Leaving for greener pastures: Why South San Francisco High School teachers move to neighboring districts
Were it not for a heads-up from a former colleague, Erik Migdail would have dismissed his first paycheck from Carlmont High School, where he began teaching in 2014, as a mistake.
His take home pay at Carlmont was 130% higher than what he earned at South San Francisco High School (SSFHS), where he had started his teaching career 16 years earlier. Ashley Gray, Migdail’s new colleague who had switched districts himself three years prior, confronted human resources when he started thinking there had been an error on his paycheck. Gray was, however, assured by staff that his take-home pay was correct.
Area teachers have dubbed South San Francisco High the “training ground of the Peninsula.” Many teachers working at SSFHS move to neighboring districts, such as Sequoia and San Mateo Union High School Districts, just 20 minutes away.
For high school teachers, South San Francisco Unified School District (SSFUSD) pays some of the lowest wages in San Mateo County. In the past decade, about 15% of teachers have left SSFUSD each year—mostly high school teachers. Based on exit survey data cited by the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources in an interview, most teachers said they left because of the Bay Area’s high costs of living and a move on to higher-paying jobs.
An equity gap
This significant number of teachers leaving points to a greater issue of systemic deficiencies in the state’s education funding. These shortcomings have contributed to a lack of equity in the opportunities available to both teachers and students.
South San Francisco, the “birthplace of biotechnology,” has transformed from a traditionally working-class community to a more expensive, gentrified area. According to the most recent census estimates, the median household income is now $112,818, about 1.3 times more than in other parts of California. Despite the city’s booming biotech industry and the high school’s state-of-the-art science labs, SSFUSD struggles to compete against neighboring districts in Hillsborough and Atherton, which offer significantly higher salaries and are located in some of California’s wealthiest ZIP codes.
The district also must contend with the Bay Area’s housing affordability crisis in retaining quality teachers. Though plans for staff housing have been approved, teachers who hope to buy property one day face sizable financial barriers.
Currently, SSFUSD’s starting salary for first-year teachers is just shy of $60,000. By comparison, new teachers at neighboring districts earn 27% more.
Even if an experienced teacher from South San Francisco High changes schools and cannot transfer all of their years of service, switching to a district with higher pay could still result in a pay bump. In other words, a teacher who has worked for nine years at South San Francisco High would still earn less than a first-year teacher at Carlmont High School in Belmont.
By the time Migdail left, the cost of benefits ate up nearly all of his take-home pay. Under his family plan, he was paying about $2,100 per month to cover benefits, while receiving a $2,300 paycheck.
“I did not think that you could find a job that paid less than nonprofit publishing,” Migdail’s wife joked in reference to his previous 10-year career. During his last year at South San Francisco High, he was making about $58,000. Three years later, his salary was nearly $95,000, a 65% raise at Carlmont High School.
During one of the first assemblies at Carlmont, Migdail recognized a third of his colleagues as having once worked at South San Francisco High.
As part of the new school year, a three-day teacher training was held to familiarize new staff with the school’s culture. Migdail sat next to a former South San Francisco High teacher. On the final day of the training, when personnel matters were discussed, the two began to cry. Hearing about the stark differences between their previous workplace and their new one shocked them.
“There’s no question that it’s a mark of inequity throughout the system,” Migdail said.
California’s school funding formula creates disparities
Pay disparities between districts have been a long-standing issue in California. Some efforts have been made in the past to address the inequity.
In 2013, the state legislature passed the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which aimed to provide more funding to school districts with more students experiencing poverty, English language learners and foster youth. This gave school districts more flexibility in how to use the funding, including increasing teacher salaries.
Yet despite the apparent financial stability of South San Francisco Unified by LCFF standards—that is, receiving enough funding from the local community to meet or exceed the minimum funding level set by the state––the district still struggles to keep up with the Bay Area’s high costs of living and with well-funded schools in nearby wealthier areas.
Significantly higher property taxes of districts in nearby Atherton and San Mateo–– were approximately 87% more than last year, according to audit reports. This illustrates why their teacher salaries exceed those in SSFUSD. Property taxes are a key factor in determining how much funding a school district receives, as they make up a significant portion of revenue. SSFUSD is also a unified school district, which means it serves more K-12 students. As a result, the funding formulas for SSFUSD and high school districts in San Mateo County differ.
