Lost Decade: How Palm Beach County public schools cut pay for veteran teachers

Life is more expensive now, but the school board pays mid-career teachers less than it used to, The Palm Beach Post found


Palm Beach County public schools cut the pay for veteran teachers by thousands of dollars over the past decade, relegating the county’s most experienced educators to lower salaries than their predecessors even as the cost of living climbed.

A typical 20-year teacher in Palm Beach County earns $3,000 less today than a typical 20-year teacher did in 2008, a Palm Beach Post analysis of school district salary records shows. A typical 15-year teacher earns $1,000 less than a 15-year teacher did a decade ago, while a 25-year teacher earns $2,100 less.

The salary declines are in real dollars. They become far greater when the effects of inflation are considered.

Beset by a recession, new salary rules and reduced state financing, school district leaders froze teachers’ pay in 2010 and 2011, then ditched a longstanding salary schedule that rewarded senior teachers with larger raises.

As the Great Recession faded into memory, the school district began to shift more money for raises to younger teachers, a sea change that boosted their starting pay by 14 percent in a decade but reduced salaries higher up the pay scale.

The result: Thousands of veteran teachers earning thousands of dollars less than teachers at their experience level did just a decade earlier.

In 2008, the median base salary of a 20-year district teacher was $57,200, The Post found. Ten years later, 20-year teachers’ median pay has fallen to $54,200 – a $3,000 decline.

The reductions came at the same time that the salaries of administrators and young teachers rose.

Although concern and debate about the pay of the school district’s 12,000 teachers are commonplace, the pay reductions for veteran teaching positions went largely unnoticed during a tumultuous 10-year span for the county’s public schools. In interviews, several school district leaders said they were unaware of the declines.

The decreases have had dramatic effects on the lives of veteran teachers, who joined the county’s public schools at a time of fixed salary schedules and relative stability, then watched their promised financial security collapse.

“When I came into the system I was shown a chart, and it said if you work so many years here’s how much you’re going to make,” said George Ryan, a 20-year physical education teacher at Bak Middle School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. “I was thinking I’ll get at least that plus raises, and I figured by the time I get to 20 years, I should be doing very well.”

But, he said, “it’s gone just the opposite.”

Low pay forces hard choices

In 2007-08, his 10th year as a district teacher, Ryan earned $42,700 a year and seemed well on his way to healthy pay boosts.

Under the district’s salary schedule at the time, he was due for raises worth at least $14,000 over the next 10 years – and likely much more since the salary scale was regularly increased to offset inflation.

But 10 years later, the 44-year-old educator is earning just $54,600.

That’s $3,000 less than 20-year teachers’ median salary in 2008.

The disparity between what teachers earned then and now becomes more pronounced when the rising cost of living is considered. From 2008 to 2018, prices rose 17 percent nationwide, federal figures show.

Adjusted for inflation, 20-year teachers would have to earn $66,900 today to match the median salary of 20-year teachers a decade ago.

Pinched by lower-than-expected pay and a rising cost of living, Ryan has worked a number of second jobs, including moonlighting as a caterer, a valet and a nightclub doorman.

For the past five years, he’s worked as a Realtor, often racing to show houses as soon as the last bell rings at Bak Middle.

“If I was only a teacher now, I just wouldn’t make it,” he said. “My standard of living would be no better and probably worse than it was my first year of teaching.”

Kara Macsuga, a veteran Suncoast High School history teacher, said rising costs and lagging pay pushed her out of her home.

“My husband is a teacher, too, and we’ve had to move in with my mom to save money and put my three kids through school,” she said.

Like Ryan, Macsuga earns a $54,600 base salary after 20 years on the job. As costs rose faster than her and her husband’s salaries, they sold their home in Loxahatchee and jointly purchased a Palm Beach Gardens home with Macsuga’s mother.

To trim costs further, they cut back on retirement contributions and less-essential insurance coverage.

“We did everything we could,” she said. “We cut every kind of medical coverage and life insurance. We cut that out because we couldn’t afford it.”

Canceled raises never restored

The story of how salaries collapsed for the county’s veteran teachers is a tangled one, the product of events and decisions reaching back more than a decade.

The unraveling started in 2004, when the county school board voted to do away with teachers’ automatic raises.

Until then, teachers automatically moved up the salary schedule each year, meaning guaranteed raises that could range from about $100 to more than $1,000, depending on years of service.

In late 2003, then-Superintendent Art Johnson called for doing away with automatic raises, saying that reflexively boosting pay each year gave the district too little control over its budget in the case of a financial emergency.

Teachers could still move up a “step” on the pay scale each year, Johnson said, but the raises would have to be negotiated annually by the teachers union and approved by the school board.

In January 2004, a divided school board voted 4-3 to approve Johnson’s proposal to do away with automatic raises.

Years later, he would argue that the move saved hundreds of jobs during the height of the recession, when school district budgets cratered statewide.

But the vote was accompanied by gloomy predictions about teachers’ financial futures.

In opposing the proposal, then-board member Sandra Richmond said that she didn’t “want our teachers’ economic future to be at the whim of whatever board is in place or any superintendent.”

Despite the change, for the next few years teachers continued to receive annual raises.

That ended with the onset of the Great Recession.

