Recruitment & Retention Q&A

A District Raised All Teacher Salaries, Some by Almost 22K. How It’s Working

By Elizabeth Heubeck — October 04, 2023 7 min read
Illustration of an adult male pole jumping over a very large red dollar sign.
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Pay tops the list of reasons that schools struggle to recruit and retain qualified teachers. Teachers earn, on average, about 20 percent less than similarly educated professionals. And, when adjusted for inflation, teachers actually make about $3,500 less annually than they did a decade ago. Salary concerns can directly affect teacher recruitment and retention, especially for less experienced educators on the low end of a district’s salary schedule.

Teachers in the Baker School District 5J, a school system of about 1,700 students in Baker City, a small city in eastern Oregon, could relate. During the 2022-23 school year, starting teachers there made $38,349 a year. The pay didn’t just affect how teachers felt about their jobs; it forced some of them to make tough lifestyle choices, like whether or not to buy a house or start a family, according to Erin Lair, Baker’s superintendent.

She was determined to do something about it. Between the 2022-23 and 2023-24 academic years, the district raised the salaries of every teacher, a decision ratified by 100 percent of the district’s union members. Teachers received a minimum pay increase of 15.7 percent. The largest pay hike went to starting teachers, whose salaries jumped from $38,000 to $60,000.

Together with Chief Financial Officer Regina Sampson, Lair talked with Education Week about how the district pulled off such a significant, across-the-board pay increase in just one academic year, why they did it, and what impact it’s having on its teaching staff.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

100423 superintendent erin lair headshot BS

How long was this salary change discussed, and what was the main driver for it?

Lair: The conversation has been percolating widely across the state and country. There were a number of bills being presented at the state level, throwing around the $60,000 as a minimum starting salary. In our district, the actual conversation was relatively short. I called our CFO, Regina Sampson, while driving to our winter conference and asked: ‘What if’ and ‘Would it work long term?’

What, exactly, was the ‘what if’?

Lair: Our salary schedule used to start at $38,000 in a 16-step schedule. As of this year, we have adopted a four-tier salary schedule approach that skips to the top four tiers of the traditional schedule. Compensation starts at $60,000; the ceiling has gone from $72,000 to $86,000.

Why was this a priority?

Lair: We needed to bring the starting salary up to a professional wage. If you are a professional, licensed person, starting at $38,000 isn’t really adjacent to that description.

Explain the rationale of compressing salary schedule tiers rather than an across-the-board, percentage-based pay hike.

Sampson: If we had just gone to a new starting salary of $60,000 and left our 16 tiers, our top [tier] would be over $112,000, whereas now we are just over $86,000 [at the top]. We had to cut those steps down to four, or it would be blowing up the top. We didn’t want this to be linked to anything else. We just wanted a recalibration of the salary schedule that was independent of any other variable.

How did you arrive at compressing the salary schedule to four tiers?

Lair: In education, there’s this prevailing notion of the three-year mentorship model. Everywhere you go, your first three years of teaching tend to be in this probationary stage. I thought, What if we modeled our tier schedule after that structure? You’ve got three years of probationary, and the fourth year you’re a professional teacher. That’s why I landed on the four-tier schedule.

Financially, how was your district able to pull this off?

Sampson: A number of factors made it possible. The biggest one was a 22 percent ending fund balance, the money that either was unappropriated or unspent in the course of a budget year. This is allowed to roll forward to the next fiscal year. Also, we analyzed our current spending patterns and identified ways to reduce duplicity and build in better and more efficient spending. Specifically, we were able to shift almost $1 million in counseling staff into the Student Investment Account, an ongoing account through the state of Oregon. We also looked at our administrators and shifted some positions around to reduce them slightly. And we planned to further maximize available revenue. For instance, we recognized we were underclaiming [reimbursements from] Medicaid, transportation, and other [claimable] costs. We are finding all of the allowable funding streams and ensuring that we are utilizing to the best of our ability.

Is there anything unique to your district that made this salary schedule change possible?

Lair: Yes. The ending fund balance is not standard across districts. Some states do not allow it to become that large at all. We also have a great relationship with our education association [teachers’ union].

Any other factors that made it possible?

Lair: Board support. Had one of my five board members said ‘no,’ this ship would never have sailed out of the port. When you’re going to change something this significant, there’s no way to do it except having a complete consensus and unified voice. Our board members are super supportive of our staff.

Did your district model this plan after one adopted by another district?

Lair: No. However, after we built this model, I talked with other districts who have since found ways to do something similar.

This new salary schedule has the greatest impact on early career teachers, correct?

Lair: Yes. In the past, it would take 10 or more years to get to the current starting wage. Half of our old salary schedule translated to below the 200 percent of the [federal] poverty calculation for a family of four.

Did you hear any grumblings from teachers toward the top of the tier who saw less of a salary bump than teachers on its lower rungs?

Lair: This schedule shift had to be agreed upon by the education association. Union leadership tentatively agreed to it that afternoon; the full vote took place the next day, and was 100 percent ratified [by the union]. We did not hear anything negative about this shift from the [education] association. In fact, teachers across the schedule were excited to see the shift. They relayed that they felt it set them up for a new set of professional teaching peers, more retention for their current peers, and was something that would have changed their own lives had it come in their early career.

What’s the biggest challenge to implementing the change?

Lair: The biggest challenge is that not every district in Oregon can do it. So we get a mixed bag perspective. Another challenge that we’re happy we didn’t hear too loudly was this: Within communities nationwide, there’s a narrative around teachers. People think they’re already compensated enough. What I say to that is, at the top, maybe we’re not far off from a professional wage. But in our case, if it took 16 years to get there, we weren’t paying professionals to be professionals until they’re over halfway through their careers. This shift isn’t really about those at the top of the schedule. It’s about the time it takes people to get to a professional wage.

How did the new salary schedule affect teacher recruitment for the 2023-24?

Lair: In recent years, we generally would be lucky to have a single applicant for a position, fully qualified or otherwise. After announcing the salary schedule change, we had pools of qualified applicants to consider. It was a fun spring. Our administrators were having to have these rich conversations about best fit, really digging into things like, ‘Here’s a full table of highly qualified people; who is going to best fulfill the needs of our school? It’s a conversation that most districts don’t get to have right now.

How did these changes translate into hiring differences between the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school years?

Lair: For the 2023-24 school year, we had 26 open positions; all were filled with fully certified teachers and none required reposting. In 2022-23, we had 41 open positions. Eleven were filled with teachers with either restricted or emergency licensure, three required reposting, and two went unfilled.

What is the impact of these new salaries, especially for early career teachers?

Lair: Starting at a professional wage allows teachers to enter into a professional career, with room still to grow, but with capacity to build a life around their career. We had teachers who were choosing to teach our community’s children in lieu of having their own children, because they couldn’t afford housing, child care. We had a handful of teachers who expressed gratitude to us for allowing them to open up a conversation around family planning that they didn’t think they were going to be able to have. We heard from a lot of newer teachers that they could now consider throwing roots down in our community by purchasing a home.

How optimistic are you that the increase can be sustained in future years?

Lair: We would not have made this categorical shift if we couldn’t see long-term sustainability in doing so. Paying more followed by cutting critical positions to fund the shift would work against our intent. In fact, the reason we implemented this shift is that we see that, in as little as three years, the model could begin paying us back in savings compared to traditional step models.


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