Special report: Teacher salary gaps are wide, and they aren’t going away

When it comes to paying and keeping teachers, there are wide gaps between Idaho’s haves and have-nots.

Idaho’s new five-year plan to boost teacher pay will not solve this problem. In fact, it could even get worse.

McCall-Donnelly High School
On average, teachers in the McCall-Donnelly School District make nearly 16 percent above the state average. That is partly a function of experience; turnover is low, and 61 percent of district teachers have maxed out on the district’s salary schedule. But the property-rich district also uses local tax collections to boost pay.

The $125 million career ladder law is designed to narrow the teacher pay gap between Idaho and neighboring states. Within Idaho, teacher salaries are set locally, and results vary widely from district to district. (To see how your local district stacks up, use the searchable table at the bottom of this story.)

Some districts rank high because they have retained a more experienced and better-educated faculty. Some districts can pay more because they have the property tax base to do it. Some pay more in order to compete with neighboring schools.

As the career ladder goes into effect on July 1, some school officials are already worried about the long term. The new state money should help them hire new teachers. They just aren’t sure these teachers will stay.

Defining the gap

Idaho Education News filed a public records request for 2014-15 salary information collected by the State Department of Education, and calculated average salaries for Idaho’s 115 school districts and 48 charter schools. (Averages were calculated by dividing the number of full-time teaching positions against total salaries paid).

The data provide a snapshot, at the launch of the career ladder. Among our findings:

  • Idaho’s average teacher salary is $44,739. In the wealthy Blaine County School District, however, the average salary is 60 percent above the average. In the tiny Pleasant Valley Elementary School district, home to 11 students, its one teacher makes the state minimum of $31,750, 29 percent below the average.
  • Similar gaps are found in charter schools. A dozen charters have an average salary topping $50,000, rivaling the top salaries in traditional schools. In 19 charter schools, the average salary comes in under $40,000.
  • In North Idaho, districts are scurrying to keep teachers from fleeing for higher-paying jobs in Washington. Nine of the 13 highest average salaries are paid by districts in three border counties: Kootenai, Latah and Nez Perce. Even Lapwai — one of Idaho’s poorest districts, based on free-and-reduced lunch eligibility — pays above the state average. Post Falls district Superintendent Jerry Keane said: “It’s an uphill battle to compete.”
  • A similar battle is looming in Eastern Idaho; the Teton School District, bordering the affluent resort community of Jackson, Wyo., ranks No. 14 in average pay.
  • Pay can vary widely among neighboring districts — particularly in the Treasure Valley. Boise’s average salary is $51,649, well above West Ada, the state’s largest district ($46,416); Nampa ($38,786); and Kuna ($41,458). This, in turn, creates its own border war. “It’s like having Wyoming right next door,” said Kuna district superintendent Wendy Johnson.

The experience factor

David Peterson
David Peterson, Nampa superintendent

One variable in Idaho’s teacher pay gap is experience. Nampa district Superintendent David Peterson thinks it may be the variable.

Nampa’s average salary ranks No. 90 among Idaho’s districts. “(But) we’re not 90th in salary schedule,” said Peterson. Nampa adds money into each step of its salary schedule, augmenting state funding by $3.1 million.

Nampa’s numbers reflect a young faculty, he says.

When a fiscal crisis came to a head in 2013 — forcing administrators to impose 14 furlough days to erase a portion of a $5 million shortfall — teachers fled Nampa for neighboring districts just starting to recover from the recession. That year, the district’s turnover rate was 23 percent. Now, about a third of Nampa’s teachers make the minimum salary, Peterson said.

Experience plays a role in other pay gaps. Charter schools near the high end of the salary scale tend to be more established, with a more seasoned faculty, said Terry Ryan, president of the Idaho Charter School Network. Newer charter schools tend to hire beginning teachers.

Don Coberly square
Don Coberly, Boise superintendent

The state’s old salary schedule compensated teachers based on experience and academic credentials — so districts with more seasoned faculty received more money from the state. The career ladder follows that vein; districts will receive money when their teachers receive a master’s degree.

That’s an important component, said Don Coberly, superintendent in the Boise district, where 56 percent of teachers hold a master’s degree. When districts are compensated for recruiting and retaining teachers with a master’s, they will likely come up with programs that encourage staff to focus on pursuing a specialized, advanced degree.

The funding factor

School districts depend on state dollars to cover most day-to-day expenses — including salaries and benefits, which can account for more than 80 percent of a district budget.

Still, the funding picture varies among districts, contributing to the salary gap.

