At Ventura High School, beginning teacher Jennifer Flittie will earn $24,540 this year teaching five classes of general science and chemistry.
Just 30 miles away at Thousand Oaks High, Tracy Dietch will earn nearly $4,000 more, $28,327, for her first year teaching five classes of Spanish.
But Flittie will have classes of up to only 33 students, while Dietch will probably have classes of nearly 40.
Although the Conejo Valley Unified School District has the best paid teachers in Ventura County, it also has some of the most crowded classes.
And that is no accident.
Teachers in Conejo and many other districts in this county and across the state have deliberately traded smaller classes for better pay.
Although the state Department of Education sets a cap on how many primary-grade children can be put into one class, there is no such maximum for older students.
And at a time when state funding to public schools is flat, the only way many teachers unions are able to get pay raises--or avoid pay cuts--is to agree to thin their ranks and accept more students.
In Conejo, for example, the number of students in most high school classes has grown from about 35 five years ago to 38 today, said John Uelmen, president of the United Assn. of Conejo Teachers.
"What we've been doing," Uelmen said, "is pretty much paying for higher salaries by allowing more students in the class.
"It's getting so bad that I feel sorry for the kids."
Similarly, in the Oxnard Union High School District, the teachers union has traditionally given a higher priority to salaries than to class size.
Big classes are big headaches, educators say. More students mean more papers to grade and less time to spend with individual children.
But Dick Butolph, past president of the Oxnard Federation of Teachers, said: "If there's one thing (teachers) don't want, it's a cut in pay. Nobody wants to increase class size. But you have got to have food, too."
California already crams more students into its public school classes than many other states.
The average class size in the state's elementary schools is 29, compared to 26 nationwide. High school and junior high classes in the state have about two more students than the national average.
And Ventura County's classes tend to be as large as or bigger than the statewide average.
Junior high and middle schools in Ventura County had an average class size of 30.5 last school year.
That is slightly higher than the state average of 29.8. And it marks a significant increase from the 29.0 countywide average five years ago.
The average class size in the county's high schools and elementary schools has also grown over the past several years.
Because statistical averages factor in small, specialized courses such as chemistry labs, they fail to reflect how large most classes actually are, officials say. But the averages provide a basis for comparison.
Most Ventura County school districts follow a pattern: the larger their teachers' salaries, the bigger their classes.
In most districts, teachers unions negotiate a maximum class size with their districts at the same time they set salaries, insurance coverage and other benefits.
For some districts, the maximum class size is only a target that school officials agree to try to maintain. In others, the class size limit is absolute, with officials agreeing to transfer students out of classes that get too large.
And in a few districts, districts pay individual teachers a bonus either for their own personal use or for school supplies whenever the number of students in their classes exceeds the maximum.
The Hueneme Elementary School District, for example, gives its primary-grade teachers a bonus of up to $300 per year for each student above the district maximum of 29 children per class.
But class size is not the only factor determining teachers' salaries.
The strength of a district's teachers union, the philosophy of its trustees and the amount of money available in the budget also play a part in how much teachers are paid.
In the Ventura Unified School District, teachers are in the unenviable position of having both low salaries and big classes compared to other county districts.
But the Ventura district has been burdened over the past several years by an insurance package for retirees that has drained millions of dollars from the district's budget. And teachers union officials say they expect the financial situation to improve now that the district has revamped its retiree benefits.
Although numerous factors determine the size of teachers' paychecks, educators say class size is one of the most important considerations because it directly affects a teacher's working conditions.
"If you took my classroom size and cut it down to 24, I'd feel adequately paid," said Mark Storer, who earns $29,000 a year teaching English at Simi Valley's Valley View Junior High. "But when you put 38 kids in a classroom, you are doubling my workload, effectively."
Teachers generally agree that bigger classes make the job much harder.
But experts are divided on whether class size affects how much students learn.
Some researchers have concluded that the number of students in a class has little impact on the quality of instruction. Other studies, however, have suggested otherwise.
The California Teachers Assn. cites a 1970 study by a Minneapolis research group that found teachers have fewer discipline problems in smaller classes and more opportunities to work with students one-to-one.
Indeed, Uelmen said when his history classes at Thousand Oaks High School get too large, he has far more trouble with students.
