By Jeff Keeling
I hadn’t seen it coming, but Johnson City school board members and superintendent Richard Bales briefly touched a third rail – teacher salaries – when they met early the morning of May 29 during budget discussions for the fiscal year that begins today. Whether they will revisit the subject this coming year (they should) and whether they get shocked in the process remain to be seen.
Facts are facts, though, and they include the following:
• The Johnson City Commission seldom if ever has the stomach to give the school board all its annual budget requests.
• Salary and benefits comprise more than 80 percent of the school system’s total expenditures.
• Johnson City’s teacher salaries are the highest in the region and among the highest in the state.
• Johnson City’s students consistently achieve the best academic results in the region, and among the best in the state.
• When the school system gives an across-the-board cost of living raise, the majority of teachers also get a 2.2 percent “Step Increase” – including all teachers with fewer than 18 years of experience.
In that May 29 meeting, board members raised the subject of the system’s salary schedule, and whether it should be modified in an attempt to control cost increases to the system in future years. Bales said those conversations, if they occur, should be in coordination with teacher representatives and shouldn’t begin late in the budget cycle. Johnson City’s pay scale, he said, has been developed over many years through negotiations between management and teacher representatives.
If the schools are going to truly “bend the cost curve” as the city commission has requested, it will take more than the efforts an “efficiency task force” undertook last year, sincere and useful as they were. Those yielded a total savings of less than $200,000 in a $60 million-plus budget – not surprising, considering the schools’ per pupil expenditures are barely above the state average despite the higher-than-average personnel costs.
That the school system is highly efficient and produces excellent results isn’t in question. Neither are the facts that money is still tight, taxpayers are seeing rate increases and the costs of continuing automatic step raise programs rise inexorably.
School board members will be rightly concerned about the system’s ability to attract and retain the best talent should the program be tweaked – but those concerns can easily be overblown. Many other things work to attract good teachers, including a system’s overall quality, which isn’t always related to average salaries, and a community’s attractiveness as a place to live and raise a family.
Our daughter and son-in-law have moved to Chattanooga to teach in the public schools. They like the city and think the system is a strong one. They’ll be making about 5.6 percent and 9.6 percent less, respectively (Logan will be a third-year teacher) than they would in Johnson City.
My mom was a teacher. My daughter and son-in-law are new teachers. I respect and admire people who go into the profession for the right reasons, work hard at it and positively impact the lives of countless students. But fiscal reality is fiscal reality. When other city employees get a 3 percent raise this year, many teachers – mediocre ones, good ones and great ones – will get a 5.2 percent increase.
I respect and admire those city workers who work hard and excel, too.
Many people who work in the private sector, meanwhile, are just beginning to see pay raises after years of tough economic times. They also don’t usually qualify for a full pension after 30 years’ service like teachers do. Those days are pretty much gone in the private sector, financial reality having intervened.
The school board’s leaders have a challenge ahead, but they have some room to move the needle. This is an attractive community, and after 18 years’ teaching with a masters degree, Johnson City’s $60,563 salary (2013-2014) is 4.5 percent higher than Kingsport’s; 11.8 percent higher than Bristol’s; 21.8 percent higher than Elizabethton’s; 25.6 percent higher than Washington County’s; and 30 percent higher than Sullivan County’s (source: teateachers.org). That salary is also a pretty good living for this area, in my opinion, and its comparison with nearby systems shows there is at least some room to move without causing a mass exodus of talent.
Along with a potential look at some other personnel-related cost-saving measures, the school board should take the opportunity this year for a clear-headed look at this issue. It won’t be fun, easy or popular in some quarters, but it’s necessary.