Teachers and students in the Campbell Union High School District protest outside of the district office because of lower pay checks on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021 in San Jose, Calif. (Jana Kadah/Bay City News)

“Ask me about my pay cut” pins and a wave of red took over the Campbell Union High School District board meeting Thursday evening.

After an hour of protesting outside the district office, more than 50 teachers gathered in the meeting room to make their voices heard.

The public comments, almost all from of teachers, were an impassioned plea to, at the very least, pay teachers what they were making last year, and at best, give them an additional raise to offset cost-of-living expenses.

Right now, the Campbell district’s 413 teachers are making $5,000 less than they were last year. Teachers are calling it a pay cut.

But the district maintains that it did not cut teacher’s pay because the $5,000 that’s “missing” from paychecks now was an off-schedule one-time pay for the last year.

“Think of it like a bonus,” said April Dizon, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services.

Semantics aside, the amount teachers are getting now is less than it was last year and not in line with what their three-year contract stipulated.

This is because the teacher’s union and the district have not been able to reach an agreement regarding teacher salaries for the final year of the contract. And so, until an agreement is reached, the base pay for teachers will remain what it was in 2019, but without the “bonus pay.”

Nick Cortez, a bargaining chair for the teacher’s union, the Campbell High School Teachers Association, said he was frustrated that the district would call the decrease in pay anything other than a pay cut.

“I mean, if you’re getting paid one amount one year, and your pay goes down by $5,000, what else do you call that besides a pay cut?” Cortez said. “I don’t know that you can call it anything else.”

Teachers who picketed outside and spoke during public comment echoed the same sentiment.

“These last two months, I had to make choices about hearing aids, physical devices, or, you know, or a couple of bills that are more discretionary,” Tiffany Ylarregui, a teacher at Branham High School said. “I live in a home I cannot afford and it’s not nice, it’s a basic condo.”

Ylarregui called in during public comment. While attendees couldn’t see her face, the cracks in her voice as she tried to explain her living situation made her pain evident.

Teachers like Ylarregui have seen a $500 decrease in each of their two paychecks they received since the school year started. Many said it has had a direct impact on their day-to-day lives.

“All of this is embarrassing to have to explain to you and to feel like I have to beg for my job after being in the profession that I love,” Ylarregui continued. “I’m humiliated…I’m hurt by the words and the actions I see at the board.”

In fact, surveys by the teachers’ union found that 72 percent of teachers were considering leaving the district because of their frustrations with the board and lower pay than neighboring districts.

The starting salary for teachers is $59,537 – significantly lower than neighboring districts of similar size. The starting salary in the Los Gatos-Saratoga school district is $65,521; in Palo Alto Unified it’s $71,484; at Santa Clara Unified it’s $81,04 and in Mountain View-Los Altos, it’s $88,066.

However, The Campbell district still sits above the statewide average for high school teachers and other school districts in less expensive parts of the county like Gilroy.

“I turned down a job that paid $20,000 more a year at my current step in my current years and be making $29,000 more at another district,” James Lucas, a science teacher at Del Mar said. “And the reason I chose to come here is because the students and staff. Those students and staff are getting ready leave…If they leave, I’m gone too. Why would I be here for less money?”

In 2019, the district and union entered a three-year contract that specifically outlined what the first two years’ salary would look like but left the 2021-2022 school year, which started in August, up in the air.

In the 2019-2020 academic school year, teachers would get $4,000 in one-time pay, in 2020-2021, a $5,000 in one-time pay and the third year, teachers’ salary was dependent on whether a parcel tax passed or not.

If a parcel tax passed, teachers were to get a $4,4000 to $8,000 increase to their salary. If it didn’t, they would get a salary increase of at least $4,000.

Since the parcel tax, which was brought before voters two times in 2020, failed to get a super-majority vote, the two parties had to come back to the negotiation table to agree on what that final year’s salary would look like.

Since May, the two parties have gone back and forth and by September, the union felt as though negotiations were going nowhere, so they entered impasse. This means a third-party would act as a mediator so that a deal would be reached.

Teachers asked the district to maintain the $5,000 provided last year as a permanent salary increase in addition to a 4 percent salary increase to offset the cost-of-living expenses.

The district agreed to increase salaries by $5,000 but instead of a 4 percent salary increase, they offered to provide a one-time bonus of $2,500.

With the union’s proposal, teachers’ base salary increase by an additional $8,700 and would be the base for the next few years.

With the district’s proposal, teachers would be an additional $7,500 but the base salary next year would only be $5,000 more instead of $8,700 more because the $2,500 is a one-time payment.

In the 2021-2022 school year, that means the district would pay a little less than $800,000 if it implemented the union’s ask instead of the districts.

“Remember, we’re just negotiating for this year,” Dizon said. “Then we open again and negotiate for the next fiscal year, but we won’t have anything else, any money left to give and raises.”

But teachers called foul and said the district often makes decisions based on worst-case scenario.

“The true story is told in the unaudited actuals of the district,” CHSTA President Kim McCarthy said.

Right now, the board is sitting on a $48 million reserve. About $15 million of those reserves are restricted, which leaves about $33 million that could theoretically be used to pay for employee salaries.

“When we see the financial report that shows the growing reserves every year and teachers see that, then they get really angry, because they see that the district is basically sitting on money,” McCarthy continued.

McCarthy’s claims that the reserve has increased is true. In the 18/19 school year, the district had an excess of $18.3 million, the next year an additional $15.9 million and in the last school year a surplus of $23.8 million bringing the total to $48.6 million.

But District Superintendent Robert Bravo said that reserves fluctuate every year like a sawtooth and last year the reserves jumped significantly because of COVID money coming from the state.

Projections Dizon shared with Bay City News showed that by the 2024-2025 school year, the district would run through its reserves fairly quickly and wouldn’t be able to maintain the state-required reserve amount if the union’s proposal was implemented.

However, it’s worth noting that the projections shared do not include any revenue by parcel taxes that may be passed in the next few years.

Dizon said they couldn’t include that in the projections because that money isn’t certain, especially since recent parcel taxes introduced failed.

But the union and its teachers are not convinced.

“(The district) threatened mental health services and (technical trainings for teachers) all in the name of a financial crisis,” said Rebecca Gilmore, an English teacher at Prospect High School. “The reserves still grew, just as they did the year before and the year before that. The district has not had to dip into its reserves in years.”

Another teacher at Prospect, Stephen Smith, who formerly served as the Vice President of the union asked the board, “Why is it that over the last few three years between three mediations and arbitrations combined, every time we’ve had an outside person come in here to talk about the differences that we had, when all has been said and done, they basically said, yeah, what (teachers) are asking for is reasonable do that.”

Other teachers were also frustrated with the district cutting training services for teachers, subscriptions to School Loop and other services while increasing the work required by teachers.

“I now have to attend a whole bunch of meetings that add about four days to our school year, but don’t get paid for because they meetings are considered voluntary, even though we all are required to attend,” Branham High School math teacher Donnetta Torrecillas.

This week, the teachers and the union will begin impasse. It is unclear when a deal will be met but many speculate it could take months before teachers see their pay increase.

Bravo said the raise is certainly coming to teachers and they will get retroactive pay.

Meanwhile, many teachers are worried about how they will make finances work until then.