The Cost of Being Quaint

This article is part of a series. Please refer to the Addendum article (https://alamedaclarion.com/2020/02/05/ausd-2020-measure-c-addendum) for additional notes. Inline notes that reference the Addendum will signify this with the label Addm.X where X is the number in the Addendum.

Summary

  • This is an Analysis article about the Alameda Unified School District (AUSD).
  • Alameda has a lot of neighborhood schools for its size, and small class sizes. Many people consider this a positive aspect of living here.
  • But this also creates a higher cost structure since we need to staff these extra schools with teachers, librarians and other professionals.
  • And because our primary funding is proportionate to our number of students, the district has more people to pay with the same dollars. One inevitable outcome is lower average pay.

Although Charm Can Grow on Trees

The first time I came to Alameda, my impression was that it was very quaint. The combination of old houses, tree-lined streets and small, neighborhood business districts give Alameda the feel of a small town. With a video rental store, independent movie theater and a by-the-scoop ice cream store almost on the same block, it sometimes feels like a place out of time.

Alameda’s schools add to its quaintness. We have a total of 21 schools in the district (including charter schools) of which 10 are elementary schools. Alameda has a total area of a little over 10 square miles1 of which a big portion is the old base, meaning there’s a good chance that any given home has an elementary school less than a mile away. Being able to walk their kids to school is an aspect of Alameda that many people feel strongly about.

SchoolNumberByDistrict
Figure 1: Average Students Per School (click for larger image)

But there is a cost to this. Alameda has a lot of schools for its size. On the basis of our enrollment, we have one of the highest numbers of schools in the county. In Figure 12 we see that only Oakland and Newark have fewer students per school. It’s important to note that this is a very crude measure and lacks some important nuance, but it hints that one of the reasons we have less money for teachers is that we have to support more infrastructure per student, while our number of students is the biggest driver of how much funding we get3. That makes it hard to live within our means.

StudentToTeacherRatiosByDistrict
Figure 2: Student to Teacher Ratio (click for larger image)

We see this reflected in our school staffing, which is the primary cost driver in a school district4. Let’s first look at the labor cost that is held to be most dear in this current election: teachers. Figure 2 shows that Alameda has an average of 19 students enrolled per full-time equivalent teacher (FTE). The county average as shown by the horizontal line is a little over 20 students5. This seems like a small difference but there are over 11000 students enrolled in the AUSD. By rough figuring, if we reduced the ratio to the county average we would reduce our FTE by about 30. If we take AUSD’s salary plus health cost number of about $78,000, this would be savings of about $2.34M or enough to give the remaining teachers an average raise of $4142 per year6.

That’s almost half way to the roughly $9000 needed to bring Alameda teachers to the county average based on AUSD numbers7. But teachers aren’t the only cost center: school districts employ an array of professionals who keep the schools running. Let’s look at two that are specifically called out in department of education statistics: certificated administrators and pupil services staff.

StudentToCertifiedAdminRatios
Figure 3: Student to Certificated Admin Ratio (click for larger image)

Figure 3 shows the ratio of enrolled students to certificated administrators. Certificated administrators are staff that, like teachers, have a recognized certification but who aren’t providing teaching services directly to students. They include jobs like principals and coordinators. Alameda comes well below the average of about 274 students per administrator8.

StudentToServiceRatios
Figure 4: Student to Pupil Services Ratio (click for larger image)

Figure 4 shows the ratio of enrolled students to pupil services staff. Pupil Services staff are those people we all remember from school, who provide services to students but aren’t teachers, like nurses, librarians and counselors. Alameda is again well below the average of 255 students per pupil service employee8.

I don’t have solid numbers (yet) on what an average staff member in each of these categories costs the district to employ but let’s say they make $50,000 per year. This is probably a low estimate since we are including professions like nursing and school principals who are often better paid than that. If we were to again reduce our workforce to the average in each of these categories we would find a savings of about $850,000. So our total savings is now $3.2M or enough to give our 565 FTE teachers a total raise of $5646. Now we’re at over half of the $9000 we need and we haven’t even considered regular office and maintenance staff9.

