News Story

Up and Down: The Story of Teacher Salaries in Detroit

'There are a lot of moving parts'

This chart shows the gross salary of teacher Shalon Miller during her career at Detroit Public Schools.

Shalon Miller is a Detroit Public School teacher who became the national face of the beaten down school system this year when her complaints about bad working conditions and no pay raise in 10 years were published by The Washington Post.

Like many Detroit teachers, Miller made an issue of DPS teacher pay. Earlier this year she wrote in the Washington Post: “It’s not okay to disrespect teachers by refusing to give them a pay raise in over a decade.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for Miller’s gross salary during her 16-year career in Detroit schools and also interviewed the special education teacher. During the interview, she provided more insight regarding her own compensation.

The backdrop for Miller's career was a school district that was imploding from a mass exodus of students and with them the state dollars each one brings. When Miller was hired for the 1999-2000 school year, DPS had 168,213 students. By 2015-16, enrollment had plummeted to 46,912. With the loss of students, the district's state aid went from $1.1 billion to $360.8 million over the course of her career.

Miller's starting salary was $45,060 in the first full year. She said that in its effort to recruit her to the district, DPS moved her ahead several “steps” on the union pay scale.

By her second full year in 2002, Miller earned $58,701. That salary was more than the top-of-the-scale pay for an employee with a bachelor’s degree and 10-years of service, which was $57,836 that year. Teacher pay is based on years of service and level of education. Miller didn’t earn her master’s degree until 2007.

Teacher compensation at any school district in Michigan can be complex due to the many ways teachers can make extra money without it technically being considered a “raise.”

Miller said throughout her career she performed extra tasks to qualify for extra pay, such as teaching summer classes.

Under the union contract, special education teachers were eligible for a bonus if they allowed the district to assign them to the school of management’s choice. The amount of the bonus was determined by the district.

Teachers could also make up to $26 an hour by taking on additional summer and evening classes. Another $4,000 could be had for coaching a sport; an additional $23 an hour was available for attending workshops.

In 2003, Miller’s salary dropped by $8,700 to $49,410. After that, the amount she earned went up and down until 2007 depending on the other duties she took on.

In 2007, Miller earned her master’s degree which she said boosted her salary by $10,000. That year, she also moved up to the last step on the union pay scale. That 10th, last step in the DPS teacher contract is the biggest jump in the scale.

The reason it is illustrates the complex factors involving a contract. A teacher at the top of the scale no longer automatically receives more pay, so future increases are loaded into the final step. For example, in 2005 a teacher moving into the final step with a master’s degree would see an increase that would take the 10th-step salary from $62,745 to $72,918. In Miller’s case, her salary jumped from $53,710 to $77,242, in part due to extra duties.

Nevertheless, that particular pay hike of nearly $24,000 came when the district had just started a nine-year spiral of spending more than its income, the end point of which was the insolvency that caused a state bailout in 2016.

Miller, who said she has three college degrees, saw her salary bounce up and down again for the next several years.

The school district implemented a 10-percent reduction in salary in 2010 and froze steps on the union pay scale.

Despite the 10 percent reduction across the scale, Miller reached the high-water mark for her own career with gross earnings of $80,347 in 2011-12. She says the boost came because she received tuition reimbursement for continuing education studies at Wayne State.

Her salary dropped by nearly $13,000 the next year to $67,684. She made $65,264 in the 2015-16 school year. The average teacher salary in 2014-15 at DPS was $63,716, the latest year salary information is available from the Michigan Department of Education.

“There are a lot of moving parts to what these salaries are,” Miller said. "People want to paint us in a negative light. I stay at DPS because I want to fight that battle. We still have kids who graduate from Michigan State even with all the ridiculous amount of obstacles in their way."

The salary and step freeze implemented in 2010 and still in effect has Miller concerned about the younger teachers in the district.

“If you were frozen on step 10, praise the Lord,” she said. “If you were frozen on step 1, oh, my God.”