After a small 2 percent raise in the 2008-09 school year, teachers’ salaries were frozen for two years. Instead of raises, they received one-time $500 bonuses each year.

In that period, Ryan, Macsuga and other teachers at their experience level missed out on more than $3,000 in pay hikes, a lost opportunity that they would never recoup.

Annual raises returned in 2011, but in much-diminished fashion. All teachers earned a flat $500 raise that year, with no movement up the steps on the pay scale.

In the 2012-13 school year, teachers received significant boosts, ranging from $1,500 to $4,300, and then two years’ worth of “step” bumps the following year, boosting teachers’ salaries by $2,000 on average.

It was the last time the school district would honor the teachers’ salary schedule.

'We tried to do everything we could'

Every year since then, teachers have been given uniform across-the-board raises that disregard the district’s old salary schedule, with the pay boosts coming as flat dollar amounts in some years and percentage-based raises in others.

District administrators say a change in state law makes it difficult to return to a fixed salary schedule for teachers.

Since 2016, the school district has been required to give teachers rated “highly effective” larger raises than those rated “effective.” Now, “highly effective” teachers generally receive an extra $350 to $450 when raises are given out.

“We tried to do everything we could with what the state gave us.”
— Mark Mitchell, the school district’s director of compensation

Despite having no fixed pay scale, raises for mid-career teachers have returned to form over the past four years, slightly exceeding the annual pay boosts they would have received under the 2008 salary schedule.

But the school board never made up the raises that its veteran teachers lost from 2009 to 2011.

Mark Mitchell, the school district’s director of compensation, defended the district’s handling of teacher pay over the years, saying that no individual teacher’s pay was ever cut.

He said that what the district spends on employee salaries is largely constrained by the money the state Legislature provides each year.

State lawmakers’ unusually low boosts to education spending since the recession, he said, has made honoring the teachers’ old salary schedule impossible.

“When we started giving increases again, we couldn’t afford what was on the schedule,” he said. “We tried to do everything we could with what the state gave us.”

School district leaders say that the raises that teachers missed out on in the post-recession years can be restored if voters approve a proposed four-year property tax hike in November.

The increase would raise an extra $150 million a year for the school district. Of that, $100 million is earmarked to be spent on teacher salaries, with teachers with at least 10 years of experience receiving an extra $10,000 a year.

Those raises would last as long as the extra property tax continues to be renewed by voters.

“We recognize there’s an issue,” said Mike Burke, the school district’s chief financial officer. “The issue of teacher salary compression is real.”

Focus on new teachers, less money for others

Although state education spending plummeted after the recession, it has recovered gradually and now slightly surpasses 2008 levels in real dollars (though not when adjusted for inflation.)

While veteran teacher salaries declined over the past decade, salaries for many district employee groups increased.

Principals’ median base salaries rose 8 percent, from $91,900 to $99,300.

“If I was only a teacher now, I just wouldn’t make it.”
— George Ryan, Bak Middle School teacher

The salaries of the district’s regional superintendents rose 16 percent, from $128,000 to $148,500.

The base salary of the district’s superintendent rose 34 percent, from $250,000 to $335,000. (In March, a new superintendent, Donald Fennoy, took office with a base salary of $290,000).

Administrators struggle to explain why veteran teachers’ pay fell while the pay of others rose. But they agree that a key factor was the district’s focus on raising salaries for new teachers.

Alarmed by increasing turnover in the teaching ranks, school district leaders grew increasingly anxious to attract new recruits. The district says it now has to hire more than 1,000 new teachers each year.

To compete with other districts, the school board raised teachers’ starting salaries by 14 percent in a decade, from $36,100 to $41,000.

“We wanted to really focus on bringing up the starting teacher pay, and I think that took priority over the veteran teachers,” said school board member Debra Robinson, the board’s longest-serving member.

While Robinson said the emphasis on new teachers was necessary, she said she didn’t realize it had come at the expense of lower salaries for older teachers. It’s a problem that needs to be fixed, she said.

“We do have to right-size it,” she said.

District officials say that although state education funding is slowly increasing, a growing portion of the district’s budget is consumed by the rising costs of goods and services.

The district spends a larger portion of its budget on utilities and health insurance than it once did, Burke said. And the phasing in of the state’s class-size limits means that the district has to hire more teachers per student than it once had to.

Indeed, financial figures provided by the district show that, over the past decade, the portion of the district budget spent on instructional salaries has declined as the cost of employee benefits rose.

All of those factors, Burke said, conspire to squeeze the district’s budget for salaries.

“That’s what’s causing this,” Burke said. “You’ve got a recession that education never recovered from.”

In real dollars, the gap between the past and today is closing for the county’s veteran teachers. If upcoming pay boosts mirror recent ones, Ryan and Macsuga will surpass the 2008 median salaries of 20-year teachers in 2020 — their 22nd year on the job.

If voters approve the proposed property tax hike in November, the additional $10,000 pay boosts could more than make up the pay gap by next year.

But even then, 20-year teachers will remain behind their 2008 predecessors when the effects of inflation are considered.

Resigned to a shift from the early years of her career, Macsuga said she plans to keep her expectations low.

“It was a whole different world back then,” she said. “It promised much better than this.”


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