Conclusion

Of course, this is a very superficial way to do budget analysis, but it demonstrates why having more schools for our number of students makes things more costly: each school needs it’s own nurses and librarians and so on, and the resulting smaller class sizes mean we need more teachers. Our funding is tied to the number of students we have, so each dollar gets stretched across more salaried workers; it should be unsurprising that to make the math work, we have lower salaries.

In my next article, I will get more rigorous by comparing the district’s categorized costs to that of others.

Footnotes

  1. See under “Area”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alameda,_California (Accessed Feb 19, 2020).
  2. Until this article I have used “ADA” (see Addm.1) per student denominated ratios. ed-data.org uses enrollment instead for ratios involving staffing. I think this is because different districts account for charter school enrollment differently. For consistency, I have followed their convention. Note that Enrollment is almost always larger than ADA.
  3. See my previous article, https://alamedaclarion.com/2020/02/12/how-our-school-district-is-funded/
  4. AUSD spent $87M of $110M in general fund expenditure on salaries and benefits in 2017/18 according to ed-data.org. This is normal if you look at other districts.
  5. The numbers I’m using from ed-data.org are suspiciously rounded whole numbers but I’m only looking for rough numbers here anyway.
  6. Conservatively, current enrollment at 11,299 / 19 = ~595 FTE. Reducing the ratio to 11,299 / 20 gives 565 or a reduction in about 30 FTE. $78000 times 30 = $2.34M and $2.34M divided by 565 = $4142.
  7. See my previous article, https://alamedaclarion.com/2020/02/05/why-does-alameda-underpay-its-teachers/
  8. According to ed-data.org.
  9. For administrators 11,299 / 241 = ~47 and 11,299 / 274 = ~41 for 6 reduced headcount. For pupil services 11,299 / 205 = 55 and 11,299 / 255 = ~44 for 11 reduced headcount. So combined we have 17 less head count times our $50,000 estimated cost makes $850,000.

Why Does Alameda Underpay Its Teachers?

This article is part of a series. Please refer to the Addendum article (https://alamedaclarion.com/2020/02/05/ausd-2020-measure-c-addendum) for additional notes. Inline notes that reference the Addendum will signify this with the label Addm.X where X is the number in the Addendum.

Summary

  • This is an Analysis article about Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) and its funding.
  • The AUSD has placed a ballot initiative on the March 3, 2020 Primary Ballot that would add an additional 26.5 cents to the existing 32 cent per sq.ft. parcel tax.
  • The new tax would raise around $10.5 million for increases to teacher and staff salaries which, according to the district, are some of the lowest in the county.
  • But Alameda already raises one of the highest parcel taxes in the county and is about average in terms of overall spending per student (ADA). So why don’t we have enough money to pay teachers more already?

Distinguished Politics

Back in November, I received a four-page, full-color flyer from the Alameda Unified School District. On the surface, this was an advertisement celebrating AUSD’s Dr. Pauline Stahl, who was named 2019 “Teacher of the Year” for Alameda County. I am sure this was well-deserved. The “Genomics and Biotechnology Pathway” and the “Restorative Justice” programs that Dr. Stahl helped to found seem like laudable achievements worth recognizing. The county awards this accolade but the city’s school district was interested in doing more than just celebrating it.

On opening to the second page of the flyer we are immediately told that “Alameda is proud of our talented educators….. But in order to keep our schools strong, we need to continue attracting and retaining highly qualified teachers .. ” 1 And what follows is a graph, which I have reproduced below (see Fig. 1; same data, my graph), that shows that “Currently, AUSD teachers and staff are among the lowest paid in the county” 1. The logical progression from achievement to grievance is followed by the inevitable on page 3: “a March 2020 ballot measure is being considered at rates up to $0.23 per square foot of building area…” 1.

