An in depth look at teacher salaries and the cost of living in the Bay Area

While tuition and other aspects of the financial budget are relatively well known by the Menlo community, teacher salaries remain elusive. Spread co-editor Kaitlyn Tom and Investigative Lead Zoey Lieberman investigate how Menlo manages teacher salaries, and the reality of living in the Bay Area as a teacher. Staff Photo: Kaitlyn Tom

By Kaitlyn Tom and Zoey Lieberman

In 2010, English teacher Margaret Ramsey nearly quit teaching. Ramsey’s qualms regarding her profession were not derived from Menlo as an institution or frustrations with the job itself, but rather from the reality that she, as a teacher, faced living in San Francisco. On top of that, Ramsey had another job opportunity that had more earning potential. “I really truly almost left teaching [at Menlo] because for me, it was like San Francisco is where I really want to stay, and I’d rather pick where I’m living over what I’m doing,” Ramsey said. With the financial support of her parents, Ramsey was able to supplement her teaching career: they helped her pay for a car, in addition to providing her with other necessities that allowed her to remain living in San Francisco. “The ability to get my foot in the door [as a teacher in the Bay Area] was financially subsidized,” Ramsey said. “I wouldn’t be a teacher here, probably not in the Bay Area, without the [initial] financial support of my family.”

Ultimately, Ramsey was not forced to sacrifice the profession that she loved over the city that she loved. However, doing what you love and living where you love is a privilege that many people, specifically in the Bay Area, are unable to afford. According to CNN, one-third of Bay Area residents are likely to leave the area in the next few years due to rising rental and home prices. CNN reports that home prices have increased by 11.5 percent, while rentals in San Francisco are the most expensive in the country, averaging $4,690 for a two-bedroom apartment.

While the rising cost of housing and rental prices is a large component of the general cost of living, other factors contribute to expenses associated with living in the Bay Area. Raising a child is expensive in any city with the high price of education and additional necessities; however, the cost of having a child can be especially backbreaking in the Bay Area. Former Biology and Chemistry teacher Bianca Nakayama lived in the Bay Area from 2004-2015 as a graduate student and eventually as a teacher for eight years at Menlo.

However, the reality of raising a child in the Bay Area in conjunction with consistently rising housing prices and additional expenses forced Nakayama and her family to move to Portland, Oregon. “Candidly, I think it's nearly impossible for any teacher to afford to live in the Bay Area on a single salary, or with a working-class spouse,” Nakayama said. “It makes me sad because I adore the Bay Area, and I miss Menlo School tremendously, but the economic changes in the Bay have left little to no room for a working class.”

As a result of the higher costs of living in the Bay Area, Menlo has made an effort to help teachers find affordable living spaces. “We purchased an apartment building a couple of years ago so that people who are relocating to this area have a place to land for a couple of years and get their feet under them while they figure out a new area and a new school,” Head of School Than Healy said. “Prior to my arrival, Menlo created a down payment assistance program that helps faculty to purchase their first home.”

In addition, Menlo ensures that the salaries match the living costs. 72 percent of the Menlo budget is allocated to teacher salaries and benefits. “We have a goal of paying teachers more on average than any other school in the Bay Area, and we are accomplishing that goal. That’s been a goal for a long time, and we budget to maintain that position,” Chief Financial Officer Bill Silver said. “Salaries increase every single year. [...] The average salary for a teacher here this year is about $103,000.”

As the teacher salaries are raised each year, the tuition has to raise each year. “One of the reasons why your tuition goes up every year is because those salary and benefit costs go up every year, and the tuition goes up by roughly the same amount. We can’t raise salaries and benefits without raising tuition because tuition is most of our revenue,” Silver said. “Teachers should be paid as much as computer engineers, but if we tried to pay them that much, our tuition would be $15,000 higher than it is now. We just can’t do it.”

To unlock teacher salary and tuition, Menlo is working on increasing their endowment. “With a large endowment, the school would be less dependent on tuition, and we could give higher salary increases than tuition increases, but that’s a long way off. We have to raise that money,” Silver said. “Hopefully over time the school’s fundraising can focus on endowment and that will help take the pressure off tuition.”

While Menlo has many obstacles to overcome in terms of balancing teacher salaries and student tuition, their efforts to supply faculty with benefits serves as an incentive for teachers to come to Menlo and helps to retain teachers at Menlo. “I would say that this is the first school that I’ve ever interviewed with or taught at where I felt like the school and the community genuinely understood that for teachers to be able to do their jobs well, and serve the communities in which they teach, we have to be able to afford to live in the communities in which we teach,” English teacher Maren Adler said.

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