By Evelyn Archibald
Note: Summit Public Schools is closed for Summer holiday the week of Jun. 29 to Jul. 6. This article was edited to include emailed statements from CEO Diane Tavenner that were received post-publication.
On Thursday, June 25, Summit Public Schools (SPS) announced during a public Zoom board meeting (minutes to be posted) that salaries would be frozen in response to COVID-19 budget concerns.
SPS, a public charter organization, is headquartered in Redwood City, California, and has 10 school campuses across Washington and California. The organization employs around 550 people over these different locations, led by CEO Diane Tavenner.
Standard full-time teachers that teach core subjects, ‘Expeditions’ teachers that teach electives at quarterly two-week sections a year, headquarters employees, and higher leadership positions would all be receiving the same pause. Previously, SPS sent out offer letters to staff for the next school year, including a 2.98% raise over all of Summit, a 4% step raise that depends on teacher performance and time spent with SPS, and an SPS experience stipend. With this freeze, none of these would be implemented.
Ms. Tavenner explained in the email sent out to staff on Monday, June 22 that the freeze is in response to California and Washington education funding issues. There have been no final school budgets passed yet, however Ms. Tavenner cited California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal of a 10 percent cut to education as the reasoning for the freeze.
Governor Newsom has since announced after that proposal that he does not plan for there to be cuts to K-12 education in California. Ms. Tavenner stated in an email to SPS parents and students that though she is aware of this, the new plans assume funding that has yet to be discussed by the federal government. “Given the remaining uncertainty, we still believe the approach described below is the best path forward at this time.”
This proposed salary freeze was imposed without collaboration with Unite Summit, the SPS teachers’ union.
Teacher reactions during board meeting
In conjunction with past instances of strife between teachers and SPS higher ups, many teachers expressed sentiments of frustration with how the organization is handling the budget.
Merica McNeil, Summit Tahoma English teacher, mentioned that the pay freeze comes during a challenging time financially for teachers, and that it would not accommodate for the cost of daily life.
“Our rents are not freezing, our student loans are not freezing, our work load is not freezing,” Ms. McNeil said in the board meeting.
One Expeditions teacher, Sherri Taylor, defended SPS’ choice, saying that “Asking us to take a pay freeze is more than reasonable.” Ms. Taylor was one of the only teachers present at the meeting to support the salary proposals.
SPS financial resources
SPS itself has admitted to being a “financially healthy” organization. It holds almost $50 million in financial reserves, a portion of which comes from several philanthropic organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, XQ Institute, the Bezos Family Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and others.
Ms. Tavenner herself makes just over $450,000 a year, more than any other K-12 public educator in California. SPS also employs an entrepreneur-in-residence, Kimberly Carston Smith, as of April. Ms. Smith makes $400,000 a year, making her and Ms. Tavenner the highest paid positions in the organization, with a gap of almost $150,000 between Ms. Smith and the next highest paid position.
In addition, SPS recently received almost $7 million in federal aid under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a program intended to provide relief for small businesses and non-profit organizations. SPS accepted the PPP loan in mid-May.
The combination of financial resources, outdated budget basis, and legal issues makes the union hesitant to agree to teacher salary changes.
“It seems the most logical thing to do is carry on as usual and we can renegotiate in the fall if it is financially necessary,” Unite Summit’s vice president and history teacher at Summit Denali High School Sarah Rivas stated in an email.
A “false choice”: pay freezes or layoffs
On Friday, June 26, SPS and Unite Summit met to negotiate compensation. Ms. Tavenner had suggested that approximately $970,000 need be cut from the budget, and asked the union to provide its alternatives to an overall pay freeze. Unite Summit proposed these three alternatives, all including the terms that SPS and Unite Summit meet as early as Sept. 19 to negotiate budgets according to updated funding information at the time.
Other terms included salary caps of no higher than two times the median teacher salary($65,000), the reduction of CEO compensation to $300,000, the donation of Ms. Tavenner and other employees’ salaries, and the dissolving of the entrepreneur-in-residence position.
These board did not agree to these proposals, and Ms. Tavenner announced that the only other option to pay freezes would be to lay off 10-14 Expeditions teachers. Unite Summit sees this decision as a “false choice.”
