News Story

Benton Harbor Schools Errs In Reporting Teacher Salaries

Mistake distorts public discussions of education policy in Michigan

Anna Clark, a Detroit journalist and author of a book on the Flint water crisis, recently wrote an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press, in which she lamented that Benton Harbor’s students didn’t have the same advantages she had while growing up in nearby St. Joseph.

Clark’s op-ed makes many claims on teacher salaries at Benton Harbor Area Schools — as well as school funding generally — that are not supported by data available from the Michigan Department of Education.

Clark wrote: “I had a great public education because my schools were supported by the taxes of people far richer than my family. Until the passage of Proposal A in 1994 (most of my student years), property taxes were the main source of school funding. Unequal schools were a matter of policy. Even now, in the era of per-pupil funding, local taxes are essential. Early advantages or disadvantages are inherited. Schools with a disproportionate number of poor students must meet disproportionate needs, but with few resources.”

The facts: From 1997-98 to 2017-18, Benton Harbor Area Schools received significantly more dollars for its general fund than St. Joseph Public Schools. The general fund is what school districts use to pay for their daily operations. In every one of those 21 years, Benton Harbor received more funding per student for school operations than St. Joseph.

According to the Michigan Department of Education, over that time, Benton Harbor received on average $2,808 more each year for each student than St. Joseph. Benton Harbor’s higher revenue is largely due to extra federal dollars the district received for having a poorer student population. For example, in the 2018-19 school year, 83% of Benton Harbor’s students were categorized as “economically disadvantaged” on the basis of being eligible for federal lunch programs. By comparison, just 31% of St. Joseph’s students were designated that way.

From 1997-98 to 2017-18, Benton Harbor received federal dollars, each year, that when added up, averaged $1,809 per pupil. By comparison, St. Joseph received an average of just $157 per pupil. Those federal dollars can be used to pay the salaries of school district employees who participate in the programs offered under various grants.

The fact that Benton Harbor received more money than St. Joseph undermines a persistent and widely held myth about Michigan education finance: Poor communities have poorly funded school districts.

In an email, Clark addressed the per-pupil funding gap that favored Benton Harbor.

“The point I tried to make is that our past systems of housing, school funding, and taxation combined to create a set of cumulative advantages and disadvantages that are inherited, tangible, and not precisely accounted for in direct comparisons of per-pupil funding,” Clark stated. “While moving to the complex per-pupil funding formula was a step in the right direction, it's been a full generation since Proposal A, and we can look around us to see how many of the same problems persist in the same places. By itself, it has not been sufficient to interrupt the disinvestment cycle set in motion decades ago. I also think it's important to acknowledge present-day gaps. Among other things, property taxes are still essential, since per-pupil funding doesn't cover renovations or repairs, and some communities have far more resources to tap via millages.”

The second claim Clark made in her op-ed was about salaries for Benton Harbor’s teachers.

Clark wrote: “It’s a challenge to keep teachers, when salaries are among the lowest in the state. Average annual pay was $34,761 for the 2016-2017 school year, and fell during a statewide teacher shortage.”

The facts: Benton Harbor teachers, on average, make far more than $34,761 a year. The teachers’ contract has a starting salary of $34,000, meaning that most teachers will earn significantly more than $34,761.

That average salary for the 2016-17 year was reported in the Michigan Department of Education’s Bulletin 1014 at $34,761, the figure Clark cited. But the bulletin for 2017-18 listed the average Benton Harbor teacher salary at $48,280.

Here’s how the bulletin reported teacher salaries for Benton Harbor from 2014-15 to 2017-18:

2014-15: $43,473

2015-16: $47,562

2016-17: $34,761

2017-18: $48,280

The Michigan Department of Education said it noted the discrepancy also and asked Benton Harbor for an explanation in 2017 for how salaries could drop almost $13,000 in one year, from 2015-16 to 2016-17. The district stated it lost a lot of experienced (and thus more highly paid) teachers and noted that it may have mistakenly not included the salaries of teachers who were paid from federal grant dollars.

It very unlikely that Benton Harbor teachers’ salaries were that low in the 2016-17 year. In 2016, Michigan Capitol Confidential submitted an open records law request for the salaries of all full-time teachers in the district. District officials responded by saying the average annual base salary for all teachers was $46,203.

Benton Harbor’s average teacher salary jumped to $48,280 in 2017-18, which makes it even more likely that the stated figure of $34,761 for the prior year was calculated in error.