The Pittsburg solution, and the parcel tax mistake WCCUSD can’t afford to make
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Teacher retention reality check: WCCUSD will need up to $30 million to fully fund the 15% teacher raise it has proposed. If teachers accept the offer, one key question remains: How should our district pay for it?
Education Matters believes that the district must redefine its spending priorities to fund a significant teacher raise, and solve the teacher retention crisis without relying on taxpayers.
SHADOW OF A DOUBT
For the taxpayers in this community, every penny counts.
West County is not a wealthy district, yet our residents have proven their commitment to our district by supporting increased WCCUSD costs year over year. They care about kids, support teachers, and want better schools.
But in the long shadow of a $1.6 billion school bond debt that has never fully delivered for students, taxpayers have reason to doubt that a new parcel tax on homeowners will improve schools, retain teachers, or elevate student achievement.
Despite these doubts, WCCUSD board trustees have begun discussing a measure that would place a parcel tax on the November ballot. Without proposing any specific cuts to free up money for a much-needed teacher raise, a majority of the board appears ready to ask taxpayers to foot the bill (trustees Phillips and Panas have expressed clear reservations about this approach).
With an envious eye on San Francisco’s parcel tax plan, the board has already administered a costly voter survey, discussed parcel tax implications at recent board meetings, and all but invited the union to dream of an even bigger raise.
But when it comes to the financial impact of a new parcel tax, is it fair to compare San Francisco with West Contra Costa?
Consider this: A West Contra Costa homeowner whose 1,200 square foot home is assessed at $500,000 (the local average) currently pays about $1,326 per year to service debt obligations that support school costs. A similar home in San Francisco would accrue roughly $584 in school-related property taxes.
Although WCC homes average less than half the value, West County homeowners currently pay more than double what San Franciscans pay to support schools.
Worse still, a new parcel tax would raise the cost of living for everyone — homeowners and renters alike. Growing property tax fees would be passed along as rent increases, and housing costs for renters would climb even higher.
Yet even with far higher property tax costs than San Francisco, WCCUSD has made underwhelming progress on improving both district facilities and student achievement. With an estimated $1.1 billion more in bond revenue needed to finish facilities improvements, can we rightfully ask taxpayers to pick up the tab on the teacher raise as well?
Education Matters believes there’s a better approach. With smart and disciplined budget cuts, we can free up revenue to fund a needed raise for teachers.
THE PITTSBURG SOLUTION
Turns out, you don’t have to be a big-budget district surrounded by high-value properties in order to pay teachers better. Have a look at Pittsburg:
WCCUSD presented this chart at a board study session on teacher retention, during which board trustees discussed pay in comparable neighboring districts. Source: WCCUSD
Pittsburg Unified School District (PUSD) offers teachers in their 10th year the second highest salaries among comparable districts in the region. If you account for the cost of living difference (roughly 25%), Pittsburg pays comparatively better than SFUSD.
As a district, Pittsburg is a lot like our own. Similar cost of living. Similar student demographics. Even more modest property tax base.
So how does Pittsburg afford to pay its teachers so much more than we pay ours?
A closer look reveals a likely explanation: Compared to WCCUSD, Pittsburg runs a far, far leaner district office staff, which saves millions annually that can be used for teacher retention.
Over five years beginning in 2012, district coffers fattened with a 35% statewide increase in per-pupil funding. In WCCUSD, our budget grew from $9,271 to $12,634 per student.
With those increases, both PUSD and WCCUSD made some new hires. Pittsburg added roughly 10% more teachers, administrators, and pupil services staff over that five-year period. Their average daily attendance (or ADA, the figure upon which the state bases annual funding for all districts) grew 6%, so there’s little question that more personnel helped keep pace with growing student need.
What did WCCUSD do during that time? It hired. And hired. And hired some more.
Despite a 3% decline in our average daily attendance over the same period, WCC added (and we’d suggest you sit down for this) 33% more pupil services employees and 64% more administrative staff. On top of that, it grew its teaching staff by 8%.
These hires create a staggering disparity: If WCCUSD proportionately matched PUSD’s streamlined staffing model, it could free up as much as $13.4M dollars annually.
Nevertheless, WCCUSD’s massive hiring binge — 100 administrative and pupil services employees total — committed millions in salary and benefits to non-teacher employees without setting aside revenue for teachers themselves.
If WCCUSD thinned its district staff to free up millions for teacher retention, could the district still deliver effective services to its highest-need student populations? We believe it could.
BIGGER ≠ BETTER
Despite a streamlined administrative and pupil services staff, PUSD student performance matches or surpasses that found in WCCUSD among five high-need groups: Students with Disabilities, English Learners, Socioeconomically Disadvantaged students, Latinx students, and African American students.
Across four statewide indicators, (Suspension Rate, Graduation Rate, English Language Arts, and Mathematics) Pittsburg maintains equal or better outcomes for each of those five student groups compared to WCCUSD.
The takeaway? It’s not an overstaffed district payroll that makes all the difference for high-need students.
RETENTION WITHIN OUR MEANS
Our district leaders can — and must — re-prioritize funds to support a sizable teacher raise that drives improved retention.
Even if we match PUSD’s administrative staffing ratio, our district will have to make deep programmatic cuts to pay for the proposed increase within a structurally-balanced budget.
But if we don’t insist on unprecedented fiscal discipline, we risk another dangerous tumble toward insolvency. We can scarcely afford to repeat the nearsighted financial blunders that sent our district into its last costly bankruptcy.
Education Matters urges district leaders to do everything they can to pay for teacher retention within their existing means before shifting any more financial responsibility to West County taxpayers.
As a community, we must embrace a responsibility of our own: We must insist on a structurally-balanced, sustainable solution to support our teachers.
As a community, we must begin paying teachers, coaching principals, building schools, and educating kids within our means.