Classes with 30 or fewer students typically have only one or two problem students, Uelmen said. But in classes with 34 or 35 students, there can be six or seven who are disruptive.
"Once you go above 30, the number of problem kids goes up" exponentially, Uelmen said. The students realize, he said, that there are too many of them for the teacher to control. "They find they can ignore what's going on in the class and do their own thing."
And Simi Valley teacher Mark Storer said he is a less effective instructor with large classes.
When Storer has too many students in his English classes at Valley View Junior High have too many students, he said, he is unable to adjust his teaching to the various abilities of his students.
"What ends up happening," he said, "is you start teaching to the lowest common denominator."
In light of such problems with big classes, teachers in some districts have agreed to take less pay in exchange for fewer students.
In the Oak Park Unified School District--where students consistently outperform their peers around the county on standardized tests--first-year teachers armed with college degrees and teaching credentials earn as little as $21,621.
But the average size of classes at Oak Park's high school and elementary schools is lower than most other schools in the county.
In the current negotiations between the Oak Park teachers' union and the district, class size is one of the issues on the table. But, Supt. Marilyn Lippiatt said, both the district and the union are trying to avoid boosting class size in order to raise salaries.
"Class size is the easy alternative," Lippiatt said. "It is one way to generate income when there is no new money." But, she said, "we do think class size is important and it's one of the conditions that makes Oak Park fairly unique."
Likewise in Simi Valley, the Simi Educators' Assn. has traditionally accepted lower salaries for its members on the condition that classes stay relatively small.
Simi Valley teachers have a base starting salary of $23,010--which is the fifth lowest in the county. But classes at all of Simi Valley's schools are on average smaller than in other county districts.
"The board's priority and also the union's priority is not to have the highest salaries in the county, but to have low class sizes," said Simi Valley Assistant Supt. Leon Mattingley.
But Simi Valley teachers' priorities may be changing.
Simi Educators Assn. President Ron Myren said the union may consider agreeing to increase class size when it begins contract negotiations in the fall.
"I'm not 100% sure that all the teachers are worried about class size," Myren said. "I think they'd like to see a little more money in their pocketbooks. We haven't had a raise now in two, maybe three years and a lot of our teachers are becoming really strapped."
Even in those districts that have boosted class size to raise teachers' pay, salaries have over the past several years remained relatively stagnant.
The Oxnard Federation of Teachers, for example, wrangled a 3.4% raise from their district last year. But that was their first salary boost in three years.
Ventura County teachers in general are teaching bigger classes for only slightly more pay, statistics on salary and class size show.
The problem, school officials say, is that it is expensive to keep class sizes down or to lower them even further.
In the Hueneme district, the teachers union--the Hueneme Education Assn.--estimates that it would cost $120,000 per year to lower the average class size in the district by one student.
Not only do school districts have to hire more teachers to get smaller classes, but many also have to build new classrooms.
Unable to afford this expense but under pressure from its union to keep classes small, Hueneme has for years paid bonuses to teachers whose classes exceed the maximum in their district contract.
Last school year, the district paid $115,000 in bonuses--one kindergarten teacher having received $1,900 for an overload of students.
Despite the size of such bonuses, Hueneme Assistant Supt. Yolanda Benitez said they are much less costly than adding new teachers to the payroll.
"The bonuses are one-time expenditures," she said, but hiring teachers is a long-term investment. Hueneme officials would prefer smaller classes, Benitez said.
"The bottom line is if we had class sizes of 15-to-1, every child would succeed," she said. "But we don't have money to do that."
With California's state budget crisis continuing, officials say it is difficult to predict when state education funding will increase enough to keep up with rising costs. In the meantime, teachers' union officials said they believe school districts in Ventura County and across the state must begin to find other ways to cut budgets or boost revenues than to continue to increase the size of classes.
"There is a limit," California Teachers Assn. spokesman Jan Anderson said. "Classrooms will only hold so many kids. I think we really have just about reached the limit."
Teachers' Salaries in Ventura County
Salaries at all levels include any extra pay given for length of service. For salaries shown for the 15th and 30th years of service, some districts require teachers to have master's degrees. Teachers without master's degrees would receive less money. None of the salaries shown include stipends for doctorates.
