Detroit Journalism Cooperative

Restrictions on teacher pay in Detroit schools can scare away applicants — and make it hard to fill 260 classroom positions

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski of Bethune Elementary-Middle School is one of many teachers who could take a major pay cut when her school returns next year to Detroit Public Schools Community District if she doesn't get credit for her years of experience.

This story is published in partnership with Bridge Magazine, part of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.  

In Detroit, as many as 260 classroom teacher positions are unfilled in the state’s largest district, prompting a shortage so severe that substitutes last year were the full-time solution in more than 100 classrooms.

And with fewer new teachers are graduating from college every year, pressure is mounting to find qualified teachers. The situation has left teachers working harder in overcrowded classrooms for underwhelming pay –  they’ve seen their pay frozen and cut repeatedly in a district that’s beset with problems both financial and academic.

Yet in the face of a supply and demand problem, the Detroit teachers, like their peers in numerous Michigan school districts, have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of the folks who could help alleviate the shortage.

In Detroit, Dearborn and Roseville, new teachers can only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts. In Grand Rapids it’s five years, in Lansing it’s eight.

It’s difficult to gauge whether the restrictions affect teacher recruitment because they may scare away potential applicants. But for those who are considering a move, the impact is huge.

Say you’re a teacher with 10 years’ experience at Utica schools, which had layoffs last year. To work in Detroit, you’d have to accept nearly $36,000 less, going from more than $78,500 to just under $43,000 because eight years’ of experience wouldn’t count.

Detroit already pays less, with teachers topping out at $65,265 after 10 years, compared with well over $78,000 in most districts. But the restriction put in place by the teachers –  and agreed upon by the administration –  makes that cut even more steep.

Union rules

In a number of Michigan school districts, teachers have negotiated to limit the pay of new hires, ensuring they cannot get full credit for prior teaching experience. In other districts, those decisions are left to the administration. In most cases “max pay” refers to salaries of teachers with master’s degree plus 30 additional hours of graduate education who have the maximum number of years of experience. Below are the 25 largest districts in the state. The restrictions were more common among the 21 districts that surround Detroit, with more than half calling for limits on credit for teaching experience.

District Maximum years of credit Years to top of scale Max pay
Detroit 2* 10 $65,965
Utica full 11 $89,563
Dearborn 2* 18 $82,006
Plymouth-Canton 5* 14 $81,049
Ann Arbor full 11 $80,769
Chippewa Valley full 12 $89,443
Grand Rapids 5* 12 $68,042
Rochester full 20 $86,420
Warren Consolidated full 12 $94,700
Walled Lake full 15 $90,362
Livonia 7 12 $84,595
Troy full 14 $92,400
Kalamazoo full 25 $76,881
Wayne-Westland 3* 14 $76,839
Lansing 8 22 $76,850
L’Anse Creuse full 16 $84,386
Farmington 4* 11 $86,830
Forest Hills full 28 $84,590
Traverse City full 20 $74,819
Waterford 8 15 $78,351
Huron Valley 5* 17 $75,915
Port Huron full 13 $69,831
Kentwood full 26 $80,403
Portage full 30 $88,808
Grand Blanc full 12 $73,588

*In some cases, the union contracts allow districts to acknowledge additional years of experience.

Source: Collective bargaining agreements

There’s little wiggle room because the collectively bargained contracts set salaries exclusively by experience and education. Critics say the restrictions put teachers’ interests ahead of students.

“School districts that want to attract the best teachers… for their students would not want these kinds of policies,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank based in Midland. It has been frequent critics of teachers’ unions.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the language has been in the contract for years and acknowledges those teachers who’ve suffered through years of pay cuts and freezes.

“You have teachers who stayed here and endured it all,” she said. “They care about the children and they’ve stuck it out.”

Bailey said the contract allows the district more latitude when trying to hire teachers in critical areas such as special education. Those specialty areas can salary credit for up to eight years’ experience.

But if it’s not in a critical area, no dice. And that’s been a problem for principals wanting to fill vacancies such as Jeffery Robinson, principal at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side.

“On three separate occasions, we got people who got past the onboarding process, right to the point where they were ready to sign the contract. Then they took a better offer because the salaries are just not competitive,” Robinson told Detroit Journalism Cooperative reporting partner Chalkbeat Detroit recently.

Despite the obstacles in pay and a push by officials some to consider uncertified teachers, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said the district “is committed to hiring certified teachers.”

Detroit is not the only district with restrictions. They are found in union contracts at districts large and small, wealthy and poor, urban and suburban and are the result of the anger stemming from pay cuts and freezes that have taken a huge chunk out of the earning power of teachers who have worked for years in troubled districts.

Not found everywhere

Bailey said it’s common for teachers who change districts to get less than full credit for their experience.

“We can’t do it when we go to another district, either,” she said. “Nobody’s going to give you all of your time.”

But a survey of teacher contracts from more than 40 districts around the state show that many allow district administrators to grant full credit.

In  Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Ferndale, Warren Fitzgerald, Warren Van Dyke, South Redford, Utica and others, a teacher could jump to the top of the scale without the teachers union contract prohibiting it.

In the Grosse Pointe schools, which pays among the best in the state, new teachers can be hired at the 13th of a 14-step salary schedule.

Yet in other places, teachers have put the brakes on salaries. Those that have are communities suburban and urban, wealthy and poor. In Oak Park, just north of Detroit, the teachers’ contract has a provision that says all new hires should be hired at beginners’ wages.

Hiring at higher levels “puts financial pressure on the district and creates an environment which disenfranchises staff currently restricted by contractual step freezes,” according to the contract.

