Breaking News: SDTA Intensifies Pressure on Board for Fair Wages

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Around 100 members of the Sequoia District Teachers Association (SDTA) protested for raises that more accurately reflect rising inflation at a regular meeting of the Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD) Board on Wednesday, Oct. 25.

This demonstration was part of an ongoing battle to increase wages in the new district contract. The SDTA officially proposed a 15 percent increase over two years—eight percent this year and seven percent the next.

SDTA members also protested at the last regular meeting of the SUHSD board on October 11. However, Wednesday’s lobby far exceeded previous demonstrations in both size and spirit.

The boardroom was overflowing with a crowd of teachers proudly raising handmade signs.  SDTA President Edith Salvatore said, “I was very pleased with the turnout. I saw a lot of faces that I don’t know yet in the district so I know that there’s a lot of new folks who came, and I think the camaraderie feels good.”

Teachers spoke during public comment in person and over Zoom to advocate for increasing salaries. Many received a wave of applause despite Board President Richard Ginn’s repeated calls for the audience to desist.

Many shared their personal experiences with financial struggles.

M-A social sciences teacher Stephanie Cuff-Alvarado said, “It is my sixth year of teaching at M-A and tenth year of teaching overall. Additionally, I have 60 post-grad units, but I live alone without a spouse or a partner. Therefore, when I had to move this year, I learned that I qualified for Section 8 Housing. My salary was determined to be so low for the local area that I’m entitled to government assistance in order to stay within the community I serve.”

“I’ve had to live with three other teachers in order to make ends meet. I’ve had to move further away to afford splitting a one-bedroom apartment in San Mateo. I commute 40 minutes and I carpool to save money.”

Woodside English teacher Elias Mooring

Woodside art teacher Julie Marten said, “I raised my two kids in a small bedroom with somebody renting the living room because that’s all I could afford, and eventually I got to the point where I could have a living room, but the idea of owning a house was completely out of the picture.”

She then shared, “A couple years ago, I found out about the Downpayment Assistance Loan Program in San Francisco and applied for it. It’s a lottery system to get $200,000 for a down payment for people who can’t afford it. I qualified for low income as a 20-year veteran in our district.” Even though Marten won the lottery, she had to turn it down because the mortgages would be too high to cover with her current salary.

“I’m a 23-year veteran teacher,” said Sequoia teacher Debolina Dutta. “I speak four languages. I can teach math and science, pretty much every subject within the sciences. I’ve been a district science coach and have tons of experience.”

She continued, “Five years ago due to very unfortunate circumstances, I became a single mom. As a result, I have to live month to month to make ends meet, which is not okay, given that we work really hard day-to-day to meet the needs of our students, the needs of our parents in the community, and the community at large.”

M-A History Department Chair Candace Bolles announced that 11-year veteran teacher Cassia Bradbury is moving to Los Angeles at the end of the semester primarily to escape the Bay Area’s cost of living. 

Bolles shared, “When [Bradbury] broke the news to her students this week, there were tears of sadness and tears of frustration. I share in the students’ sadness and frustration because I know that Cassia is just the first of many teachers who will leave M-A and the Sequoia District this year. It’s too late to keep Cassia at M-A, but it’s not too late to stem the tide of the exodus of high-quality teachers from this district.”

Teachers also claimed the district was being irresponsible and inconsistent with its funds.

“The District has record reserves that we’ve never seen before,” SDTA Bargaining Chair Greg Gruszynski shared.

The district’s ability to achieve a $40 million reserve is not the result of thoughtful financial decisions, but rather the district’s willingness to take advantage of its teachers who have outside financial support and to exploit the deep love that all of us have for what we do.”

M-A social sciences teacher Stephanie Cuff-Alvarado

According to District Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Coach Pablo Aguilera, the board has in fact raised administrators’ salaries but refuses to do the same for teachers. “The reality is that the board has actually offered proper salary increases to people for their work. … The superintendent position saw a $60,000 raise—that’s over a 20 percent raise—the past couple years. The associate superintendent position the past couple of years also got an overtime percent raise for having additional tasks added to their position.”

Many teachers compared SUHSD to other districts and reflected on how it has changed over the years.