Special levies. Blaine County, McCall-Donnelly, Swan Valley and Avery collect “stabilization levies” that reflect the communities’ lucrative property tax base. (The stabilization levies are a clause in a 2006 law that slashed property taxes for schools, and used a sales tax increase to make up most of the difference.) Boise’s operating charter, which predates statehood, allowed the district to collect an additional $54.5 million in property taxes in 2014-15.

These levies are permanent, and not subject to voter renewal — making them a reliable source of funding for salaries. And that reflects in the 2014-15 salary rankings: Blaine County, McCall-Donnelly and Boise came in first, third and fourth, respectively.

GwenCarol Holmes
GwenCarol Holmes, Blaine County superintendent

A $29.5 million stabilization levy accounts for 66 percent of Blaine County’s budget — with much of the money used to boost teacher pay. The salaries offset the high cost of housing in the resort community, and the shortage of professional jobs available to spouses, Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes said.

McCall-Donnelly uses most of its $5.6 million stabilization levy for facilities and academic programs. But it uses close to $1.9 million to supplement salaries and benefits and add teachers. As in Blaine County, the higher salaries are needed to offset higher housing costs.

The levies help Boise boost teacher pay, Coberly said. But he says pay is just one ingredient in the district’s long-term objective: providing a “career path” for teachers. Training is another ingredient. So is a good working relationship with the local teachers’ union. So is staffing — and Boise funds 210 additional teaching jobs, beyond what the state funds.

Supplemental levies. It’s a recurring theme in Idaho’s school funding story. In the face of state funding cuts, an increasing number of districts have turned to voter-approved supplemental levies to fill in the gaps. Ninety-three districts collected $180.7 million in supplementals in 2014-15.

However, supplemental levies appear to have had only a limited effect on the 2014-15 salaries. The 22 districts without a supplemental tend to pay their teachers less — but there are exceptions. McCall-Donnelly has no supplemental levy. In Lapwai, two supplemental levies failed in 2014.

Among the districts with a supplemental levy, there are differing schools of thought about how to spend the money. Coeur d’Alene uses some of its levy to keep salaries and benefits competitive with neighboring Spokane, Wash., district spokeswoman Laura Rumpler said. Middleton has balked at using short-term levies to pay for salaries, Superintendent Rich Bauscher said, since there’s no guarantee voters will approve a renewal.

That’s the quandary facing the Troy School District, near Moscow and the Washington border. Troy’s average teacher salary is $49,740, about 11 percent above the state average. But voters rejected two supplemental levies this year, which will force the district to eliminate eight teaching jobs — and perhaps cut salaries for teachers who remain.

The district will run another levy election in August.

First steps on the ladder

Amidst the complicated calculus of teacher pay, Idaho legislators have added the career ladder, a 34-page law designed to rewrite the teacher salary structure.

Even if the Legislature follows its five-year plan to fund the career ladder, funding high-end salaries of $50,000, Idaho will still lag behind. “Many states are already ahead of where we’re starting,” said Blas Telleria, Boise’s human resources director.

The $50,000 funding wouldn’t go into effect until 2019-20 — and even at that, it represents less than a $5,300 increase from this year’s average teacher salary. So if districts want to exceed the $50,000 salary, they will still have to make up the difference on their own. Some districts will be able to afford that; others might not.

That’s where Idaho’s pay gap enters the picture — again.

The career ladder puts most of its $125 million into the lower end of the pay scale. For example, beginning salaries will increase from $31,750 to $37,000 in 2019-20. The infusion of state money should help smaller districts compete to hire young teachers.

But will they be able to keep them?

That’s a concern in districts large and small.

West Ada doesn’t track how many teachers it loses to the smaller yet better-funded Boise district, spokesman Eric Exline said. The career ladder will help. But a high-end salary of $60,000 — as proposed in earlier versions of the career ladder — would have done more to help West Ada compete.

John McFarlane, superintendent of the Basin School District in Idaho City, knows he can’t match Boise’s salaries. Since a fifth of his faculty commutes from the Treasure Valley, turnover is inevitable. He too has mixed feelings about the career ladder. The added state funding will stabilize Basin’s budget, but it won’t help him keep the veteran teachers that are critical to the continuity of rural programs.

Wendy Johnson
Wendy Johnson, Kuna superintendent

Kuna’s Johnson is hopeful about the career ladder, but her district already can compete for younger teachers. The problems come when veteran teachers seek more lucrative jobs in larger districts, a few miles away.

“Mid-career, late-career, we’re not even close,” she said. “We train them, and then they take them.”

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader compiled and tabulated state salary statistics for this report.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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