Even In Low-Paying School Districts, It’s Hard To Beat Teacher Pay And Benefits

Teaching may have its frustrations, but total compensation in Michigan public schools isn’t bad

A recent Bridge Magazine story featured a Climax-Scotts Community Schools teacher who quit his job to become a general manager of a Chick-fil-A.

The article focused on former teacher Scott Leep to bolster an argument that many Michigan teachers are finding the profession unsatisfying and leaving it due to bureaucracy and low pay, a viewpoint also promoted by public sector unions.

The specific example chosen for the story deserves a closer look.

Leep told the publication he applied to Chick-fil-A because he needed to earn more money than the Kalamazoo County school district was paying.

The average teacher salary in Michigan was $62,280 in 2016-17, the most recent year for which is data available from the Michigan Department of Education. But teacher salaries across the state — and sometimes in adjacent school districts — can vary by tens of thousands of dollars each year. The average teacher salary at Climax-Scott was $42,926 that year.

Teachers in the district are paid according to a union pay scale that starts at $33,675 a year and tops out at $67,235. That higher number is reserved for anyone with at least 32 years of service and a master’s degree. This union pay scale is one of the lowest in the state. By contrast, the top-of-scale salary in Kalamazoo Public Schools is $80,331.

Over his 11 years on the job, Leep received modest base-salary increases every year. But school union contracts also provide numerous ways that teachers can augment their salary by performing extra duties, which can include teaching summer school, coaching a sport and filling in for absent teachers. Leep apparently had been taking advantage of these options, according to records kept by the state Office of Retirement Services.

Leep’s gross pay was $66,479 in 2013-14 and $64,865 in 2014-15. His base salary for those years was $41,677 and $41,885, respectively, which indicates he took on extra responsibilities.

In his last two years with the district, Leep’s gross pay fell off markedly, to $43,399 in 2015-16 and $44,429 in 2016-17. These amounts were only slightly above his base pay rates of $42,094 and $43,778 for the two years.

When he resigned, Leep gave up a secure job and salary, as well as various benefits.

The Climax-Scotts school district offers employees a generous health insurance policy administered by an arm of the teachers union, plus vision and dental insurance. The family plan cost $20,500 for the 2016-17 school year.

Climax-Scotts teachers typically work 182 school days, according to the union contract. Public school teachers in Michigan work about 50 fewer business days, on average, compared to workers in the private sector. reports that a general manager at Chick-fil-A makes $49,250 a year. The salary estimate is based on 40 Chick-fil-A general manager salaries reported to the jobs database site.

The Bridge Magazine article quoted Leep as saying he loved his teaching job. According to the article, the superintendent said Leep was well-liked.

Leep received the second-highest teacher rating (“effective”) in all six of his reviews, according to school district records.

In the six years that evaluations were done, the district gave its teachers 98 “highly effective” evaluations, while 146 were “effective,” four were “minimally effective” and one was “ineffective.” That means 98 percent of the evaluations were clustered in the top two categories — highly effective and effective.

That’s significant because Climax-Scotts says it ties raises to teacher effectiveness. The school district pointed to its union contact when asked about its merit pay policy. But under Michigan law, school districts and teachers unions are not allowed to negotiate merit pay, which the district decides, not the district and union together.

Not in Climax-Scotts district, apparently. The employment contract the district signed with the teachers union states that an employee must be rated either “highly effective” or “effective” to be eligible to move up one step in the pay scale.

Although the requirement that merit pay be a “significant factor” in compensation has been the law since 2010, few school districts embrace its spirit.

With 98 percent of teacher evaluations in the district either highly effective or effective, virtually every teacher received a step increase under the contract.

That means the district did not substantially change its pay system, even in the face of a merit pay law enacted in 2010.

This may be relevant to Bridge Magazine’s reporting that Climax-Scotts was having trouble finding someone to replace Leep, who was certified in both English and math.

Bridge wrote: “Because Climax-Scotts couldn’t find a teacher with Leep’s unusual dual certifications in math and English, the district was forced to hire two teachers to replace Leep. Superintendent [Doug] Newington laughed as he noted that Leep probably would have stayed if the district would have paid him what the district now has to pay for two teachers.”

That, however, would not be possible under the contract the superintendent and school board negotiated. Leep could not receive additional pay for the extra value he added.

That union contract, which is typical of nearly every other conventional public school system in the state, determines the pay of every teacher solely on the basis of seniority and having accumulated additional college credits.

Newington signs off on every teachers’ contract. He did not respond to emails seeking comment.

The information for this story came from Freedom of Information Act requests.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.