Last year, every public school district in the counties adjoining Davidson approved pay raises for new teachers, with two exceptions — Cheatham County Public Schools, Wilson County Schools.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that for the 2008-09 school year, Nashville’s public school district no longer had the highest compensation for new teachers. MNPS has slipped to third place, coming in behind Franklin Special School District and Murfreesboro City Schools.
And with Nashville’s tight budget this year, no raise for new teachers was approved for the next year, either.
June Keel, assistant superintendent for human resources at MNPS, recently told school board members that the situation is a “warning sign.”
“I cannot stress enough that it is important that our salaries remain competitive with the neighboring school systems,” Keel said. “We have dropped two steps in comparison to the area around us, and these are the school systems that we primarily compete with. …I think this is a warning sign to us, something that we need to look at in looking at our priorities in figuring budget and plans.”
At MNPS, teacher salaries increase with each year of experience and with additional degrees earned. Keel’s department is working on an analysis of the competitiveness of Metro salaries with other counties at various levels along the schedule.
But for now, starting teacher salaries are trouble enough.
A competitive need
Each year, on average, MNPS must hire 600 new teachers to the system to deal with normal employment attrition. The competition is significant.
School board Chair David Fox said he wants MNPS to return to having the highest starting teacher salaries in this area, but that compensation is limited by this year’s budget.
“I think we need to be the most competitive in the Middle Tennessee market,” Fox said. “The reality right now is, our compensation level is at the maximum we can afford right now.”
The Board of Education and the mayor’s office have proposed a budget for the next school year that cuts $15 million — eliminating a net total of 209 school district staff positions. About 100 of those staff cuts would be teacher positions, and 66 would be custodial jobs.
MNPS officials have said they expect most cuts of teacher positions to be resolved through attrition rather than layoffs.
Though the gap between starting salaries of Nashville teachers and hires in surrounding areas may have grown, the divide between starting salaries here and in Memphis is already substantial. Erick Huth, president of local teachers’ union the Metro Nashville Education Association, says that’s the real problem.
“Given that we’re attempting to attract teachers from all over the country through Teach for America, arguing that we have to compete with little tiny districts around us is a very low threshold,” Huth said. “When the police talked to the mayor about their pay plan, they looked at urban cities with NFL teams. They didn’t look at Williamson County and the city of Franklin.”
For Tennessee teachers just out of college, Memphis offers a lower cost of living and higher level of pay. The unfavorable comparison has interfered with Nashville’s ability to recruit new minority teachers to the system here, Huth said.
Beyond Memphis, Nashville should compare its salaries to those in metropolitan areas across the United States, he said, as Nashville should be attempting to recruit teachers from outside the southeast as well as in this state.
Incentive pay plans new this year
Negotiations between MNPS and the MNEA recently concluded, and though no base salary increase for teachers was approved, two incentive pay plans were agreed upon.
Under the new plan, if it’s passed by MNEA membership and by the school board, teachers at five middle schools will receive 5 percent raises. These five schools are in the process of being “fresh-started,” meaning that all employees must reapply for their jobs.
Director of Schools Jesse Register cited as reasons for the change repeated struggles to make progress in student achievement.
A pay incentive plan was also approved for some schools affected by the recently passed rezoning plan. Teachers at rezoning-affected north Nashville schools will receive an extra two weeks of paid time each year, to be used for professional development and planning.
These plans may just be the beginning of a movement toward some form of merit pay for many Metro teachers. A highlight of Register’s resume is his work with Chattanooga’s Benwood Initiative.
An effort that successfully altered the academic course of some of the state’s lowest performing elementary schools, the Benwood Initiative has earned national praise. Part of the Benwood Initiative involved reconstituting the staffs of certain schools, as well as a form of merit pay for many district teachers.
The success of the Benwood Initiative has been cited as evidence of the value of merit pay. A major incentive program for teachers was created for teachers at Benwood schools, which included benefits ranging from cash bonuses given for student gains to breaks on mortgage loans.
The incentives were devised with the help of community members and former Chattanooga Mayor and current U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, and were supported by the local teachers’ union, according to a report from think tank Education Sector.
Performance pay was a hot — and heavily politicized — issue in Nashville two years ago. Four private donors offered to contribute $400,000 for a pay-for-performance grant at two Metro schools, Alex Green and Inglewood elementary schools. The grant would have allowed teachers at those schools to earn up to $6,000 as a bonus for increased grade-level performance.
The idea fell through due to failed negotiations between the district and the MNEA. Since that time, researchers with Vanderbilt University have worked on a three-year study of whether incentive compensation for teachers is related to student performance. Results of that study are due this summer or fall.
According to Huth, the process of negotiating the incentive plans for fresh-started and rezoning-affected schools was very different from what was proposed at Alex Green and Inglewood. Collaboration with teachers made all the difference, he said.
“We came to the table to discuss it, and we did have some give and take. There were some changes to the plan that were made to the plan based on our concerns. Whereas with that other plan, it was basically, ‘Take what the millionaires got, or leave it,’” Huth said. “That was an approach that didn’t work. I think this was a much more productive approach.”
Marc Hill, chief education officer for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, called the new incentive plans “steps in the right direction.” For Hill, the gap in starting salaries for teachers is a concern, but it doesn’t address the fundamental problems in how teachers are paid.
The current system doesn’t recognize generational differences between current new teachers and their predecessors, as those new to the workforce typically don’t plan to work for one company for multiple decades — and shouldn’t have to spend 30 years with one company to receive a pension they can retire on, Hill said. Teacher compensation must compete favorably with pay in other industries, and also reward high-quality teachers who stay with the system.
“It’s important to be competitive with our surrounding systems and the larger systems we compete with for teachers. In the end, it’s not enough. There really needs to be a major shift in how we think about compensating teachers so that we really are attracting the best and retaining expertise in our system,” Hill said.
“At the end of the day, a salary schedule alone is not going to create the high-quality workforce that our children need.”
Starting teacher salaries
(Tennessee metro areas, 2007-09)
District 07-08 08-09
Metro Nashville $34,059 $34,059
Memphis City $38,694 $39,467
Montgomery County $34,429 $34,429
Sevier County $32,720 $34,030
Shelby County $38,694 $39,468
(Middle Tennessee, 2007-09)
District 07-08 08-09
Metro Nashville $34,059 $34,059
Franklin SSD $33,858 $34,535
Murfreesboro City $33,795 $34,417
Rutherford County $33,692 $33,916
Williamson County $32,990 $33,485
Sumner County $32,990 $33,085
Robertson County $32,412 $32,736
Wilson County $32,177 $32,177
Cheatham County $31,622 $31,622
Salary figures are for new teachers with bachelor's degrees. Data compiled by Metro Nashville Public Schools.