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Compensation disparities vast among Pennsylvania educators

Natasha Lindstrom
| Saturday, May 16, 2015, 10:50 p.m.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Trib photo

Schools in poorer, rural areas of Pennsylvania pay 30 to 60 percent less annually to teachers than schools in wealthy suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, a Trib Total Media analysis found.

Teachers in Plum Borough, 20 miles east of Pittsburgh, have the highest average annual salary in 11 counties of Western Pennsylvania — $78,848.

At the opposite end of the scale, teachers in Somerset County's Turkeyfoot Valley Area make an average of $32,848 — or $46,000 less, the analysis shows.

“We know that Pennsylvania's teacher compensation, at least in many of the better-off districts, is quite high,” said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. “But it's really a mess when you have such disparity in economic conditions.”

Trib Total Media has built a searchable database and interactive map that enables users to compare educators' salaries. The database uses 2013-14 data compiled by the state Department of Education.

The average teacher salary in Pennsylvania is $57,500, the data show. But zoom in on school districts and individuals, and stark geographic disparities in compensation become clear.

Geography matters

The highest-paid teachers in Pennsylvania work in affluent Philadelphia suburbs in Bucks and Montgomery counties, accounting for 232 of the 250 top salaries in 2013-14, according to the Trib database.

“Unfortunately, there is not one simple explanation as to differences in salaries from one part of the state to the next,” said Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. “Local economy, including tax base, and cost of living still are the biggest driving forces.”

In Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County — where the median household income is about $86,400 and less than 2 percent of families fall below the poverty line — teachers make an average of $94,834 annually. Slightly more than half of the educators on the district's professional payroll earn a six-figure salary.

Five Lower Merion high school teachers with doctoral degrees make more than $120,000 a year.

At $163,200 per year, Joseph Proietta was the highest-paid teacher in the state in 2013-14. In addition to classroom work, he was CEO of Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter School.

The highest-paid administrators are clustered in the southeast.

The head of Philadelphia's public school system ranks second with a salary of $270,000. Linda Lane, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, ranks 13th, earning $220,000.

The geographical split shifts for rank-and-file teachers.

The average annual salary for teachers in Pittsburgh — $73,928 — is about $3,300 more than the average for those in Philadelphia City Schools. A report last week by the consumer information website GoodCall.com ranked Pittsburgh the 13th-best city for teachers in the nation. A December report by the National Council on Teacher Quality ranked Pittsburgh first in teacher lifetime earnings.

In Western Pennsylvania, the highest average teacher salaries are in the Plum Borough ($78,848), Fox Chapel Area ($77,849) and Montour ($77,785) school districts.

“Teachers are not overpaid,” said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. “In fact, they are underpaid relative to comparable professions that require bachelor's degrees or more for entry.”

Pay gaps can make it difficult for rural districts to recruit and retain teachers, particularly in high-demand areas such as special education, Keever said.

“When we lose teachers, it's usually to a place where they can get a pay raise,” said Jeffrey Malaspino, acting superintendent for Turkeyfoot Valley Area.

“But at least a third of our staff are teachers who are local,” added Malaspino, who said the average time teachers have been with the district is nine years. “They went to school here, graduated here, and their families are here.”

Rounding out the bottom of the salary scale are Salisbury-Elk Lick in Somerset ($36,840); Southeastern Greene in Greene County ($44,239); and Shanksville-Stonycreek ($44,361) and North Star ($46,764), both in Somerset.

“They probably have a lot of turnover, so a lot of their courses are being taught by teachers basically just out of school, and they may not be getting the best teachers,” Haulk said.

Flagging data flaws

Several school officials told the Trib that they are not against making information about educators' pay accessible to the public, but they are concerned about potential errors.

“It's a public position; certainly there's nothing that should be secret about what people make,” said Superintendent Michael Bjalobok of Highlands School District in Allegheny County.

Yet Bjalobok was shocked to learn the state data listed two of his middle school teachers as making $25,000 to $30,000 more than he does — they actually make about $75,000 less. And he noted that the data did not reflect certain midyear adjustments, such as the voluntary pay cut he took that dropped his salary from the $134,550 listed in the state spreadsheet down to $130,000.

Because of district reporting errors, it appeared in 2012-13 data as though individual teachers in Southern Lehigh and Sugar Valley Rural school districts made $576,334 and $459,000, respectively. In actuality, someone entered an extra figure in what should have been $57,634 and $45,900, according to business managers for those districts.

The Trib made an effort to correct inaccuracies that could be clarified by school payroll officials.

Errors in official data undermine the point of making the information public, advocates of open records say.

The purpose behind open government laws “is to enable public debate about important issues,” said Adam Marshall, legal fellow with Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington advocacy group for freedom of information rights. “And if people are engaging in debate based on inaccurate or faulty information, that doesn't help anyone.”

Exploring the database

Those who visit the Trib's teacher salary database can search by name, school, school district and county to find out how much educators make throughout Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, compare the top-paid teachers and administrators in each area and learn the percentage of a district's payroll spent on six-figure salaries.

Posted salaries do not include benefits but do include stipends for coaching, mentorships and advising clubs.

Elected school boards negotiate each district's salary schedule and pay increases with local teachers unions, which generally seek three- to five-year contracts. They follow step-and-column schedules that award higher pay to teachers with graduate degrees and those with more years of experience within a district.

“Those with more senior teachers will usually have higher salary costs because more teachers will be at the upper end,” said Robinson of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

In Western Pennsylvania, Fayette and Washington counties join Somerset and Greene with salaries on the low end, while schools in Allegheny and Indiana counties tend to pay teachers the most.

Fayette's Laurel Highlands School District falls in the middle, paying teachers an average of $55,400.

“With what the community can afford living here in this rural community, it's the best that we can do,” said Laurel Highlands Superintendent Jesse Wallace.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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