A group of five longtime Palo Alto Unified elementary and high school teachers spoke poignantly to the school board during an open forum on Tuesday night about the personal toll that the lack of affordable housing in the Palo Alto area is taking on them.
Tara Hunt, a third-grade teacher at Walter Hays Elementary School who has taught in the district for 10 years, said she has a two-hour commute each way to and from the house she rents in Santa Cruz. Her day starts at 4:45 a.m., and more than two-third of her paycheck goes toward rent, she said. By the time the weekend rolls around, she's too exhausted to head back to Palo Alto for school events or activities.
Other teachers said the same: The farther away they live from Palo Alto, the longer the commute and the harder it is to stay after school to collaborate with other teachers, to help students or attend events.
"I can't be a part of our community," Hunt said. "It feels really disconnected."
Corey Potter, a kindergarten teacher at Hoover Elementary School, said her landlord raised the rent on the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her husband by $850 this month almost a 50 percent increase, she said.
"He told us that he could easily rent it to someone from Facebook or Google for $3,400. While this may have been an exaggerated threat, it's not far off," Potter added. "One need only to browse Craigslist to see how much apartments are going for these days."
"Many of us are facing a very serious housing crisis," she said. "It won't be long before we can no longer afford to work here."
Gunn High School teacher Jordan Wells said her rent has gone up by 10 percent every five months over the last three years. Another longtime Gunn teacher, Tarn Wilson, said she has steadily moved farther away from the district from Mountain View to Sunnyvale to San Jose as her rent became unaffordable.
Some of the teachers who spoke pointed to the booming tech industry as the culprit for rising housing prices in the area. Helen Carnes, who has taught and lived in Palo Alto for more than 20 years, said she has moved many times while weathering several large tech booms, but "it's only in the past year that it is becoming impossible to find affordable rentals in the area."
"I've had to sacrifice a lot to stay in Palo Alto, to raise my children in Palo Alto, to work in Palo Alto and I've considered myself lucky and I'm very happy here," she said. However, "the current situation is making it impossible," she said.
They also expressed concern that Palo Alto is no longer offering as competitive salaries compared to neighboring school districts. Wells said she recently checked the salaries for a Mountain View Los Altos School District school she was considering working at when she first started her career a decade ago. She said if she was teaching at that school today, she would be making $19,000 more per year, and some of her more experienced colleagues, up to $35,000 more each year.
"We are quickly being priced out," Wells said.
Wilson, who is also a Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) coach, said not one in a group of new teachers she's working with lives closer than an hour away. One of those teachers told Wilson she wants to pursue a master's program, but isn't sure she can afford it. The teacher also told Wilson she cuts coupons so she can spend less on groceries.
"They're really struggling," Wilson said.
The average teacher/staff salary in Palo Alto Unified for the 2014-15 school year was $95,811, according to CALmatters. In Mountain View-Los Altos, average pay in the same year was $113,792, according to CALmatters.
According to Transparent California, an online database of California public employee salaries and pensions, searchable by name and job title, the average salary in 2014 of four of the teachers who spoke Tuesday night (Wilson's salary was not listed) is $103,033, not including benefits. With benefits, it's $128,276.
The most recent Palo Alto teachers' union contract, adopted last June, included a 4 1/2 percent increase to the 2013-14 certificated salary schedule, retroactive to July 1, 2014, and a 1/2 percent one-time "off schedule" increase. The salary increase is negotiated every year, so new contract negotiations currently underway will determine pay levels for this school year. Associate Superintendent for Human Resources Scott Bowers told the Weekly a salary increase is "likely" this year.
The lowest "step" in the district's 2014-15 teacher salary schedule is $57,563 and the highest offered is $116,234.
"The PAUSD website states, 'the high level of professionalism among teachers in the district is the key to student success,' and our district prides itself on offering 'some of the highest teacher salaries in the Bay Area,'" Potter said. "While our salaries are impressive, they are not as good as they once were, and they are slipping compared to other demographically comparable districts."
"We want to be a part of our school and this community," she added. "It is growing ever harder."
Since the teachers spoke during the open forum, a time for the public to speak to non-agendized topics, the school board could not respond to their comments.