“There’s no way we could compete with the union high school districts because they naturally get more revenue than K-12 or elementary school districts,” said Ted O, assistant superintendent of business services at SSFUSD.
South San Francisco’s growing biotech industry has led to increased property revenue every year, said John Baker, former SSFUSD board trustee president. So, the district has been able to moderately increase salaries as well as rates for other teacher gigs, like after-school tutoring. While this has helped to narrow the salary disparity with other districts in recent years, teachers are still left underpaid.
Impact on students
Students also feel the weight of teacher turnover. The constant churn of staff not only negatively impacts achievement for students in a new teacher’s classroom, but for all students at the school, according to research. Rates of teacher turnover are also highest in schools serving low-income communities and students of color.
At Sequoia Union High School District in Redwood City, more than half of the students met or exceeded the standard of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress test (CAASPP) in 2021. Sequoia Union High district students performed 23 percentage points better on the math test and 6 percentage points better on the English test than SSFUSD students.
Marcie Mitchell, South San Francisco High’s librarian, has noticed turnover impacts future generations of teachers and the school’s external relationships with teaching programs. Many student-teachers from Stanford University used to come teach at South San Francisco High, she said. Lately, this hasn’t been the case. In addition, students themselves say they don’t find a teaching career attractive.
“When I asked my AP classes, who here wants to be a teacher, nobody ever raises their hand,” said Rhonda Clements, a history teacher at South San Francisco High.
Despite efforts by districts like SSFUSD to address high teacher turnover with modest salary increases, the root cause of the problem could be linked to California's funding formulas for education.
While the LCFF is designed to address inequities and provide more resources to schools with higher needs, the state still has lower funding levels overall than many other states.
In 2021, California ranked 17th out of 41 states with data available in funding levels, spending $15,017 per student in state and local funding, according to the census. This is just $329 more than the national average of $14,668 and about 38% less than the per-pupil funding in Washington, D.C., which tops the list.
California’s high costs of living means that the state can afford fewer teachers, staff and resources, making it more difficult to provide the same level of funding per student as other states.
In addition, many districts in California, like SSFUSD, have seen declining enrollment due to lower birth rates and as more families leave the state and enroll their kids in schools in more affordable areas.
The amount of money that California school districts receive from the state or federal government is determined by a per-pupil formula. Therefore, if the number of students enrolled in a district decreases, the district may receive less funding.
In 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a plan to direct funding to the state’s poorest schools and target racial disparities statewide, acknowledging that school districts’ efforts under the LCFF have not narrowed achievement gaps.
Recent state level changes in funding, as well as emergency funds from the pandemic, have also bolstered budgets and provided more resources for technology and employee retention.
“[It’s] sad that some of these changes took a pandemic to bring about,” said Mitchell.
The teachers who leave
When Daphne Pacia-McCann was 23, she accepted her first teaching position at South San Francisco High School. Having graduated from the district, she accepted the offer immediately and was greeted by the principal with a “welcome home.”
As a woman of color, she loved that her students looked like her, and she admired the school’s strong sense of community.
During the pandemic, however, Pacia-McCann decided to leave South San Francisco High after her husband lost his job and their child’s health insurance. In order to secure insurance for her family through SSFUSD, she would have had to pay nearly $800 each month per family member.
Although her husband swiftly found new employment, the experience was stressful enough to convince Pacia-McCann that she needed to work somewhere that would provide more financial stability for her family. She ultimately accepted a teaching position at Tide Academy in Menlo Park, where the district offers fully-paid medical benefits, family coverage included.
“COVID-19 was the tipping point,” said Pacia-McCann. “It was at that point that I decided to leave a place I loved in order to find employment that would insure my family.”
Her last day at South San Francisco High was via distance learning at the height of the pandemic lockdown. Her students and colleagues left her sweet messages through email and in her digital yearbook. When they later graduated, she attended their in-person ceremony and felt at home again.
“Three years later, I still have not seen the kind of camaraderie amongst students that I saw daily at South San Francisco High School,” she added.
Weighing the cost of benefits versus pay
In two-teacher households, choosing a job with better pay versus better benefits is often a balancing act.
Julianne Franceschi, the Italian teacher at South San Francisco High, makes more money than her husband teaching at a middle school in a nearby district even though he has a master’s degree and more teaching experience. The benefits package at his district in Pacifica, however, covers a full Kaiser family plan, which helps take care of their kids' insurance.
