Gilroy charter school raises the bar, teacher pay

Kindergartner Sarah Reyes, 5, works on a language arts computer program as she rotates through four stations during class in February at the Gilroy Prep School.
Compensation is a matter of apple and oranges when you’re looking at the Gilroy Unified School District and its brand-new charter school, which is giving its six teachers up to 10 percent raises in a year when GUSD implemented 4 percent salary cuts for all its certificated staff.

The recently announced pay bumps at Gilroy Prep School – not to mention soaring staff morale according to some GPS teachers – make the fledgling charter something of a rare commodity in the midst of California’s education funding crisis.

By the next two years, GPS Principal James Dent intends to pay his teachers salaries 20 percent higher than GUSD teachers and other surrounding districts in Morgan Hill and Hollister. That’s on top of merit bonuses if the school meets its California Academic Performing Index goal.

“This allows us to attract the best and brightest, and to also retain the best and brightest,” said Dent on Friday, pausing from his daily juggling act that bounces between principal, teacher, office administrator, nurse, lunch server and custodian. “We’re always going to be at the top because we can be really choosy and picky about who stays and who goes.”

Before the 4 percent pay cut this year, a GUSD teacher made an average of $65,643 without medical benefits factored in. The 4 percent pay cut is actually closer to a 10 percent hit, however, due to spiking healthcare costs (Blue Cross went up 14 percent in 2011-12; Kaiser went up 9 percent).

Compared to GUSD, teacher salaries at GPS are approximately 7 to 10 percent higher than the average GUSD teacher (of the corresponding skill set and experience level). Teachers’ salaries at GPS range from $46,000 to $96,000, with benefits comparable to those at GUSD.

“To be frank, our morale was really high before we knew that we were getting raises,” said Heather Parsons, a second-grade math teacher. “It’s like icing on the cake.”

For GPS employees such as language arts teacher Crystal Toriumi, seeing her job stability and compensation rely on merit and performance – not just seniority – “feels great.”

“Peoples’ experience does speak for something, but I also think there’s value in other criteria. I think there should be a balance of the two,” said Toriumi, who weathered the emotionally taxing layoff process while teaching at GUSD’s El Roble and Las Animas elementary schools before getting hired at GPS.

While GPS is under the chartering authority of GUSD, GPS is “like its own little district,” Dent said. GPS has independent control over its roughly $1.5 million operating budget, which it receives directly from the county. The Gilroy Board of Education unanimously approved GPS’s charter petition in November 2010.

After a decade in the making, GPS is making waves in the community as an alternative, independently designed learning format.

With a “huge blossoming of interest” from 178 families who were “crossing their fingers” in hopes their child would get into GPS via the enrollment lottery that took place Saturday, Dent noted the significant increase of parents who signed their children up for kindergarten next year. After Saturday’s lottery, 118 families are still on the waitlist.

Per an enrollment clause outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding between GPS and GUSD, the charter must have 60 students in each grade. GPS currently offers grades kindergarten through second grade, will expand by tacking on another grade each year up to the eighth grade and is open to all students – although children in Gilroy are given enrollment priority over students in neighboring cities.

In the face of growing demand, limited classroom capacity begs the question: With GPS’s charter set to be renewed by the district June 30, 2013, is it time to beef up student population?

The charter school’s seven-person board hasn’t determined if it wants to increase grades from 60 to 90 students yet, according to Dent. This would take 50 percent more classrooms than what GPS has at its present location on IOOF Street, which includes six portable classrooms, an administrative office, one computer lab and a cafeteria.

“We’re at a manageable size right now. We know all the kids by name. I think we have a good thing going, but turning away 118 families makes me think we need to expand and offer more,” Dent said.

In the event GUSD had to close an existing school due to state budget cuts, “that would definitely increase our interest in expanding,” Dent said.

Kindergarten students aren’t the only commodities GPS has a surplus of.

With GUSD’s fiscal climate darkened by a possible $3.5 to $8.5 million loss in funding due to state budget cuts in 2012-13, Gilroy’s growing charter school, alternately, is nimbly zipping through its inaugural year with flying fiscal colors.

“It’s an interesting phenomenon. I’ve been thinking about it lately,” said Dent. “If every school in the state managed their own budget, I can’t even imagine how much money the state would save.”

At the end of this year, Dent said GPS will have a surplus budget of $460,000, followed by a projected surplus of $700,000 at the end of 2012-13.

The strategy behind the savings?

A lighter cargo load and fiscal conservancy, for starters. As a “lean, mean machine,” GPS has the freedom and flexibility to think outside the box when it comes to cutting costs and adapting to student needs. Rather than purchase brand-new textbooks, for example, Dent shopped around on for used materials. In addition to writing grants and over-budgeting this year for a possible $750 funding loss per student due to state budget cuts (which turned out to be much less), Dent negotiates with outside vendors who allow GPS to act as a trial school for certain software and curriculums.

If all of the money that schools are supposed to receive actually went straight to the classrooms, “you would have an incredible surplus of money,” he said. “Much of a schools’ funding gets shifted away from classrooms and schools to expenses such as district office consultants.”

Whereas almost 90 percent of GUSD’s operating expenses go to personnel, GPS skates by with a model that employs six full-time, certificated staff and five paraprofessionals (part-time instructional assistants). The student/teacher ratio at GPS is 30:1, although students get broken up into smaller, skill-appropriate groups where they will sometimes work with up to six different adults daily in groups with ratios as small as 3:1.

Dent plans on hiring another full-time teacher and three additional part-time instructional assistants next year.

Instead of employing a full-time custodian with benefits, additionally, GPS has three custodians who work different hours and shifts. Students’ families also play a paramount role, as parents sign an agreement to volunteer for 20 hours a year.

“And if they don’t meet that goal, then we put out our hand and ask for a cash donation equivalent of that time,” said Dent.

Whereas contract negotiations with the unions also make it “difficult to adjust” in lean times, Dent and Sharon Waller – one of GPS’s founders and teachers – explained the absence of a teachers’ union allows GPS adapt more quickly.

“It’s such a stark contrast to what they’re operating under, versus what we are,” said Waller Friday, eating lunch with several other GPS teachers.

While leaving the protection of the union’s umbrella was a “big risk” Toriumi seriously considered, the ability to make joint decisions that directly impact the learning environment, being “equals” with other staff members and getting to know her GPS students “better than I’ve ever known any of my students in the past” was worth “delving into the unknown.”

“I love it here,” she said.


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