Teachers share how they make it in Sonoma County with below-average pay, high housing costs

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Nightsnow Vogt had a little slice of the American dream last year. He lived with his wife and baby son in a three- bedroom home just three blocks from Santa Rosa High School, where he teaches history and government. His family raised chickens and had a garden.

But their monthly rent was $2,300 — nearly two-thirds of Vogt’s monthly take-home pay of $3,759. When his landlord proposed raising the rent, they moved out in January and downgraded to a two-bedroom, 800-square-foot apartment for $1,800.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We were already scraping by,” Vogt said. “To me, the move was a very visceral way of understanding inflation and what happens when you’re not getting compensated adequately.”

Santa Rosa and several other school districts around Sonoma County are in the process of negotiating new contracts with their teachers. The process has become more tense and aggressive this year. Emboldened by strikes in other cities in California and across the country, local teachers are demanding pay raises that would push up their salaries closer to the state average.

The average teacher salary in Sonoma County is $68,998, according to a 2017-18 California Department of Education report based on data from 32 of the county’s 40 districts. The figure is 14 percent below the state average teacher salary of $80,680, according to the same report.

Housing, however, costs more in Sonoma County than many other parts of California. The median-priced home in Sonoma County cost $650,000 in January, 20 percent more than the statewide median of $538,690, according to the California Association of Realtors.

Union leaders say teacher retention is a major issue. About 40 percent of the Santa Rosa teachers union have been there less than five years, according to Will Lyon, union president.

District leaders say there isn’t enough money to pay teachers more since the state doesn’t adequately fund districts.

“I think we have the added pressure here of cost of living. It’s just expensive to live here,” Santa Rosa Superintendent Diann Kitamura said at a Press Democrat editorial board meeting last month.

The district is also under pressure from declining enrollment and increased pension costs. It has cut $12 million over the last three years to correct a deficit in its budget, district officials noted this week.

Teachers in the area struggle to make ends meet between the high housing costs, student loan payments and for some, exorbitant child care costs. Some leave, and those who remain say they consider leaving.

And the strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia, Denver, Los Angeles and most recently, in nearby Oakland, have stirred interest for some. The Santa Rosa teachers union plans to meet later this month to discuss preparations for a possible strike, according to the union’s newsletter.

“I think the general attitude is that teachers don’t want to strike, but we’re also getting our back pushed against the wall,” Vogt said.

His grandfather and parents were teachers, and he felt that the teaching profession was in his blood.

“No one really wants to go into this for the pay. On the other hand you don’t want to go into a profession to struggle and be near poverty,” said Vogt, who is also a site representative for the Santa Rosa teachers union.

Others in his district worry about health insurance. Holly Cumbie teaches first grade at Brook Hill Elementary in Santa Rosa. For the last five years, she’s lived with her husband and young daughter in a two-bedroom, 800-square-foot apartment for $1,387 — below market rate.

“We have no space, we have no storage. I hate it but I feel like I don’t have any options,” she said.

She spends $900 each month on preschool, and she has $90,000 in student loan debt after obtaining a master’s degree. Her monthly take-home pay is $3,600.

The district contributes $530 each month toward her health care benefits, but it’s not enough to cover her family. Her daughter has health insurance through the Covered California marketplace, and her husband, who works in construction, remains uninsured.

Her husband’s back pain has recently gotten worse and she has a baby on the way. The stress of health coverage weighs heavily on her.

“I’ve been a wreck these last two weeks. I literally broke down and started crying in the middle of lunch the other day because it’s so bad,” she said.

Vogt and Cumbie both say they’ve had discussions with their families about leaving the area as they become “economic refugees” as Vogt put it.

“I love my school so much. I love my colleagues. To leave would be extremely difficult,” Cumbie said. “We deserve more respect. We shouldn’t have to be struggling. We should be able to buy a home.”

The Santa Rosa district will continue negotiations on class size and compensation on March 27.

Below-average wages led Dayla Greenfield to attend a #RedforEd rally last month by west county teachers, who adopted the social media hashtag used by teacher unions across the country. Greenfield teaches at SunRidge Charter School, a public Waldorf school in the Twin Hills district in Sebastopol. She’s a single parent to two teenagers, and they live in a studio cottage she rents from her parents for $1,550 a month — a steal, she says. Her monthly take-home pay is $3,336, and her household income qualifies her kids to be on public assistance for their health care.

“I simply don’t make what it costs to live here. I have to think every day if I can pinch the pennies,” Greenfield said. “I don’t anticipate being able to stay here.”

Her kids, ages 16 and 17, work about 12 hours a week packaging products for a local soap company. In recent months she’s borrowed from her children to meet monthly household bills.

“They’re good kids and kind people and they recognize it’s not due to waste and fiscal responsibility, it’s due to the situation,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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