During contract negotiations with the SSFUSD’s labor union, higher pay is generally favored over better benefits as it can help all teachers, not just those without existing insurance coverage for their families.
The latest contract agreement between the union and district resulted in a 5% salary increase beginning in the 2022-23 school year, followed by another 5% salary increase in 2023-24 and a 3% increase in 2024-25.
According to the district, it's too costly for SSFUSD to provide full family coverage for health insurance, leaving teachers with poor pay and inadequate benefits.
In December 2007, SSFUSD adjusted its monthly contribution to cover the cost of employees’ individual Kaiser plans for medical, dental, vision and life insurance–something the union had been pushing for years. This continues today, and the district contributes approximately $11,000 per year for each employee.
But for those starting families, it still isn’t enough.
While benefits are a major factor in many teachers' decisions to stay or leave, others are also grappling with the high costs of living in the Bay Area.
An unaffordable housing market
According to librarian Mitchell, several new out-of-state teacher applicants decline job offers at South San Francisco High due to the area's high living expenses. And, while some teachers choose to commute from as far as 55 miles away in Antioch, said Mitchell, others opt to leave the state entirely.
Joe Reichert became the band director at South San Francisco High in 2015. At the time, he and his wife were paying $1,000 for a single room in San Jose, where they shared an apartment with a friend.
After his wife became pregnant, they realized they wouldn't be able to afford living in the Bay Area, let alone buying a house, which they had dreamed of. At the end of his first year at South San Francisco High, Reichert made the tough decision to leave the school and the band he had helped rebuild for a move to Dallas.
"If we stay [in South San Francisco], we'll never own a home. We'll only rent for the rest of our lives," Reichert's wife told him.
Although his salary dropped significantly at his new teaching job in Dallas, the Reicherts were able to rent a three-bedroom house for only $1,800. Eventually, they were able to buy their own home.
As of August, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in South San Francisco was $2,350, according to real estate website Zumper. The price has increased about 27% since 2016.
Last November, a bond passed that would set aside $75 million to construct local affordable rental housing for teachers and staff in South San Francisco. The units would be built on the site of an elementary school that closed in 1992.
Former SSFUSD board president Baker said that in other districts where housing for staff has been built, including Jefferson Union High School District in Daly City, it has helped with recruitment and retention.
While most see staff housing as a step in the right direction, some have expressed concerns about the stability and potential conflicts of interest that could arise from having an employer also act as a landlord.
For instance, if a new teacher were to lose their job before receiving tenure, they would lose their home as well, having 90 days from their final contractual day with the district to move out.
Those already living in Jefferson Union High School District’s staff housing can only live there for five years, meaning they eventually find a home of their own.
Teachers at higher paying districts aren’t immune to the Bay Area’s expensive housing either. Several teachers who work for Sequoia Union High School District in Atherton commute two hours or more to work each day, said Edith Salvatore, Spanish teacher and Sequoia Union High District union president.
“The higher pay scale does not protect us against that problem,” said Salvatore.
Tough choices for the teachers who stay
Clements has been teaching history at South San Francisco High for 17 years. She’s taught AP U.S. History and health. She has also helped sustain the school’s History Day program, is the Earth Club’s advisor and helped build outdoor learning spaces during the pandemic.
She’s also taken on various part-time gigs to help pay the bills and support her family. Clements has taught six classes a day, waitressed on the weekends, run an after-school homework program, supervised Saturday school, and served as history department chair. She also had a tutoring business on the side when she first started teaching at South San Francisco High in 2006.
Before teaching, Clements ran an advertising agency and worked in educational marketing. Her 10 years of experience, however, equated to nothing when she became a teacher.
Having worked at the school for many years, she hasn’t considered leaving the district as she doesn’t want to start over and lose her tenure. In addition, she’s mindful that when teachers leave, their programs do as well.
“I’m so scared that when I leave, History Day will go away, that Earth Club will go away. There won’t be the same sort of support for those programs,” said Clements.
Still, she realizes the sacrifices and difficult choices she’s had to make to stay teaching at the school.
“I'm really happy I didn't have another child,” said Clements. “Otherwise, I would have lived a life of extraordinary poverty, and I probably would have had to quit teaching.”