News Story

News Site Reports Teacher ‘Can’t Support Family’ — But Omits His $81K Salary

Not hard to mischaracterize teacher pay; site shows how

In a recent article on teacher pay in Michigan, the news site MLive profiled a teacher who, the article claimed, was unable to provide for his family on his school earnings.

What the article did not report was that this individual, Fitzgerald Public Schools teacher Greg Queen, was paid a total of $81,968 in 2017-18.

MLive’s article said that overall teacher pay is declining and based the claim on a calculation of the statewide “average” teacher salary. But in this state, pay can vary as much as $30,000 for two teachers with the exact same credentials, and other factors make average salaries an invalid indicator of how well or poorly Michigan teachers are doing financially.

For example, a teacher at Troy Public Schools in Oakland County with 14 years of experience and a master’s degree would have a base salary of $84,500. The same teacher working for the Benton Harbor school district would have a base pay of $54,800, an annual disparity of nearly $30,000. (Notably, revenue flowing into the Benton Harbor district’s general fund for school operations in 2017-18 was substantially higher on a per-pupil basis than the amount received by Troy schools — $13,098 for Benton Harbor and $11,609 for Troy.)

In the state of Michigan, the salaries paid to virtually all public school teachers in a unionized workplace are based on just two factors – years on the job and the number of academic credentials accumulated. A way for a teacher to earn more is to accept extra school duties that come with additional stipends.

One problem with setting pay levels for skilled professionals in a manner not unlike that used for industrial assembly line workers is that pay stagnates for a teacher who has reached the top of the union pay scale. In one instance, a Michigan teacher who had received a teacher of the year award was covered by a union contract that prevented her from getting a raise for five years.

MLive’s article on Queen noted that he had also reached the top of the pay scale.

The article stated:

“A decade of sluggish pay increases and rising contributions for health care and retirement benefits left Queen, 50, unable to provide for his family with earnings from a high school teaching job. ‘This is everybody’s story throughout Michigan,’ he said.”

But Queen’s claim that every teacher is in the same situation is not accurate, and it illustrates why using a statewide average salary to assess teacher pay levels can be very misleading.

The average teacher’s salary in Michigan in 2017-18 was $61,908, according to the state Department of Education. By comparison, the average teacher’s salary in 2008-09 was $62,237. Applying the logic employed used by the MLive story, it would appear that teachers were making less in 2017-18 than they did nine years earlier.

That is not the case, and the school district that MLive selected to focus on is a good example of why.

The MLive story quoted Cindy Rossi, a special education teacher at Fitzgerald Public Schools.

MLive wrote: “She’s retiring this year, and wouldn’t recommend anyone enter the field. ‘It’s a hopeless situation,’ Rossi said. ‘Anyone that could get out would get out.’”

MLive did not report her salary for the 2017-18 school year, which was $81,934. When she retires next year, her top-of-scale salary will fall off the district’s payroll, very possibly to be replaced a first-year teacher’s starting pay of $40,944 a year. This transition, and others like it, will show what appears to be a decline in the district’s “average” teacher salary. It also shows why using “average” teacher salary figures can mislead when assessing school compensation levels.

In 2018, the district recognized five persons for a teacher of the year award. Their salaries ranged from $45,794 to $95,233.

The teacher who made $45,794 had seen her total pay increase by $808, after adjusting for inflation, between the 2013-14 school year and 2017-18. She did not receive a large increase, but her pay did not decline.

Another of the five teachers saw her salary increase from $39,025 in 2013-14 to $47,251 in 2017-18. After adjusting for inflation, this was equivalent to a real gain of $5,899 over the period. The larger increase she received indicates that this teacher collected stipends for performing additional school duties, a common feature of school union contracts that let employees boost their pay by thousands of dollars a year. For example, the Fitzgerald district union contract prescribes $20 an hour for helping students before or after school, for supervising detention and study hall, or for teaching in summer school.

Michigan Capitol Confidential obtained the teachers’ salaries used in this story after submitting a Freedom of Information Act request with the Office of Retirement Services for the state of Michigan. Those salaries include all forms of compensation a teacher receives throughout the school year, which can be thousands of dollars more than what is stated as the base salary in the union contract.