EVERETT — When it comes to teacher salaries, six school districts in Snohomish County reward their most experienced classroom instructors with the highest pay in the state.
And in some cases they earn tens of thousands of dollars more than peers with equal experience in other districts, an incongruity state lawmakers hope to eliminate when they get around to fully funding public schools as demanded by the state Supreme Court.
Setting the pace in Washington is the Everett School District with a top base salary of $97,445 that will rise to $103,000 for the 2017-18 school year under a new contract signed last fall.
Mukilteo School District is next, paying $92,282 at the peak of its salary scale. That could soon change, as the district and the teacher’s union are in the midst of negotiating a new contract.
Right behind them are the school districts in Snohomish ($91,899), Arlington ($91,372), Edmonds ($90,644) and Marysville ($90,346), according to figures published by the Washington Education Association in its latest newsletter.
Meanwhile, the union also listed dozens of school districts where the top salary level for equivalent experience is around $67,000 annually.
That $30,000 difference is a result of years of bargained contracts and districts using local property tax levies to pay higher wages.
The leader of the Everett teachers’ union isn’t apologizing.
“My first reaction is all teachers deserve at least this compensation in the state,” said Everett Education Association President Jared Kink.
For an Everett school teacher to reach the $97,445 plateau in the pay schedule, he or she must have 29 years experience, a master’s degree and have earned at least 135 additional credits of professional education.
“We don’t have a lot of people get there, frankly,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of people teaching that long.”
Everett Public Schools Superintendent Gary Cohn said the school board has historically strived to adequately compensate teachers. And the community has shown its support by passing property tax levies to help provide competitive salaries, he said.
As a result of continually paying teachers the highest wages in the state, the Everett School District has set off a salary arms race in the county.
“When contracts are negotiated, districts use nearby salaries for comparisons (not unlike house sales comparisons) to determine what is believed to be a fair salary,” said David Iseminger, a Lake Stevens School Board member who has worked for years to improve the state’s system of financing public schools.
“And the challenge from surrounding districts is this: we all want high-quality teachers and we must compete with higher-paying districts for those teachers,” he said. “But, when teachers look at how much more they can get in neighboring districts just a few miles away, or just across the road or trestle, that becomes an uphill battle.”
Everett’s got a slight built-in advantage as a “grandfathered” district. Years ago the state Legislature established a higher salary schedule for Everett and 11 other districts and have never rescinded the decision.
This compounds the challenge and requires districts like Lake Stevens to direct greater amounts of local property tax levies into compensation to stay competitive.
“Then other districts negotiate again, salaries go up, and the cycle repeats,” Iseminger said. “Put salaries at the state level, and all that goes away and we can concentrate on learning, students, educators, and culture… not levies.”
The gap in teacher pay is an enormously expensive and complex problem lawmakers are wrestling with as they face a 2018 deadline to fully fund public schools in the McCleary case.
Supreme Court justices made clear the state will need to cover the cost of compensation for teachers and to end school districts’ reliance on local property taxes to pay salaries and operating expenses.
But at this point, lawmakers don’t know exactly how much each district collects through those levies or how those dollars get spent.
A new bipartisan legislative committee dubbed the Education Funding Task Force is gathering the information. Once they have it, they can begin to calculate how many billions of dollars are needed to not only pick up the tab for salaries statewide but also erase the gap among districts.
High salaries paid to teachers in Snohomish County doesn’t make it any easier, especially if they keep rising, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said after the committee met Wednesday in Olympia.
“I think they’ve put themselves in a very difficult position and put us in a difficult position as we address this situation statewide,” said Braun, one of the chief budget writers for the Republican majority in the Senate. “I think the public should wonder what the Snohomish school boards and districts are up to. Why are they so much different than the rest of the state?”
Kink and Cohn took umbrage at the comments.
The incongruity in teacher pay is a direct result of legislative decisions on levies and salaries, they said. Years of underfunding public schools and not providing money for cost-of-living increases in teacher pay has forced districts to blaze their own trail on compensation.
“This system works precisely as how the Legislature set it up to work,” Cohn said. “For legislators to blame school boards … is buck passing of the worst variety.”
Meanwhile, there’s been talk among lawmakers that experienced teachers at the top of the pay scale in places such as Everett may see their salaries frozen or rising more slowly than those of teachers in other districts in order to achieve pay equity statewide.
Iseminger acknowledged it may come to that under a state-funded salary system.
“You have to bring everyone to whatever level is determined and that means some districts would see higher bumps initially, until things even out,” he said.
Kink said it’s not a good path to take. And with collective bargaining agreements in place, it could be difficult to carry out, he said.
“They want to hold districts like ours at our salaries or bring us down when they should be talking about how to raise salaries in those other districts,” he said. “We believe that every teacher ought to be paid what we’re paid.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;
Here’s how pay compares among school districts in Washington for the most-experienced and highly educated teachers, based on a combination of state and local funding in 2015-16:
Seattle $89, 113
Lake Stevens $88,290
Source: Washington Education Association
Here’s how pay compares among school district in Washington for starting teachers, based on a combination of state and local funding ins 2015-16:
Source: Washington Education Association