Storm Lake superintendent finds that school payroll survey doesn't tell the whole story
"Deep down, I believe this. You couldn't pay a truly exceptional teacher what their value is. They are worth their weight in gold."
- Dr. Paul Tedesco
The state's average pay for teachers crashed down three more spots to 41st in the national ranking, according to a headline-grabbing report Monday by the National Education Association.
The report shows that Iowa's average teacher salary in 2004-2005 was $39,284, more than $8,500 below the national average of $47,808.
Storm Lake schools, with a staff of 135, averaged $39,496 in teacher pay as of the most recent survey published on-line by the Des Moines Register, ranking 69th in the state, and lower than area districts including Spirit Lake, Spencer, LeMars, MOC-Floyd Valley and Okoboji. Storm Lake's teacher pay was slightly above the state average in Iowa.
Storm Lake Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Tedesco says that the annual high-profile survey of teacher pay does not tell the whole story.
"You could say the survey is flawed. It does not show how many schools have higher pay because they have had a lot of turnover, which is not good for students," he said. "The problem with surveys like these is that they do not take into account factors such as longevity and the advanced education of staff members, which also contributes to pay levels."
While Storm Lake salaries compare well to most in the school's conference, there is little opportunity for the district - or the state - to see a major change in respective rankings.
"Unfortunately, we are very restricted in what we can do. About 75-80 percent of most districts' funds are already being spent on staff. We are a business heavy into personnel," Tedesco said.
"In the same way a factory invests in the best possible machinery to turn out its goods, we invest in the best staff possible," Tedesco said.
The best hope for raising teacher salaries is in the hands of the state - an increase in per pupil funding formulas, the superintendent said. Yet with limited resources, lawmakers must pursue a "delicate balancing act" in those decisions, he said.
"You can also look at the states on top of the teacher pay rankings and consider what the relative costs of living are. I would venture to say that in Connecticut, it would be considerably different than what people's costs are to live in Iowa," Tedesco said.
Still, the superintendent said the district cannot ignore the troubling fact that Iowa schools are falling further behind the national average. "It is going to take money, there's no getting around that."
One telling factor is retention - are teachers leaving a district for greener pastures in other Iowa schools or states with better pay?
"We're doing well there. The biggest problem for districts like ours may not be retention, but retirement - trying to replace the staff being lost. It is coming to the point where we could lose quite a few within the next three to five years," Tedesco said.
The question is - do you try to recruit experienced people to fill those gaps at a high cost, or rely on a high number of rookie teachers at base pay?
"I suspect the answer lies somewhere in between," Tedesco said.
Recruiting teachers in key areas is becoming an ever-increasing problem. "It used to be that everyone had troubles finding math and science teachers. Now you can add things like special ed and music to the list. And there are a multitude of high school-level specialties that are very hard to replace," the superintendent said.
While schools pinch pennies - after all, Tedesco said, they are spending the public's money - they realize that low wages are a risk.
"Talk to the colleges. They are worried. It isn't the average teacher pay that is the issue, but the beginning teacher pay. The state guarantees $24,500, and some districts including Storm Lake have set their own starting wage a little better than that, but it is not a large amount of money to lure the brightest people into the profession," Tedesco said.
He fears more young people are beginning to be drawn to other options, and that some good young teachers are dropping out of the field for other jobs. "It is generally true that a third are no longer teaching within three years of starting their career. Those are critical years. That's why the state put in a mentoring program a few years ago, and it has been a plus for teacher retention in Iowa."
Merit pay to retain the best teachers has been an issue for years, but it remains a tough sell. "We aren't like a college that can pick and choose the top students to work with. Public education is the lamplighter - we take everyone," Tedesco said.
"In one year, a teacher may have a class that will excel, and merit pay may be attractive to them. The next year, it may be a group that is going to struggle, and that same teacher could do the same job or work even harder and yet the test results may not show it."
As the results of the national teacher pay study were announced on Monday, the ripples on discontent were already spreading around the state.
"I want to know why a teacher in Minnesota earns almost $8,000 more than an Iowa teacher," said Linda Nelson, president of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents 32,000 teachers. "This has gone from being a state embarrassment to a disgrace."
It's the first year the report from the NEA, the nation's largest teacher's union, did not include pay for extra duties such as coaching. If last year's numbers would have been calculated the same way, Iowa would have ranked 41 last year instead of 38.
Connecticut had the nation's highest average teacher salary at $58,688 for 2004-05. South Dakota had the lowest with $34,040.
Iowa also lagged behind neighboring states, raising concerns about the state's ability to be competitive.
"It's going to be extremely difficult for us to continue to recruit and retain the quality teachers that we have," said Gary Anhalt, president of the Cedar Rapids Education Association.
Illinois' average teacher salary was $55,629, in Minnesota it was $46,906 and the average teacher pay in Wisconsin was $44,299.
Sandy Wilson, a biology teacher at Des Moines' Lincoln High School, said teachers often supplement their income with second jobs or summer jobs.
"I think it's very difficult to have that as the only income, the main income for the family," Wilson said. "I know a lot of people who do other things to make ends meet."
Gov. Tom Vilsack is making teacher pay a priority in the coming legislative session. He's calling on lawmakers to approve a five-year plan to increase teacher pay by at least $30 million a year.
Senate Republican Leader Stewart Iverson said he questioned which taxes Vilsack would raise to fund the increase in teacher pay.
"I certainly don't have a problem with raising teacher pay," Iverson said. "Here's the big question: Where's the money coming from?"
Lawmakers approved a plan in 2001 that was supposed to link increases in teacher pay with a new evaluation system. The plan included improvements in teacher mentoring and bonuses to schools that met student-achievement goals.
The program started with $40 million, and money was supposed to increase each year until it reached $300 million after five years. However, due to tight state budgets that has not happened. Spending on the program is about $70 million this fiscal year.