Betsy Snow shared her initial reaction when beginning to teach at SUHSD almost 20 years ago. “We found this was the golden district,” she said. “We had opportunities for professional development. We had opportunities to thrive. … It was a place to grow as an educator.”

Snow continued, “I now work at Sequoia as a Library Media Specialist, where I’ve been able to find the perfect marriage of all of those things. But what hasn’t remained in 20 years are my friends who could not afford to stay. It’s the young teachers who you cannot emulate with that energy—that freshness right out of educational programs. They can’t afford to live here, so they move away. They spend hours commuting. They deserve the chance that we had to make it here.”

M-A English teacher Jason Hunt said, “Palo Alto is offering me $7,000 more to teach in their district—Mountain View-Los Altos (MVLA), $44,000 more than what you were willing to pay me. If this trend persists, it will lead to the bankruptcy of our district in terms of teacher retention and the maturation of talent.”

Woodside Spanish and ESL teacher Jonda Farris de Gamez said, “The story they tell that arguably the highest paying school district in the Peninsula, Mountain View-Los Altos, sets an unattainable standard of compensation is simply not true. It’s time to dispel that myth, once and for all.”

Teachers reaffirmed that higher wages will provide more benefit to the district as a whole as well.

Woodside English teacher Gordon Budimirovic highlighted, “One of the district’s stated goals is to ‘design and implement a highly-effective recruitment, development, and retention system to attract and retain top talent.’ These goals are admirable, they sound great. But they’re not achievable unless that desired top talent is properly compensated.”

He continued, saying, “We are professionals, but we’re not being treated as such. We are the most student-facing part of our district, but the district salary offers clearly communicate that they do not see us as a priority. If you care about the continued success of our students, then recognize that teachers and staff are the primary stakeholders ensuring our students’ academic and social emotional success every day.”

Cuff-Alvarado said, “By ignoring the lived experiences of your teachers and all the data that proves increased teacher pay leads to improved student achievement, you are repeatedly communicating that your personal comfort is more important than reality.”

Teachers also expressed deep disappointment that the negotiations have become so drawn-out.

Hunt shared, “It is dehumanizing to stand before my colleagues, students, and their parents trying to justify why the teachers of this district are clamoring for a wage that barely ensures our basic livelihood.”

“Just two weeks ago, a board member said ‘I hear you, I see you, I appreciate you.’ This is not about appreciation. This is about compensation. Appreciation doesn’t pay my gas. Appreciation doesn’t pay my rent. Appreciation doesn’t pay the cost of living here.

M-A counselor Karina Escobar-Weaver

The SDTA Bargaining Team will meet with the SUHSD Bargaining Team on Friday, Oct. 27.

Superintendent Crystal Leach said, “I’m very hopeful for when we go back to the table on Friday. I just want you to know that I do hear the words that you are saying. I know often it’s like ‘Where’s the action, where’s the action?’ The time will come to have that conversation, but until then, I do see you.”

Salvatore said, “I want to be optimistic that the board has money, the board has heard the voices of its employees, and that they will figure out what they need to do to come up with an acceptable figure.”

In Other News – Detracking:

After much discussion, the Board decided in a three-to-two vote to agendize a discussion of increasing course selection in the next session. This item will address adding ninth grade electives and detracking.

Ginn proposed this action, saying, “I think that we must acknowledge that we’ve heard from a large number of district parents and students that they believe more course choices would better meet their academic needs than the current set of course choices.”

He continued, “Some of the people wanting more choice are concerned about the reduction in honors options in ninth grade and in the sciences and want more challenges. Others are more concerned about wanting more options that are not as difficult as AP classes but more challenging than the current non-AP course offerings.”

Board Trustee Shawneece Stevenson commented, “What I’m really struggling with right now is the different ways that we’re talking about choices but not talking about it in the context of our community in the sense of the 8,000 kids that we have and the vast diversity that we have.”

“The silent message that I’m getting, whether it’s intentional or not, is whether or not certain kids belong in our district and whether or not we’re going to serve them,” she said.

The Board will hold their next regular meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 8.

Lindsay is a junior at M-A and is going into her second year of journalism. In her free time, Lindsay likes to spend time with her friends, listen to music, and play tennis and oboe.

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