Voices of the Peninsula: Shedding some light on educators’ pay

  • By Matt Fischer
  • Thursday, April 16, 2015 4:48pm
  • Opinion

Once upon a time, being a teacher was a respected and valued profession. Alaska paid their teachers more than any state in the country. Today, as we talk about budget cuts in the state, it becomes apparent very quickly that this has gone away.

The State Senate has decided to make massive cuts to the States education budget. A couple of weeks ago I saw a headline referencing what Dave Ramsey would do if he had the budget difficulties Alaska is having. Education is one of the few things that are required for the state to provide in the State Constitution, I think it would be fair to compare this to having a place to live in our personal budgets. I have gone through Ramsey’s Financial Peace class and I can guarantee you that he would not advise you to stop paying your mortgage or reducing the payment (he would say to get a second job).

Asking the employees of the school district to carry the burden of the state’s financial crisis is the same as creating an education tax in the state that only District employees have to pay. The districts and state expect the same level of service or more with the money coming from teachers and district employee salaries.

I often times hear the board members say that they are going to do what is right for kids. I ask them and the community to not forget that teachers have kids, and they need to make sure that they can pay their bills to support their own kids, so that they can help your kids.

I recently saw a post talking about employees making $200,000! Let’s try to come to reality a little bit. Here are numbers that are reality in the KPBSD, not a random blogger’s theory.

The average teacher in our district has eleven years of teaching experience, and earns $67,000 per year. If we break that down to an hourly wage taking a conservative 10 hours per day average they earn $33.84 per hour. If you think this is too many hours per week, think of it this way, every time your kid does an essay, it takes the teacher 20 minutes to grade it, multiply that by the 125 students they see each day and you see that it will take the teacher 50 hours to grade those essays. In our district this is a least once per quarter. The average teacher also has around two years of college credits beyond those required for their initial degree and certification.

The first year teacher makes $46,635, and the highest paid teacher in the district with a minimum of 21 years of experience and the equivalent of 3.5 years of full time college credits after they received their teaching certificate earns $88,596. Out of 657 teachers in our district, 63 are at this level. Some of these teachers have almost 40 years of experience!

Consider what a student that graduates high school and goes to work on the platforms makes. I talked to one operator who did just that and he said they can expect to earn $75,000 their first year, and be at $95,000 within a couple of years.

I often see talk about the great retirement system all of the teachers have. If we go back 25 years to pre-1990, they would be right. A teacher could retire in 20 years with 40 percent of their highest 3 years as their retirement for life. Defined benefits ended for teachers hired 2006 and later. Today’s reality is much different. The employee contributes 8 percent and district contributes 7 percent to a 401a account, there is no guaranteed benefit. These teachers are not allowed to get Social Security either, so unlike the regular private employee, they have no guaranteed financial benefit! This has the benefit to the teacher that it is portable and they can take it with them to other states, but being locked into the retirement system is what kept many teachers in the system for 20 years even with wages that were not great.

Let’s take a look at the support employees for the district. Often times people talk about all the time off they get. Not very many employees in the private sector would be happy to have to take two weeks of unpaid leave at Christmas, a week at Spring break, and 3 months during the summer. An oilfield worker that is laid off for three months is eligible to collect unemployment, school district employees are not. Imagine trying to maintain your family budget with this in mind. We need these employees in order for schools to function, many are highly skilled, especially those aides that work with our intensive needs students and need a one-on-one aide. When we look at retirement, they don’t even get a full year of credit, they only get the proportion they actually worked. So the 25 years that it takes to retire with insurance (if your 401a has enough in it) really takes 33 years!

It is easy for people to say to freeze all district employees’ salaries, but unfortunately we cannot stop inflation. We still have to pay the electric bill which we just received notice will be increasing. Have you taken a look at the price of ground beef recently? A freeze is in all reality a cut. The school district never suggests telling HEA or Enstar that they are only going to pay the same rate they paid them last year, they understand the increase is an expected cost of a functioning school.

We hear people saying cut the fat. Please come and help us find the fat. Our district has done a good job of trimming extra administration and spends 80 percent of its budget on salaries. Salaries are exactly where the District should be spending the vast majority of its budget, since it is people that make the education of your students possible and successful.

The employees of the KPBSD have taken modest pay increases over the last decade that basically match inflation as the District put money into reserves in case there was a day when the state had budget difficulties. The District’s pay scale is lower than Anchorage, Mat-Su, and Fairbanks. Unfortunately, the borough did not like seeing the District increase its reserves and cut their funding to the district, so the District lost the security of a large reserve, and the employees did not get the benefit of salary increases while the economy was booming, and the promise of modest increases due to having reserves is being forgotten.

Matt Fischer is a longtime Kenai Peninsula Borough School District educator and Kenai Peninsula Education Association Bargaining Spokesman.

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