News Story

Cost Of Teacher Raise Wanted By Detroit Superintendent: $81.2M Annually

But district already at risk of overspending its revenue

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said recently that his legacy and that of the school board will “rest on making Detroit teachers the highest paid in the state and country.”

It’s an unexpected metric given the district’s other problems, and achieving it would be costly — about $81.2 million a year. Spending that much more on payroll might push the district back toward the insolvency that led to a state bailout in 2016.

A May 30, 2017, report by a review commission from the state Treasury Department issued a warning about the district’s financial situation. The district, it said, would be spending more than it took in but for two one-time factors. First, it had not filled nearly 300 teaching vacancies, and second, it still had money left over from its $617 million state bailout of 2016.

Since then, state records show that the school district has hired an additional 485 full-time teachers. And district officials have said that the last of their bailout money will probably be gone by the end of this year.

Walled Lake Consolidated Schools had the highest average salary for teachers in the state in the 2017-18 school year, at $81,168. Detroit teachers’ average teacher salary is $57,997. With 3,506 full-time teachers, the Detroit district would need to spend an estimated $81.2 million more each year to match teacher pay in Walled Lake. The current union-negotiated pay scale for Detroit teachers tops out at $70,000.

Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said in October that its leaders were not concerned about the prospects of getting back into a year-end deficit.

The district's General Fund balance was $141 million on June 1, 2018, and its total expenditures were $633 million during the preceding fiscal year; $324 million of that was for instruction. The figures are from the district's 2018 audited financial report.

The financial review commission created to oversee the finances of the city of Detroit and the Detroit school district after the state bailed out each local government reported that the school district started increasing teacher pay in 2016. The total cost of raises granted across all its bargaining units was $11 million that year.

The recent talk of higher payroll expenses comes at a time when enrollment in the district is going down.

Enrollment had increased from 45,720 in 2016-17 to 50,176 this school year. But the numbers are somewhat misleading.

In the 2017-18 year, enrollment jumped by about 5,000 when students in 11 Detroit schools that had been placed under a form of state receivership were returned to local school district management. When they were removed from district management in 2012, those schools had enrolled 9,707 students.

A truer picture of enrollment trends can be seen in this year’s experience: The number of students attending Detroit district schools dropped by 699 students.

Increasing payroll costs significantly while enrollment continues to decline is risky because state school aid dollars are largely allocated on a per-pupil basis. Money follows the students in Michigan school finance, and if students go elsewhere, so does the money that came with them.

“We have raised teacher salaries and are committed to doing so through reoccurring and one-time bonus increases in the future,” Vitti wrote May 23 in an op-ed published in the Detroit Free Press. “We must put as much money in teachers pockets as our budget will allow while being fiscally responsible as a district under state financial review. ... No different than doctors, teachers must be given the time and resources to learn from veteran teachers before entering the classroom full time. ... Despite this work, the legacy of our school board and my leadership will rest on making Detroit teachers the highest paid in the state and country. Detroit teachers deserve to be the highest paid because our children deserve the best teachers in each of the classrooms they enter and leave every day”