AUSDSalaryChart
Figure 1: Alameda County Salary Comparison (click for larger size)

Since then the district board has approved language for a measure on the 2020 Presidential Primary Ballot2 that will raise $0.265 per sq.ft. of additional parcel tax. This coincided with an agreement with AEA, the main union that represents teachers in Alameda, to provide a 4% salary increase in the current year. If and only if the measures passes, employees will get 8% more next year and a retroactive additional 1% increase in 2020.3 As the press release points out, all employees and not just teachers will get these increases because contract increases for all AUSD employees are tied to what the teachers negotiate.

Whether or not this is good policy, it’s definitely good politics. Early polling for a parcel tax showed Alameda could hit the necessary two-thirds of votes if voters were provided with “additional information” about teacher pay and how the tax revenues would be spent4. Add to that the advantage of placing the initiative on the 2020 presidential primary ballot. This ballot will not include serious Republican contenders and will likely be dominated by voters most energized by presidential candidates whose platforms include higher taxes to fund government services.

So far, so good. The district has crafted a clear message and placed their initiative on what should be a favorable ballot. But this left one serious question in my mind: why are we in this position? After all, didn’t we re-confirm a parcel tax just a few years ago? I admit I didn’t really know much about the school district before this new initiative. And after a little research, I had more questions than answers.

Naught for Teacher?

An obvious first question is to ask: “Do we spend less than other districts?” If we pay our teachers comparatively less, one might assume that we spend less in general. However, while we are far from the biggest spenders, we are basically average. At $12,159 per ADA (See Addm.1 for more on ADA), we spend slightly less than the county average of $12,200 but we are are slightly above the median spending of $11,796 (See Fig. 2; the horizontal black line is the county average). Furthermore, districts like Pleasanton, New Haven and Livermore who are among the best in teacher pay, all spend less per ADA. 5

GeneralRevenueByADAByDistrict
General Revenue By ADA By District (click for larger)

So where does the money go then? Most other school districts are able to pay their teachers better and many seem to spend less overall while doing it.

What about that parcel tax we just renewed? Maybe other districts raise much more from their parcel taxes and that’s how they pay their teachers? Nope. Alameda has one of the highest parcel taxes (per ADA) in Alameda county. And many of the districts with highest teacher pay also have little or no parcel tax (See Fig. 3).5

ParcelTaxRaisedPerADAByDistrict
Parcel Tax per ADA By District (click for larger)

This is my first in a series of in-depth articles to analyze the revenue and spending of the Alameda Unified School District. Do we really need to nearly double our parcel tax to pay our teachers better and why? How are a lot of other districts able to pay so much better with little or no additional parcel tax at all?

Footnotes

1. See scanned copy of flyer (may open new tab or download pdf).

2. Scuderi, Pasquale et al. “Ballot Language and Resolution Ordering Election for the Alameda Unified School District Creating Local Support for Retaining and Attracting High-Quality Staff Measure of 2020” alameda.novusagenda.com. https://alameda.novusagenda.com/agendapublic/CoverSheet.aspx?ItemID=9561&MeetingID=475 (Accessed February 4, 2020).

3. Scuderi, Pasquale et al. “Board of Education Ratifies Tentative Agreement with AEA 
AUSD. https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2019/11/21/ausd-notes-a-status-report-on-worker-pay-strategic-plan/ (Accessed February 4, 2020).

4. https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2019/08/27/school-parcel-tax-could-come-before-alameda-voters/

4. Taveres, Steven “With low teacher pay, Alameda USD did polling for a parcel tax. The results are passable” East Bay Citizen https://ebcitizen.com/2019/08/20/with-low-teacher-pay-alameda-usd-did-polling-for-a-parcel-tax-the-results-are-passable/ (Accessed February 4, 2020)

5. District financial data is based on public records published at ed-data.org (Accessed February 4, 2020). Data is for 2017/18 budget year, which is the latest available at ed-data at the time of writing.