In 2011, San Diego Unified promised teachers raises it didn’t have the money to make good on. To make that work without laying off staff, teachers agreed to delay those raises and took extra furlough days. Kids and teachers dealt with larger class sizes.

Now, the district is looking to clear its obligations and invest more in education programs. Unfortunately, it’s facing even bigger budget shortfalls for the coming years.

And yet, it’s considering a new round of across-the-board pay raises.

Since spring, the district and the San Diego Education Association have been at the bargaining table working out the terms of their next contract. Because that negotiation happens behind closed doors, it’s tough to know precisely where the district and union are at. But we know enough to see some of what’s at stake.

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SDEA posts negotiation updates that show us a few items on the table, like teacher evaluations, class sizes and additional counselors.

All of those are important, but the biggest impact would come from the 6.5 percent across-the-board pay raise the union is asking for, which would be a huge hit to an already strained budget. (Note that these pay raises would be on top of the step pay raises that happen automatically, based on time served.)

The union’s argument for higher wages is straightforward: If you want to attract and retain the best and brightest teachers, you have to be willing to pay them. This is especially important considering the teacher shortage California school districts could see in the next five to 10 years.

Lindsay Burningham, SDEA president, said if San Diego Unified wants to compete with other districts for top-notch staff, its pay has to be comparable to what they could receive elsewhere. Hence, the 6.5 percent, a number she said the union arrived at by comparing teacher pay in other districts.

Besides, said Burningham, the district hasn’t exactly been thrifty when it comes to central office staff. Central office staff have seen recent pay raises – in some cases up to 20 percent – she said. New, high-paying positions have been created at a time when the percentage of the budget spent on teachers has been on the decline.

“For us, this isn’t about the budget. It’s about budget priorities,” said Burningham.

Essentially, asking for higher salaries is what a teachers union does. But outside of arguments about whether teachers deserve a raise, it’s worth considering the implications of any raises right now.

How We Got Here

In June, when the district was putting together its budget for this year, it didn’t know exactly what funding it would get from Sacramento. So the budget was a sort of moving target.

It created a three-year budget strategy. More funding was expected through the tax hikes in Proposition 30, which delivers extra money to schools. Similarly, the district expected more through the Local Control Funding Formula, which allocates funding to districts based on their share of disadvantaged students.

That money would be phased in until 2020, and until then the district could use surplus revenue it had squirreled away from years of selling property. Finally, it seemed, breathing room was in sight.

But then the district got walloped by some bad news: It would have to contribute substantially more to CalSTRS, the state pension system for teachers. A lot more.

This year the district will have to pay an extra $3.1 million into CalSTRS. Next year it’ll owe $19.3 million more. The year after, an additional $22.2 million. All of which came as a surprise to the district.

The pension system is complicated, but it basically works like this: Members, school districts and the state all contribute to the pension system at negotiated rates. That money is invested and whatever it grows into is what’s available to pay teachers when they retire.

The system took a major hit in 2008 and never recovered. The state realized that the pension fund was going to run out of money by 2046 if everybody didn’t pitch in more.

But that’s not fair, trustee John Lee Evans argued at a July school board meeting. Unlike what happened in the city of San Diego, CalSTRS’s problems didn’t have anything to do with decisions that were made at the local level, he said. Why should the district be stuck with the bill?

Salary decisions, however, do factor into pensions.

And fair or not, it has to be paid. But it also effectively cancels out revenue from Prop. 30, something critics predicted would happen.

    This article relates to: Education, News, School Finances, Share

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario asks questions and writes stories about San Diego schools. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    Funny, the pension issue wasn't a surprise to anyone else but the school district.  The "alarmists" have been screaming about that elephant in the room for years, and years.  Looks like the "alarmists" were right on!

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    " But then the district got walloped by some bad news: It would have to contribute substantially more to CalSTRS, the state pension system for teachers. A lot more."

    "All of which came as a surprise to the district."

    Total B.S..

    Many on VOSD and elsewhere have been warning of this for years.

    Proposition 30 and the  Local Control Funding Formula.

    Bait and switch by the governor and legislature.

    Thank you for bringing this facet of the conversation forward Mario. It has been ignored far too long.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    This year the district will have to pay an extra $3.1 million into CalSTRS. Next year it’ll owe $19.3 million more. The year after, an additional $22.2 million. All of which came as a surprise to the district."

    Gee I guess that the people warning us about this for years were right on the money!  Too bad this is a shock to the school district staff and the board of elected officials.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    In fairness, one would expect that contribution increase to affect all school districts.  Therefore I would expect that a comparison of teacher salaries and benefits here to those in other districts would be fair as well.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    It is just a simple case of how we treat the people that serve all of us. When San Diego balks at raising the salary of the people that help protect us, it is no wonder teachers "ride the pine"(the proverbial bench). San Diego is cheap and has been cheap for a long time. Sure, the City Council made some real mistakes along with the people who manage the pension  City employees have.  But, we are not Detroit. San Diego makes money. And, the people who support that money machine, the people that make that money machine shine, are the unsung heroes who quietly, continually, do what needs to be done: the fire fighters, the police, the office personnel, and the teachers. Public relations is about WHAT San Diego provides. 

    We really can compete with San Francisco. Our weather is, after all, far better. We have good intellectual properties in SDSU, UCSD, USD, National, Point Loma Nazarene, and every entity associated with the Salk Institute. This is  no longer a heel on the geographic map of the U.S.A. Our military counts as the best of the world. We participate in the most traveled border in the world, between Mexico and the U.S.A. Can you say...cosmopolitan? San Diego is a world leader. Do we want to show the world that we are CHEAP?

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    @John H Borja 

    "San Diego is cheap" I don't think that is true. I believe we want to pay for what the service is worth, not what the union and the pay for play politicians rate worth. Don't try and goad the taxpayers into paying more because your scream cheap. What kind of work do you do and are you a "good" union member? 

    Dennis subscriber


    Let's see, price of gas, water, electricity, housing, food, etc. have all fallen over the years....oh wait, they have all gone up substantially. But let's not give our teachers any raises. The district is always poor and the budget is always strained. Year after year after year.

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    There is $168 Million in hidden money outside the annual budget process that could be used for teacher raises, the planned 6-to-6 Before- and After-School Programs, or infrastructure. 

    In the last 3 years of Recognized Obligation Payment Schedules ROPS-1 to ROPS-6, Civic San Diego and the City Council liquidated $382 Million in Successor Agency Cash as Residual RPTTF Distributions outside of the Budget process for the benefit of public employee pensions. The goal for Residual RPTTF Distributions is always zero, due to the outstanding $1.67 BILLION in Successor Agency (SA) Debt.

    According the to San Diego County-Auditor-Controller, the K-12 schools including San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) received $168 Million in the last 3 years.  Off the books and outside the budget process. 

    Please look at the K-12 School's budget and financial report to see that the $168 Million has zero documentation online.  The schools did not expect the generous $168 Million windfall. Which came at the expense of the City of San Diego, the repayment of the $228 million HUD OIG Audit Debt from the Successor Agency to CDBG Program Income.

    Civic San Diego and the City Council sold out the poor and homeless for 21 cents on the dollar for the benefit of the City, County, and Schools' General Funds.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    @La Playa Heritage I haven't seen any updates from the VOSD editors about this, but it seems like a news organization should be looking into this to confirm.