“We are being told Summit has to lay off teachers to meet a budget that does not make sense because there have been no cuts to education funding. This is a way for the union to be forced to back off on our proposals to pause the pay freeze in order to insure our coworkers have a job, and that’s a false choice we are being forced to make,” Ms. Rivas stated.
These layoffs would mean the Expeditions team would be cut almost in half, and course offerings would be far more limited. These classes include visual and performing arts courses, of which at least one is required to graduate and are already offered sparsely at some sites like Summit Shasta, which offered only four arts classes in the 2019-2020 school year.
Joey Hughes, the South Loop Expeditions representative in Unite Summit, said in an email that he was “shocked” at the decision. He stated that the reasoning given for the layoffs being centered around Expeditions was that these teachers do not have mentor groups, groups of students assigned to different core subject on-site teachers at all SPS schools, or classes they see consistently throughout the year.
“I believe this means that the argument is students’ lives and educational experience would not be impacted as greatly as if core teachers and mentors were let go at each school site,” Mr. Hughes explained. “I feel that this is a message from Summit that Expeditions is not valued as equally to other sites, programs, and other job positions in the organization.”
Ms. Rivas stated on the proposed layoffs,“Students are being put in the middle of this fight for equality by having a vital program be diminished.”
When the initial notification of frozen pay was sent out, Unite Summit expressed immediate concern with the proposal. In a newsletter addressed to its members, Unite Summit explained that these decisions being made without negotiation is illegal, and that, “absent bargaining, Summit is required to maintain pay raises consistent with its past practice and must therefore honor the compensation outlined in the offer letters sent out earlier this year”.
Unite Summit asserted that the expected raises offered to teachers for the next school year followed the “dynamic status quo,” the concept of consistent change in pay. However, the abrupt freeze goes against the status quo, according to the union.
Aside from legality, Ms. Rivas pointed out that SPS’ proposed budget is based on an outdated estimation of cuts to education, and that as of now, there are no scheduled budget cuts to education in California.
Though some of the California state budget relies on deferrals of money to schools, many of these deferrals would be unnecessary if the federal government allocates more money to states in a COVID-19 relief package. Ms. Rivas wrote, “Even if the federal money doesn’t come through, schools will still not receive budget cuts.”
In a recent newsletter regarding the June 25 board meeting, Unite Summit stated that some view this freeze as “structurally classist and racist”. Teachers and hourly workers at SPS are both the lowest paid positions in the organization and also hold a higher proportion of people of color than in Summit’s headquarters and corporate positions.
Unite Summit has posted a public petition urging SPS to stop any plans to implement pay freezes or layoffs, and to instead continue working with the union’s bargaining team to form a contract.
Impact on SPS teachers
Bradley Davey, chemistry teacher at Summit Shasta, expressed his perspective on the situation in an email to his mentor group of rising sophomores.
“What I can undoubtedly say is this: I will not be able to remain at Summit Public Schools if these cuts go into effect,” Mr. Davey stated.
The city of San Francisco — where several teachers, especially those employed at Summit Shasta in Daly City, live — defines the “Low Income Limit” as $82,000 for an individual, $17,000 more than the median teacher salary at SPS. For a family of four, this jumps to $117,000. Santa Clara County — which includes site locations of Summit Tahoma and Summit Denali — defines low income for a household of four to be approximately $103,000. “Teachers are paid less not just in the context of our organization but in our communities,” Unite Summit treasurer and Summit Tahoma science teacher Morris Shieh said in the June board meeting.
“My voice and the voice of other teachers is falling on deaf ears,” Mr. Davey expressed to his mentor group, requesting the support of his students. “I believe that your voice also has power, and that teachers need your support right now.” He then clarified, “I’m not asking for increased pay, decreased cuts, or anything in between. All I’m asking for is the opportunity to be listened to and heard.”
“It’s scary to me that we seem to fall off the scale of equity,” Expeditions teacher Phoenix Lawson said at the June 25 board meeting. “Why is it that you are not fighting for us? … When is it going to be that you are going to fight for us, instead of us fighting for ourselves?”
Featured Image (at the top of this post): Summit Public Schools, headquartered in Redwood City, CA, recently announced their budget proposal for either salary freezes or teacher layoffs. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Garvin)