with a master’s degree would earn $62,348. With the 6% raise and step change, the same teacher would earn $67,787 this school year.

Some teachers say the pay hike doesn’t keep pace with the rising cost of living. 

“I love what I do. I love being able to impact kids. And I’m wondering how long this is going to be sustainable,” said Emily Gilden, a ninth grade teacher at Berkeley High.

Over the last two decades, teacher pay in Berkeley has risen only slightly when taking inflation into account. For instance, a first-year teacher in 2000-01 would have earned $48,236 in 2021-22 dollars. Last year, a first-year teacher earned $49,584. Plus, that doesn’t account for the growing amount that teachers have to spend on health care each month.

In 2020-21, Berkeley Unified ranked nearly at the bottom of school districts in Alameda County in terms of lowest, highest and average teacher pay, according to a report by the California Department of Education. 

The contract will also ensure smaller class sizes at the elementary school level and lower the cap on the total number of students secondary teachers can teach from 170 to 155.  

While the class size averages will remain the same overall — 23 students per teacher at the elementary level — lowering the cap on maximum class size from 32 to 27 ensures that there is less variability between class sizes. In the past, a few elementary school classes would get above 30 students, while others would dip below 20. 

“It is just such a concrete thing that we feel on the ground — that if our class sizes are smaller, students can be so much better served and you’re able to customize to their needs so much better,” Toporek said.

Currently, Berkeley’s local tax measure, Berkeley Schools Excellence Program (BSEP), accounts for 20% of the school district’s budget and funds about 30% of teacher positions.

Other elements of the new contract include giving schools the option to hire permanent substitutes, which provide more stability and enable substitutes to form relationships with students, and raising daily pay for substitute teachers from a base pay of $183 per day to $225. 

The district will also be responsible for paying a larger portion of teacher health care benefits. In the past, teachers have reported paying health insurance costs of hundreds of dollars to over $1,000 per month. Cragmont teacher Molly Bluestein, for instance, pays $1,100 a month for health care insurance for a family of three. The new agreement will make BUSD responsible for splitting the cost of health care premium increases with teachers, lowering how much teachers pay toward their premiums. 

The contract also created working groups for resolving two issues: Compensating teachers for writing letters of recommendation for students applying for college and compensating them for attending meetings, particularly special education meetings, outside of school hours. 

The next contract will be negotiated in three years.

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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,...