Professional pay means teachers stay!
By Pete Vala
Money matters, but when conversations about teachers, school counselors, school nurses, and the multitude of other certified staff working in our state’s school buildings reach the public, the reality that money makes a difference is rarely discussed. In fact, the subject is often buried as if to translate a kind of embarrassment or shame in telling school employees what is true of almost all other professions: money matters. That’s why the NJEA has for decades educated its members and the communities they serve on the importance of competitive starting salaries that create salary structures to attract and retain the best and brightest academic prospects in the teaching profession.
The $60,000 starting salary goal is the latest iteration of a salary campaign that began in the late 1990s. To date, New Jersey has 77 school districts that have reached that threshold and two , Riverside (Burlington County) and Westfield (Union County), which broke the $70,000 mark. For graduating personnel in these districts, the economic burden of living in New Jersey is just a little easier.
The importance of celebrating our success in achieving this goal cannot be overstated. As more districts negotiate a starting salary of $60,000, the pressure on surrounding districts to match them increases. This “bargaining model” is what severance pay campaigns aim to create, an atmosphere of competition between districts. Most importantly, by negotiating strong starting salaries, local associations were able to improve salaries for all members.
Local bargaining teams are now well educated on the importance of a competitive starting salary. It has become ingrained in their trading DNA. This understanding has not always been clear and our members have paid the price as their wage increases have stagnated.
In the fall of 1998, NJEA staff tasked with helping local associations negotiate higher settlements and develop salary guides noticed an alarming trend: the average salary of employees in these districts was not keeping pace with settlements that locals had previously negotiated.
A task force of NJEA staff and local leaders was convened and tasked with determining the cause of this phenomenon and developing strategies to reverse the trend. After two years of extensive study, the task force determined that the way locals developed salary guides was the root cause of the lagging average salary growth.
Their task force has also developed a series of remedies to help reverse the situation. A list of salary guide best practices was developed and adopted by the NJEA Representative Assembly in March 2001. The list, titled “Best Practices for Salary Guide Development”, became the centerpiece of training workshops for negotiations across the state, educating local leaders on how decisions made during the development of salary guides impacted average wage growth in their locals. The first best practice focuses on starting salaries, stating that “starting salaries should be increased by the same amount as the maximums and never decreased.”
This concept, relatively obvious to anyone currently negotiating salaries, was somewhat revolutionary when it was introduced. School boards have consistently argued that the existing starting salary is adequate and, in many cases, too high. In the early to mid-1990s, it was not uncommon for starting salaries to be frozen or lowered in order to secure a deal. A new strategy was needed to combat this trend, which led to the birth of a starting salary campaign, “$40K on Day One!”
Local bargaining teams across the state have created a new model of bargaining by focusing on starting salaries. Pushing for a starting salary of $40,000 has quickly become a necessity for school boards wishing to stay competitive in the hiring market. As of March 2006, four hundred districts had negotiated a starting salary greater than $40,000 and three had negotiated a starting salary of at least $50,000. In 2008, it was clear that the number of districts successfully reaching the $40,000 benchmark required a pivot to a new “$50,000 Right Now” campaign. In 2011, local associations retained more than 70% of their previously negotiated settlement in their average salary, allowing them to negotiate higher dollar increases for all members.
After two decades of education and hard work, local NJEA affiliates continue to push the boundaries of pay. More than 200 contracts now contain certified salary guides for staff where the $60,000 benchmark is at their fingertips, with 74 successfully negotiating a starting salary of $60,000.
Compensation is a primary concern for all our members, especially during contract negotiations. Let’s not accept the stigma associated with teacher compensation. The attitude established within our local associations and at the bargaining table when we say, “We’re worth it! makes it clear to everyone involved that money matters.
Pete Vala is associate director in the NJEA’s Economics and Research Services Division. He can be contacted at [email protected]njea.org.
Best practices for developing a salary guide
- Starting salaries should be increased by the same amount as the maximums and never decreased.
- Increments must be paid for without devaluing steps or adding steps.
- Increments should be consistent throughout the guide.
- There should be as many training/education columns as possible with uniform differentials.
- Employees must reach the maximum as quickly as possible.
Adopted by the NJEA Assembly of Delegates, March 2001.
Number of districts at $60,000
There are currently 74 school districts in New Jersey with a bachelor’s degree starting salary at or above $60,000 for those on a teacher’s salary guide. Below is the number of such districts in each county, also noting the number of districts contained within the county.
Atlantic: 4 out of 24
Berg: 3 out of 76
Burlington: 4 of 41
Camden: 2 of 38
Cape May: 2 of 17
Cumberland: 4 out of 15
Essex: 2 of 23
Gloucester: 1 of 28
Hudson: 2 of 13
Hunterdon: 1 of 27
Mercer: 2 out of 11
Middlesex: 1 in 25
Monmouth: 10 out of 53
Morris: 6 out of 40
Ocean: 4 out of 29
Passaic: 4 of 41
Salem: 2 of 14
Somerset: 7 out of 19
Sussex: 4 out of 26
Union: 7 out of 23
Warren: 2 of 24