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The Kindest Cut

Teachers at a fledgling charter school are living off of half
their pay in order to keep tae kwon do and other programs that make
the school unique intact.

 

San Diego Global Vision Academy doesn’t look like a school in trouble. Rows upon rows of books crowd the shelves. There are Goldfish crackers and plastic bottlettes of juice and green popsicles for a Friday treat. And the kids are so jazzed about reading that when CEO Dena Harris jokes that she’ll steal their books away, nine-year-old LaRay Dorrough gasps and clutches a paperback protectively to her chest.

“We’re slightly obsessed with reading in this class,” the executive said.

“Not slightly!” the nine-year-old exclaimed.

The kids would never know that the state has put off payments to their school, that the federal government was slow to cough up a grant. And the school doesn’t want them to know. When the going got tough for San Diego Global Vision Academy, Harris and the teachers decided they couldn’t cut back on the tae kwon do classes that made their school different, couldn’t skimp on free programs after school.

So they sacrificed their pay instead. Everyone at this charter school is now earning just $91 a day, from the office staff to the CEO. That comes out to less than $24,000 a year, slightly more than half of the $44,000 salaries the Normal Heights school originally planned to pay its teachers. Some of them are veteran teachers with advanced degrees, who could earn at least $50,000 at other San Diego schools.

Yet teachers here take it in stride. None have quit. Cutting pay has sparked strikes and angry standoffs elsewhere in the state. But ask teachers and the CEO here about their paychecks and they shrug and smile.

“I couldn’t be happier. I’m working with kids,” said Aja Booker, the fifth and sixth grade teacher who grew up poor in Modesto. This, she says, is nothing. “As long as I’m not out on the street, I’m OK.”

Nearly half of California school districts and charter schools surveyed last summer had whittled down pay to survive the budget crunch. School districts with labor unions have negotiated for furloughs or pay cuts. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, have frozen or trimmed salaries.

But few have gone as far as San Diego Global Vision Academy — partly because few have been as battered by budget woes as this tiny school. New charter schools like this one have been hit from all sides, with money coming late or not coming at all, loans unaffordable or out of reach. The problem is not just budget cuts but budget delays, which have left schools guessing when they’ll get paid.

School districts can borrow at low interest rates to cover their costs until the state pays up. Established charter schools often have money saved up to tide them over. But brand new charter schools have more trouble. They struggle to get good loans. Little cash is stashed away.

For instance, new charters are supposed to get federal grants funneled through the state to help them start from scratch, paying for furniture, computers and textbooks. But the money was delayed month after month last year. Harris had to pay for startup costs like new books without most of that money. The school also hasn’t gotten state funds for special programs or federal money for disadvantaged kids.

So, Harris and her staff budget for a school with 10 employees and 113 children to survive on roughly $27,000 a month. Nobody wants to even guess when its finances might get firmer.

Teachers say they were willing to sacrifice because they knew exactly what was at stake, what the numbers were, and because the CEO is there alongside them, taking the same paycheck. With three children under the age of four, Harris has relied on her preschool to be flexible about when she pays them.

While no one was thrilled about the cuts, no one balked either.

“In a school district you just get a memo that says, ‘There’s this cut,'” said kindergarten teacher Jennifer Chadbourne. “Here we have a conversation with the CEO. You’re not left in the dark about anything.”

Harris and her coworkers also try to ease the stress in small ways. The CEO scrounges for office furniture and cheers, literally, about a new trash can. Other schools donated old filing cabinets and bookcases. Parents chip in with extra rolls of toilet paper. Harris cleaned bathrooms before they got a janitor.

“We laugh a lot. I buy a lot of coffee,” Harris said. “And if you tell me what you need I will find it.”

The school has also relied on the kindness of its vendors: Its financial company has put off billing the school, providing more than $25,000 in services so far. Harris said the landlord went unpaid for five months for their space, an annex once used by Adams Elementary that rents for $10,500 a month.

“I walk in there and I see our snack bins full. Everyone has their dry erase markers and their book sets. The only thing I feel like our school is going without is our teachers getting the pay that we know they deserve,” said Amy Wilson, a parent of two girls at the school and its board president.

The school plans to restore salaries and pay employees back once funding is more stable. But for now, teachers share advice on how to defer their student loans, where to find a dentist who will take cash, how to negotiate bills. Several said the toughest thing has been scaling back on the extras they usually buy for their classrooms. Booker usually spends $200 or more a month on books; now she spends $75.

As the children frolicked in a nearby park on a chilly afternoon, fourth grade teacher and educational provost Christine Kane cracked up at their antics. The paycheck seemed to be the last thing on her mind.

“It’s tough,” Kane said in a rare quiet moment. “That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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