Teacher salaries increase by 2.1 percent, in first year of career ladder

Idaho teacher salaries went up by an average of $912, a 2.1 percent increase, under the first year of the state’s teacher career ladder.

For 2015-16, Idaho’s average teacher salary was $45,117, according to an Idaho Education News analysis of salary data. A year earlier, the average came in at $44,205. (Click here to download our spreadsheets, and see how your district or charter stacks up.)

The 2015-16 increases came after the 2015 Legislature put $33.5 million into funding the first year of the career ladder. This year’s Legislature followed up with an additional $41.5 million to continue retooling Idaho’s teacher salary schedule. But with the new money comes a new challenge: Local superintendents, elected trustees and teachers’ unions are trying to figure out how to make sure the career ladder doesn’t leave veteran teachers stranded.

This year’s numbers

In many ways, the new numbers reflect some of the same trends Idaho Education News discovered a year ago — just before the July 1, 2015 launch of the career ladder law.

To analyze salary trends, Idaho Education News divided total teacher pay against districts’ and charter schools’ full-time positions. Idaho Education News updated its 2014-15 average salary to reflect updated information submitted to the state since June 2015.
  • Wide gaps remain between the state’s haves and have-nots. In the affluent Blaine County School District, teachers make an average salary of $72,538 — 61 percent above the state average. In 44 districts and charter schools, the average salary remains below $40,000.
  • Some districts offer higher teaching salaries, in part, because they can. Blaine County, McCall-Donnelly and Boise retain unique authority to collect property tax levies — permanently, and without voter approval. And they have three of the four highest average teacher salaries in the state.
  • Some districts offer higher salaries, in part, because they must. Eight of the 10 districts at the top of Idaho’s pay scale sit near the Washington border — and run the risk of losing teachers to higher-paying jobs across the state line.
  • While the statewide salary picture brightened, the results vary widely from district to district. In nearly 30 percent of the state’s districts and charters, average salaries actually dropped from 2014-15 to 2015-16. This is likely a reflection of staff experience. As veteran teachers retire, leave the classroom or leave the profession, their replacements may be entry-level or younger educators who make less money.

Room at the top?

The career ladder is designed to boost salaries for entry-level teachers, or less experienced teachers. Before the career ladder became law, for example, the state’s minimum teacher salary sat at $31,750. For the new budget year starting Friday, that minimum salary will reach $33,400.

But the pay plan has less to offer veteran teachers. In 2019-20, when the career ladder is fully implemented, it will max out at $50,000 for veteran teachers.

That doesn’t mean salaries will cap at $50,000; the law merely caps the amount of money the state provides to pay a teacher’s salary. Districts can supplement their salaries with local dollars, and many districts do.

Already, districts are bumping up against the career ladder’s salary cap, and the situation could only become more pronounced over time. In six districts and 10 charter schools, the average 2015-16 teacher salary already exceeded the $50,000 mark.

Penni Cyr
Penni Cyr, president, Idaho Education Association

The problem is, some districts are unwilling or unable to pay above the state’s allocation, said Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association. These districts risk losing veteran teachers — and might have to rely even more on entry-level teachers hired through alternative certification programs.

“We’re not recognizing the experience of teachers who are already in the districts,” she said.

Two case studies

Some districts are already feeling career ladder pressure — making for some delicate contract negotiations.

Let’s take a closer look at two districts:

Twin Falls. The district adopted the career ladder and has been using the new state funding to boost teacher pay. The new law has helped the district bump up pay for its younger teachers. “I would say it’s working very well for us,” said Bill Brulotte, the district’s federal programs, policy and grants director.

Twin Falls’ average salary went up by 2.4 percent in 2015-16 — but at $40,510, this figure remains well below the state average. But these averages obscure a looming trend. The district’s teachers are steadily working their way up the career ladder.

So school trustees and the Twin Falls Education Association agreed on a preemptive step. They agreed to cap teacher salaries at $53,000, still more than the state reimburses.

Only 42 of the district’s 500 teachers hit the cap in 2015-16, Brulotte said. In four years, however, about 200 teachers could max out at $53,000.

West Ada. In the state’s largest school district, contract negotiations will continue into July, and into the start of the 2016-17 budget year.

The sticking point: a $500,000 gap, centered on West Ada’s veteran teachers.

When West Ada adopted the career ladder a year ago, the district inserted a grandfather clause for veteran teachers. Their salaries can still max out at about $58,000, well above the district’s 2015-16 average salary of $47,008, and well above the state’s reimbursements. West Ada subsidizes the salary pool to the tune of about $11 million a year, district spokesman Eric Exline said, and district officials don’t believe they can do any more.

Union negotiators want to put more money into the top end of the pay scale.

There are no easy answers. Teacher turnover is a chronic issue, with the suburban district at risk of losing teachers to a Boise district that can afford to pay higher salaries. But even with new dollars coming in via the career ladder, West Ada isn’t flush with money; the district will take nearly $4 million out of savings for 2016-17, and use some of these reserves to cover the costs of continued enrollment growth.

Meanwhile, the contract issue will go to a mediator. Talks are scheduled for July 15.

Idaho EdNews data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this story.