School Number 1st year 15th year 30th year district of students base salary max. salary max. salary Conejo 17,587 $29,528 $51,109 $52,109 Ojai 3,884 $28,409 $48,655 $52,547 Oxnard H.S. 12,259 $26,936 $50,153 $52,653 Hueneme 7,608 $25,877 $50,345 $52,862 Rio 2,836 $25,179 $49,091 $50,640 Ocean View 2,374 $24,926 $45,136 $52,336 Santa Paula H.S. 1,296 $24,599 $45,512 $45,512 Briggs 378 $24,485 $44,427 $47,227 Santa Paula Elem. 3,234 $24,470 $43,331 $46,331 Pleasant Valley 6,879 $24,434 $43,831 $48,331 Moorpark 5,960 $24,236 $45,336 $48,486 Fillmore 3,504 $24,003 $43,248 $47,573 Oxnard Elem. 12,949 $23,342 $48,457 $50,957 Mupu 114 $23,286 $45,323 $46,223 Ventura 15,409 $23,119 $44,601 $47,974 Simi Valley 18,565 $23,010 $46,017 $52,514 Santa Clara 35 $23,005 $44,419 $46,619 Mesa 353 $22,424 $45,522 $47,522 Oak Park 2,498 $21,621 $44,106 $47,854 Somis 290 $21,781 $44,507 $48,107
Source: school districts
CLASS SIZE IN VENTURA COUNTY SCHOOLS
Ventura County schools have classes as big or bigger than the state average. And at most county schools, classes have increased in size over the past five years. The following average class sizes, shown from biggest to smallest, were compiled by the state Department of Education. But local school officials say many classes are actually much larger.
Average class size Max. class size per teachers '88-89 '93-94 union pact Conejo Valley Unified 31.2 31.6 38 Santa Paula H.S. 28.4 30.3 38 Oxnard Union H.S. 29.7 29.8 38 Ventura Unified 29.4 29.8 33 Moorpark Unified 27.9 27.2 30 Oak Park Unified 26.4 27.0 35 Fillmore Unified 25.5 26.6 N/A Ojai Unified 25.7 26.6 35 Simi Valley Unified 24.9 26.5 36 Ventura County average 28.7 29.2 State average 28.0 29.3
MIDDLE SCHOOL/JUNIOR HIGH
Average class size Max. class size per teachers '88-89 '93-94 union pact Conejo Valley Unified 32.4 34.6 38 Ventura Unified 30.1 32.7 33 Oak Park Unified 29.2 30.7 33 Hueneme Elementary 30.4 30.3 29 Oxnard Elementary 30.0 30.3 N/A Simi Valley Unified 27.3 30.2 36 Moorpark Unified 30.7 29.1 30 Ojai Unified 28.0 28.9 35 Rio Elementary 30.9 28.7 32 Santa Paula Elementary 26.9 28.5 34 Fillmore Unified 28.2 28.2 N/A Ocean View Elementary 26.0 28.2 30 Pleasant Valley Elementary 25.7 27.9 35 Ventura County average 29.0 30.5 State average 28.4 29.8
Average class size Max. class size for grades '88-89 '93-94 1-3 4-5** Conejo Valley Unified 30.5 31.0 38 36 Oxnard Elementary 30.0 30.3 31 36 Somis Union 19.5 29.9 N/A N/A Ojai Unified 30.5 29.9 31 32 Ventura Unified 30.0 29.7 30 30 Santa Paula Elementary 26.6 29.6 33 34 Hueneme Elementary 29.9 29.4 29 29 Rio Elementary 29.6 29.3 31 32 Moorpark Unified 30.1 29.2 30 30 Fillmore Unified 28.0 29.1 32 32 Pleasant Valley Elementary 28.4 29.1 33 33 Simi Valley Unified 30.0 29.0 31 31 Mesa Union Elementary 27.4 29.0 N/A N/A Briggs Elementary 25.6 28.7 N/A N/A Oak Park Unified 27.3 27.3 28 32 Ocean View Elementary 26.4 25.5 30 30 Mupu Elementary 28.5 22.8 N/A N/A Santa Clara Elementary 12.0 12.0 N/A N/A Ventura County average 29.2 29.5 State average 27.6 28.8
Source: California Department of Education, school districts