The costs of teaching in the Bay Area: How Urban compensates its faculty

Zadie Winthrop

Teaching salaries in the United States are notoriously low. The Economic Policy Institute reported that U.S. teachers were paid 19.2% less than other similarly educated professionals in 2019. The difference between teacher salaries and living expenses poses a challenge in the increasingly expensive Bay Area.

As a non-profit, most of Urban’s money goes into operational costs, meaning there is no surplus of money to increase salaries while still keeping tuition competitive with other SF independent schools. However, without increasing teaching salaries, teachers may not be paid enough to live close enough to work at Urban and have a good quality of life. 

At Urban, faculty salaries are determined on a scale of one to 30; the greater a faculty member’s teaching experience and more advanced degrees, the higher their step and pay, explained Chief Financial Officer Diane Walters in an email to The Urban Legend. Walters also noted that as teachers gain experience each year, they move up a step. Salaries at each step increase annually. 

“I think we are paid very well compared to other schools in the Bay Area,” said English Teacher Lindsey Collins. “While the Bay Area is still stupid expensive and almost no amount of money would make it affordable to live here, [the Urban teaching salary] makes it possible to live here.”

While Walters declined to comment on the range of teacher salaries, data from the Housing Rights Group (HRG), with a 10% margin of error, is telling of the household income of Urban faculty and staff. The survey found that  32.5% of faculty and staff have annual household income between $150,000 and $299,999, 27.5% have annual household income between $100,000 and $150,000, 20% have annual household income between $60,000 and $99,000 and 17.5% have annual household income between $300,000 to $500,000. The 2020 census reported that the average San Francisco household income is $119,136. 

Despite many Urban faculty members having family incomes higher than the San Francisco average, purchasing housing seems to be a challenge. Deborah Dent-Samake, service-learning teacher, raised her daughter as a single mom in San Francisco on an Urban teaching salary, “I saved to pay for my daughter’s undergrad. I don’t own a house. But my situation is secure enough,” she said. Dent-Samake also noted that she earned money from a summer teaching program and had a very attentive local family support system. 

HRG data states that 53.5% of Urban adults are homeowners and 46.5% are renters. This data is unsurprising as SFGATE reported that in 2019, a household needed an annual income of upwards of $343,420 to buy a median-priced home for $1.7 million.

Due to the ever-increasing cost of living in the Bay Area, some Urban adults expressed concerns about increased turnover as faculty are priced out or move so they may own a home. For example, one anonymous Urban faculty member commented in the HRG survey, “I know I’ll eventually need to leave Urban because when we buy a home, it will not be in the city, and I am not going to do a Bay Area commute.” 

Well aware of this challenge, the Urban administration has invested in its benefits program in order to supplement teaching salaries. For example, upon recent re-evaluation of benefits via a survey sent out by Kim Rojas Rodriguez, Human Resources Administrator, Urban has added a commuter benefit. If a teacher is spending up to $280 per month on transportation, Urban will cover up to half of that cost. Urban also allows faculty to use pre-tax money for certain commuting expenses, which allows faculty to decrease their taxable income and the subsequent amount of income tax they pay. Urban also added a financial planning benefit for major life investments, such as a home or children, as a result of the benefit feedback survey. 

Collins expressed interest in the addition of a housing benefit. “I would love to have more options for housing. That would help me feel a lot more able to relax about being able to live here,” they said. 

Under Urban’s healthcare plan, the school offers a myriad of services. Collins said they appreciate that Urban healthcare covers mental health services. “I feel pretty happy about the coverage we’re given,” said Collins. “I think that we really walk the talk of valuing our teachers.”

To improve the experience of employees living in the Bay Area, part of Urban’s Strategic Plan has included increasing salaries for employees, particularly for those with fewer levels of experience. Since beginning this initiative in the 2018-19 school year, Walters reported that teacher salaries have increased by 31% for faculty who are earlier in their careers. She also shared that currently, in comparison to a peer group of seven Bay Area peer independent schools, Urban is at the top for salaries for teachers from one to twenty years of experience. 

Urban tuition generally increases by three to five percent each year due to increasing salaries, inflation and increased tuition assistance, said Head of School Dan Miller and Shannon Cogen, Chair of the Board of Trustees, in previous interviews with The Urban Legend.

While she believes increasing salaries for teachers is essential, Dent-Samake is concerned about how these tuition increases may affect who has access to Urban. “When there’s an increase in our salaries, that money has to come from somewhere,” she said. “When the tuition increases, who gets to go to the school? It affects all sorts of diversity, socioeconomically, racially, and so on.”