Weak salaries create teacher shortage

It’s hard to ignore the numbers.

Experts predict Arizona will need 27,000 more teachers in the next decade.

Across the Verde Valley, school districts will attempt to lure graduates to the front of the class with an average starting salary of $22,026.

They face some pretty tough competition.

Beginning engineers demand starting salaries of more than $42,000 compared with computer scientists whose first paychecks are in the $40,000 range. Even number crunchers like accountants receive $11,000 more after showing up the first year of work.

While some professionals decide to start low, banking on years of experience to increase their salary schedules, future earnings for teachers look increasingly dim for graduates who choose to walk through the school house door and stay there.

According to a 1998 study by the U.S. Census Bureau, teachers ages 44 to 50 holding a master’s degree earned $32,511 less than other professionals of the same age and academic credentials.

If you go back to the numbers game and employ the strategy that teachers only work nine months of the year, the disparity is closer to $24,383.

“While the prosperity train raced across the nation in the latter half of the 1990s, teachers have been left at the station,” wrote Christy Wilson in her Education Week article “The Salary Gap.”

Apparently so, because while non-teaching professionals have enjoyed a 32-percent salary increase over inflation between 1994 and 1998, the average inflation-adjusted salary for teachers with either master’s or bachelor’s degrees increased less than 1 percent over the same period.

Verde Valley teachers are familiar with these figures. “Mingus Union High School teachers haven’t received an adjustment for inflation for many years,” said Howie Usher, president of the Mingus Union Education Association.

According to Ann Coker, comptroller for the MUHS district, there has been no adjustment for inflation or raise on the base salaries since 1996.

Usher has gone back even further. “The maximum salary in 1988 was $39,000. If you adjust that salary for inflation in ‘99 dollars you would have $55,485. The max for the 1999/2000 school year is $44,000. That means we’ve lost $11,000 in buying power.”

Currently, the MUHS teachers’ salary average is $39,257, comparatively the most financially rewarding district in the Verde Valley. Camp Verde teachers average $35,721 while Cottonwood-Oak Creek District salaries average $31,545. Clarkdale-Jerome and Beaver Creek score the lowest with respective averages of $30,907 and $30,843.

Arizona’s average teacher salary ranks 34th in the nation at $35,025. The national average is $40,482.

The disparity couldn’t come at a worse time.

Arizona is facing a teacher shortage. Experts predict nearly 27,000 spaces opening up in the next decade. Student populations are expected to increase upward to 25 percent by the year 2010.

With two Cottonwood elementary schools exceeding enrollment capacity, C-OC District Superintendent John Tavasci acknowledges the prospect of a future teacher squeeze.

“Comparatively, we’ve been very fortunate,” said Tavasci. “We haven’t hit a crisis yet, but it’s coming.”

While educators may be drawn to the Verde Valley because of its climate and location, some vacancies remain difficult to fill.

“We already are facing an ESL teacher shortage and in those specialty areas like speech therapists,” Tavasci explained.

The question is whether Arizona and local districts will join the ranks of some states that have already sweetened the pot in order to lure and retain quality teachers.

This year in Philadelphia, teachers were attracted to a $4,500 signing bonus if they agreed to stay for three years. The district also gave them three years to move into the district and offered to help repay up to $15,000 of their college loans.

Teachers in California can earn up to $25,000 in bonuses if test scores improve substantially in a low-performing school.

Baltimore, Dallas and Detroit attract teachers with everything from cash bonuses to housing assistance, moving expenses and free graduate courses.

But how do Arizona superintendents increase the salaries of certified staff when the majority of their budgets are based on an average $4,000 per student, nearly the worst in the nation?

“We’re all behind Governor Hull at this point,” said Tavasci.

Tavasci is referring to Hull and State School Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan’s proposal for a .6 percent sales-tax increase, projected to raise $445 million annually. Other lawmakers have their hands poised over the tobacco-settlement money to help improve teacher pay.

Hull signed an education funding bill that requires last year’s $20 million of state aid to be paid to teachers as raises.

They estimate the increase to amount to about $500 per teacher.

“We spend more money on prisoners and juvenile offenders than students,” said Bill Kelly, superintendent of the Clarkdale-Jerome School District. “The question is does the state want to pay at the front or the back end.”

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