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