November 18, 2010 at 1:00 am

High teacher salaries under scrutiny in Michigan

Pay, benefits may be squeezed as schools try to balance budgets

Algebra teacher Miss Debra Olesky introduces the TI navigator handheld device to her 9th grade algebra class during orientation week at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Detroit. (The Detroit News)

As state leaders grapple with a looming $1.6 billion deficit, thousands of teachers know they have a target on their backs.

With K-12 education one of the state's largest expenses, any funding cuts could put pressure on teacher compensation. Michigan educators, who get some of the nation's best teacher wages and benefits, know their pay stubs are likely to see big changes.

For many, those pay stubs are ample, according to a Detroit News survey of area districts.

More than 300 teachers in the region make more than $100,000 — double the median household income — and the average top wage for a teacher with a master's degree and roughly a decade of experience is nearly $82,000, according to a survey of districts in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Livingston counties. The information was gleaned from employee compensation reports that school districts must post online.

Although starting teachers right out of college make roughly $40,000 in many area districts, they can earn well above $70,000 by age 30 if they get a master's degree. And that's for nine months' work and most holidays off.

In the Troy schools, a 25-year teacher with a master's degree and 30 extra hours of education can make $99,528.

"I think it's way over the top," said Troy resident Jim Grix, a retired industrial services salesman. "We've had these huge pay adjustments (during the recession). I think it has to filter down to everything."

State Sen. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, the outgoing Senate majority leader who has dealt with education issues for years, was also surprised by the amount a teacher could make in Troy. He agrees that the same downward pressure affecting many in the state will have to be felt by teachers: "We have to figure out how to do more with less."

The average Michigan teacher made $56,096 in 2009, according to the National Education Association, ranking the state 11th in the nation. But Michigan ranked 36th in median income last year, the result of a decade-long recession that hit the state's manufacturing base especially hard.

While few suggest that teacher incomes should take the same downward spiral as blue-collar workers', most recognize that some cuts are mandatory. Although legislators don't set salaries, they could cut per-pupil funding, which would force districts to address the shortfall. Some in Lansing have unsuccessfully tried to limit teacher and superintendent pay by linking it to the pay of the governor and lawmakers.

"We're at the crossroads of trying to maintain a government and school system that we've grown accustomed to as a relatively rich state," said Michael Van Beek of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative think tank based in Midland. "And now we're a relatively poor state."

But as it awaits state-level funding cuts that could affect teacher pay and benefits, the Michigan Education Association argues that instructors and other school employees have already taken hits. Many more teachers are paying a portion of their health care premiums, and all are paying at least 3 percent more for their retirement health care — a concession made recently to control spending.

"The question is: 'How much is enough?'" said Doug Pratt, a spokesman for the MEA.

Bishop has proposed that public employees take a 5 percent pay cut and pay at least 20 percent of their insurance premiums. Those savings would trim $1.6 billion from the budget alone. Roughly half of the state's teachers pay nothing in premiums for health insurance that is typically better than the private sector's.

That plan might not pass, but wholesale changes are needed to avoid thousands of layoffs, Bishop said. "We need to do something to save our system," he said.

Many districts are in contract talks with teachers, and at the heart of those negotiations is not whether there will be concessions, but how deep.

"I think we're realists, and as realists we're open to talk about everything," said Tony Lucchi, president of the Troy Education Association, whose contract expires in August, just as legislators will be trying to solve the state's projected budget deficit.

Districts seek concessions

Nancy Kliza recently retired from the Wayne-Westland schools, where she was a middle-school social studies teacher. She remembered not making much when she started and recalled taking a pay cut decades ago to help avoid staff layoffs.

Kliza, who has a law degree, made more than $100,000 last year. That salary is no longer available to district teachers because of changes to the contract. "People aren't stupid if there isn't any money," she said.

A number of districts have won concessions. Some have established two-tier wage scales, with new hires taking double the years to reach top pay. Other districts are freezing scales, limiting raises if state funding goes down. In West Bloomfield schools, all non-teaching employees took a 5 percent pay cut in the last half of 2009 and another 5 percent cut this year and began paying more for health care.

Still, the district faces a $3.1 million deficit this year unless teachers agree to concessions, said Rick Arnett, assistant superintendent for human resources and labor relations.

The school board has proposed more than $4 million in cuts; the union has offered $2 million in cuts.

Arnett said without help from teachers, "We're going to have to make significant program cuts that would affect our students."

Other savings possible

Some educators have suggested other savings: The state could mandate district consolidation, cutting redundant overhead and administration. And lawmakers could go after superintendent pay. In Metro Detroit, the average superintendent salary, including perks such as car allowances, longevity pay and stipends, is more than $156,000.

Previously, districts could afford lucrative contracts for teachers.

"But they don't make sense today," said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based conservative think tank.

"I think Americans are going to be surprised by how high (teacher salaries) are and (legislators) are going to be surprised by the amount of support for reductions," he said.

Hess and others dismiss fears that a reduction in pay will lower teacher quality. For teachers making $80,000, a 5 percent cut would put them at $76,000. Factor in an increase in health care costs and they could be paying another $3,000 in health care premiums, bringing them to $73,000. That's a significant drop — but far below what many manufacturing workers saw as their pay was cut from $29 an hour to $14 — or worse, to no job at all.

"(Teaching) is an awfully nice job to have for that kind of pay," Bishop said.

Lucchi, leader of the Troy teachers union, will try to educate politicians and the public on the cuts that have already occurred, but he realizes that Lansing will likely be asking for more.

"I know it's coming," he said.

mwilkinson@detnews.com

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