Smaller Districts Brace For $40K Teacher Salary Plan

Nov 1, 2019

Illinois lawmakers approved a plan increasing starting teacher salaries over the next five years. That's forcing northern Illinois education leaders to prepare their districts for the change. Some will barely feel its effects at all, while others are playing catch up.

One year ago, Leland School District administrators ran the numbers on their teacher salaries. They looked at their starting figure, which was around $27,000, then looked at the imminent teacher shortage occurring across the state.

They quickly realized they had a big problem. Leland is a very small K-12 district of about 260 kids. They knew they had to find a way to increase their base salary. They wanted to raise it to $34,000, but couldn't afford that -- let alone the newly-mandated $40,000 -- with the way they were structured.

"Leland is a little town," said Jodi Moore, superintendent at Leland. "So we don't have industry or tax sales necessarily, it's just property tax. There's no way we could put that on the homeowners -- it wouldn't have been possible -- or the farmland owners."

They had to completely restructure their contracts to make it work. Luckily, they got it done in time to put their pay on track with the new $40,000 salary bill.

Other small districts haven't had the ability to maneuver like that to make it to 40K. Montmorency is another tiny district 60 miles west of Leland. Alex Moore is their superintendent. He says the measure should have accounted for the burden it puts on districts like his.

"That sounds all great, fine and dandy," said Alex Moore. "But smaller districts like us -- that's going to put a load on us. And we may at some point have to look at ways to cut costs."

Jodi Moore at Leland agrees Illinois probably should have regionalized the plan to account for differences in cost of living.

"Local control, especially when you're so heavily local-funded, is enormously important," she said. 83% of Leland's funding comes from local taxes.

She says that schools like Montmorency, and especially farther south in Illinois, may have the hardest time reaching the state's goal.

"These type of laws can really have such a heavy impact on them because they're much more limited in their local funding, and how close they are to other districts where they can share resources," said Jodi Moore.

Sterling School District's assistant superintendent, Sara Dail, compared it to the way schools evaluate student achievement. It used to be a single bar you had to reach, but now they changed it to a percentage of growth.

"In my opinion, I think it would have made more sense to look at a growth model if the goal was to increase teacher salary -- to do that as a percentage instead of a flat rate," said Dail.

Sterling is a much larger district than Leland or Montmorency; they're just over 3,400 students. They just made it over the $40,000 threshold last year. Technically, their salaries were just under that figure, but the state allows districts to count their contributions to the Teacher Retirement System.

The teacher salary measure is not the only new pay-related plan that will affect school districts.

"The big one for me is the $15-per-hour minimum wage," said Joshua Nichols, superintendent of Amboy School District.

"The hard thing is not meeting the minimum, but maintaining that parity," said Nichols. "You know, what is someone already making now over the minimum wage, and we just can't do it."

Right now, their starting pay for paraprofessionals is $2.70 over minimum wage. He says he's not going to be able to do that once the minimum is $15 an hour.

"They're sound economics," Nichols said. "I understand what they're trying to do in getting more money to lower-income people and middle-income people because, when it comes down to it, that's a good thing to do. I just don't know how we're going to pay for it."

Despite those lingering questions, overall Nichols says he's glad to see the state taking steps to address education needs.

"I'm actually very optimistic about what's happening in Springfield," he said. "I know we have to deal with the $40,000, we have to manage the $15 per hour. But we have a budget."

He says even that's a lot considering just a few years ago when schools in Illinois were closing because of the budget impasse.

Jodi Moore echoed that, saying that over the last few years, lawmakers have become more receptive to learning about education issues.

The base salary for Illinois teachers will be just over $32,000 for the 2019-2020 school year, beginning its five-year ascent to 40K.