California consistently and drastically underfunds public education. There is really no excuse for it considering we are the 5th largest economy in the world and one of the most highly taxed states (the rare trifecta of having income, property and sales tax). Until just a couple of years ago, California ranked in the lowest of 20% of state funding on a per pupil basis. Recent funding increases helped with that some, but those increases have been negated by higher costs (especially in mandated contributions to shore up underfunded employee retirement programs) and the higher cost of living- a $70k salary goes a lot further in Arkansas than it does in the Bay Area.
Mt. Diablo has additional challenges based on being squarely in the middle- just below the threshold of low-income students to receive additional funding as part of the state’s Local Control Funding Formula and lacking a parcel tax that nearby districts (San Ramon, Acalanes, etc.) have in place. If you’d like a deeper dive and pretty graphs on CA education funding, I recommend this article.
You may have heard that MDUSD had a $90 million reserve but now the District is in financial trouble- let’s explore that. When I joined the Board in 2012, MDUSD teachers were second to last in the county in compensation. Even worse, teachers did not have medical benefits- their own union (MDEA) had negotiated that away in a previous contract. The result was that it was incredibly difficult for MDUSD to attract or retain teachers…. and nothing is more important to a great education than having great teachers.
Our Board prioritized raising compensation for all employees and restoring medical benefits for teachers. These were the same employees who had been hit with furloughs, layoffs, pay cuts and reduced hours during the budget crisis of 2008-2009. While the bargaining teams negotiated on the contracts, the budget reserve built up. The resulting multi-year agreements in 2014 were both retroactive and added new costs each year.
As a Board, we knew that the reserve would go down as we invested in our own employees. We had approximately 1,500 teachers at the time- increasing their compensation by an average of $10,000 (combination of salary and benefits) meant $15 million dollars annually. We catapulted teacher compensation from being second to last in the county to being in the top 5. Agreements with the other employee groups (bus drivers, custodians, office managers, etc.) resulted in equivalent yearly costs. That $30 million represents about 10% of MDUSD’s budget (using round numbers for simplicity).
In addition to employee benefits, the Board made investments in other areas to support students. These included reduced class sizes, the return of instrumental music, school counselors, support for high school and middle athletics, support for English Language Learners, reopening of Holbrook Elementary, creation of College Now and many more. A District receives funds to educate students, not to build a huge reserve while needs go unmet. I stand behind these decisions because I know they positively impacted the students of MDUSD.
In the Spring of 2019, then-Superintendent Nellie Meyer recommended $8.5 million in cuts for the Board to approve. These cuts were in response to a decline in enrollment (happy to discuss that in a future post)- when you have fewer students, you should have fewer staff. The Board approved the cuts that Dr. Meyer wisely recommended shortly before her departure from MDUSD.
While the Board votes on the budget, it relies upon the Superintendent and staff to implement it. In late 2019/early 2020, the Board and the public learned that the cuts that had been approved were not put in place. I wish I had a clear answer as to what happened, but I do not. The people who were responsible for this process are now no longer part of MDUSD. I take my share of responsibility for this and took action to help remedy the situation.
Because the $8.5 million in cuts did not occur, the Board essentially needed to double the size of the cuts for the following year. In our last in-person meeting before Covid hit, the Board stayed until almost 3 AM to make the needed $15 million in cuts. The public had the opportunity to weigh in on the reductions and that influenced where the cuts were made. It was a painful process, but it was necessary and it was completed.
In early March of 2020, MDUSD had a balanced budget and was in a position to ratify a new agreement with the teachers in addition to other employee groups. There were going to potentially be more cuts needed in future years, but the work had already begun to identify those.
Then came the pandemic. Covid and the resulting massive projected cuts to the state education budget were not something anyone had foreseen. But it was really the culmination of decades of neglect for the funding of education in California.
If you want MDUSD to pay teachers more, have smaller class sizes, provide more enrichment programs like instrumental music and a multitude of other things, the District requires additional funds. There is no bucket of untapped money or some magical solution- it is a simple question of math.