Linda Perez, a teacher at Buena Vista Horace Mann, shares her home with nine people — only two of them are family members. Frank Lara teaches fourth grade at the same school and has crashed on friends’ couches or shared a bedroom to make ends meet, all while struggling to repay a mountain of student loan debt. Laura Rocha, who used to teach pre-K classes at another school, said she can earn more money cleaning houses or rolling burritos than she can as a teacher.
“I adore kids, but I can’t support myself and my daughter like this,” Rocha said.
Perez, Lara and Rocha gathered with some 30 other teachers and parents Thursday night at a panel discussion on San Francisco’s affordability crisis organized by the United Educators of San Francisco, a teachers’ union.
Representatives from the union and teachers from Buena Vista stressed the importance of keeping teachers living in the communities they serve — a goal that has become increasingly difficult as rents have risen to an average of about $3,800 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. The starting salary for a full-time credentialed teacher is $50,000 a year — paraprofessionals average around $25,000, according to Matthew Hardy, the Communications Director for UESF. Earlier this year, the SFUSD stated that teachers earn an average salary of $86,000 a year in salary and health benefits. Hardy said many teachers aren’t full time, and they haven’t had a pay raise in five years (though teachers do get incremental experience-based raises over the years).
The current contract with the San Francisco Unified School Board expired in July, and negotiations are in mediation. The difficult process only grows more complex in the midst of an economic boom that has made the city less and less affordable.
Dennis Kelly, the union’s president, recalled the story of one teacher who was hired in San Francisco and had to spend three weeks living in her car with her children before she was able to find a place she could afford to live in on her salary.
Variations on the same story were told by several educators Thursday night. The meeting was meant to gather ideas about how to face the affordability crisis and to build solidarity between teachers and parents. Speaker after speaker echoed one theme: that teachers and parents must support one another to push for better school funding, livable wages, and well-structured education programs.
Parents at the meeting, many of whom face similar challenges in remaining in the city, expressed hope that a stable education would protect their children from the hardships of low-income work.
Housing, said Ken Tray, UESF’s political director, has become a focus for the teachers’ union because the astronomical cost of living in San Francisco affects teachers and parents so acutely. Many simply leave the city.
Karoleen Feng of the Mission Economic Development Agency said the number of families has dropped from about 60 percent of Mission households to about 28 percent. Feng said 95 percent of those families rent. In a survey of local families, Feng said, many expressed fear, and as a result, families are accepting buyouts to move or succumbing to landlord threats. That instability, Feng said, causes problems for the families’ academic development.
“The impact is on two generations,” she said.
Part of the problem, another teacher said, is that there is still a widespread misconception that educators make a comfortable living. For many who work at schools, that is far from the truth.
Anabel Ibanez, a family coordinator at Buena Vista Horace Mann, said paraprofessionals and teachers sometimes take home leftovers from the school’s food pantry. Though the food is intended for (and, for the most part, goes to) needy parents and families, some educators are needy too.
Horace Mann teacher Norman Zelaya said the disproportionately low wages offered to teachers in San Francisco has driven prospective educators away from the city. He said the district is looking for teachers, but is having trouble filling open positions because applicants compare the salaries available to the cost of living and choose to work elsewhere.
He might be right — Transparent California reports teachers in the Oakland Unified School District earned a median annual salary of $62,000 in 2013. In the Fremont Unified School District, the comparable median salary was $85,000.
“It’s what you’re offering these people,” Zelaya said. “If I’m 22, 23 years old and I’m coming to the Bay Area I know I can’t live in San Francisco and I can make more money outside San Francisco… These are intelligent people. Why would I put myself in the hole and struggle?”
Opinions varied on what parents and teachers need to do to move forward on improving salaries.
“We need a plan,” said Carol Fisher, a self-described politically engaged parent, “So that I’m not just that crazy lady who’s always flyering.”
Fisher suggested that politically active parents reach out to other, less engaged, families to get them involved.
Ibanez of Buena Vista Horace Mann said she would like to see more people who show their support at community meetings also attend political actions like protests and meetings with administrators.
Whatever the strategy, it’s clear teachers and parents are united in their frustration with the city’s rising costs.
“We work day after day for our children to have a better future,” said community member Erica Hernandez. “In San Francisco everything goes up but our salaries.”