The Walled Lake schools in Oakland County, the 10th largest district in the state, had restrictions in prior contracts. But the union agreed to take them out a few years ago even though they continue to encourage the district to hire teachers at as low a step as possible.

Still, the union recognized the need to give the district more flexibility.

“It makes it really hard to have one blanket policy for every opening,” said Daryl Szmanski, president of the teachers’ union in Walled Lake. “As a teacher shortage looms, it’s going to be harder and harder to get good candidates.”

To be sure, restrictions on teacher pay for outsiders is hardly the only factor in teacher shortages in parts of the state. It’s difficult to say if it’s even a major factor. Stagnant state funding for education, a steep drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, and sometimes harsh public and political rhetoric directed toward public education almost certainly also play a role in the shortage. So too, there are far fewer substitute teachers available to fill in when permanent teachers are absent.

But for unions, the teacher shortage presents two bad choices: Be unhappy about crowded classrooms or be unhappy that new teachers make more money.

For the Mackinac Center’s DeGrow, the decision should be easy: Door No. 2.

“This kind of policy is just an obstacle for getting the best talent in the classroom,” DeGrow said. “The kids (in Detroit) are already as a disadvantage. Why would we want to make it harder to bring qualified teachers in?”

Need ‘best teachers’

Brad Banasik, director of labor relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said he’s not heard complaints about the contracts, but noted that he thinks “administrators would like the ability to hire some on the higher step (pay level).”

Some unions agree. Doug Hill is a veteran teacher who’s now president of the Rochester teachers’ union in Oakland County and he said he’s aware of the painful cuts at other districts.

Hill’s union decided in a recent negotiation to remove a restriction on pay for counselors who held teaching certificates. The district had seen positions go unfilled but now can hire teachers in at whatever level experience they want.

“I can see both sides of this,” Hill said, but added “we’re trying to get the best teachers to put in front of students.”

Union officials say they asked for –  and got –  the restrictions because they say without it their veteran teachers would be demoralized by having new hires, who had not endured the same pay cuts and freezes, make more money doing the same work.

It would be hard to determine how often these provisions have hurt districts like Detroit and Dearborn. If  teachers know they’d have to take a $20,000 or $30,000 pay cut, would they even apply? And they’d likely know: All Michigan districts are required to post their teacher contracts online; Bridge did its survey using this easily-to-access information.

“I think they’re very aware of what’s out there,” Rochester’s Hill said.

For Detroit and other districts, that may be a problem.

This story originally ran in Bridge Magazine on June 15, 2017.

To focus on community life and the city’s future after bankruptcy, five nonprofit media outlets have formed the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC).

The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine is the convening partner for the group, which includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, WDET, Chalkbeat, and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the DJC partners are reporting about and creating community engagement opportunities relevant to the city’s bankruptcy, recovery and restructuring.

Developing Dads

From reading to breastfeeding, Detroit dads learn how to engage with their pre-K children

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Dwayne Walker sits with son, Braylen, during a break at Dad's Day in Pre-K

Although he grew up without a father or male role model, Dwayne Walker is the kind of dad who goes on his 5-year-old son’s school field trips, sits in on his classes, and dresses him in a mint green golf shirt and khaki pants to match his own.

At Dad’s Day in Pre-K, a Detroit district event to help fathers better connect with their young children, the 43-year-old realized how much he has changed over the years. His youngest son, Braylen, was with him at the event.

“I broke the cycle when I became a father. I’m involved, and this is helping me to learn I can do even more as a father and a father figure,” he said.

Walker was one of about 100 fathers who attended Dad’s Day in Pre-K, sponsored by the main district to help remove barriers that prevent fathers from engaging in their children’s lives and their schools.

District leaders are working to get parents more involved in their children’s education through a new Parent Academy, teacher home visits, and other efforts. They also are trying new approaches to get parents to participate when their children are younger — including focusing more on fathers.

A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Family Psychology indicated that the more fathers took part in bathing, dressing, reading, and playing with their infant children, the more these nurturing activities increased as the children got older and started school.  

That’s why the district held its second Dad’s Day, said Franchott R. Cooper, preschool supervisor with the district’s Early Childhood Department, who coordinated the event.

“If we keep the fathers involved from preschool, they’ll be there for elementary school, middle school, and high school,” he said. “They’ll be there to support their children with homework, help them with math, help them with reading, supporting them in their academic pursuits.”

Services that the program helps with include job placement and training, helping to reinstate their driver’s licenses so they can get to work and see their children, and assisting with child support issues. Fathers also got tips on how to nurture their children by reading to them, and advice on helping their mates breastfeed.

Wilma Taylor-Costen, former executive director of the district’s Early Child Education program, came up with the idea for Dad’s Day just before she left the district last year. Her department held the first event of its kind a year ago.

“I recognized there was a gap in early child education with our fathers,  particularly with black fathers” she said. “They have been beaten up a lot and the conversation always is they are not in the home, and they don’t care about their children.

“I wanted to give an opportunity for our fathers to come together in a structured support system and if there were barriers preventing them from being in the child’s life, we would bring the courts, the elders, and services they may need under one roof so they can learn lessons and be great dads.”

Durrail Sanders of Highland Park said he was excited to attend because it was positive food for thought for him and other fathers.

“I’m for anything positive that’s going to better myself as a father, other fathers and our youth,” said Sanders, father of five sons, including 5-year-old Isrrail Simmons, who loves to play basketball video games with his dad. “I can get better at this.”

Keynote speaker, author, and educational consultant Jelani Jabari reminded the fathers of the importance of playing with their children, reading to them, helping them with homework, and simply spending time with them. He said he learned that by making mistakes he didn’t realize he was making. He was so busy being a good provider, and working so much, that he was barely at home.

He said he received a wake-up call on July 1, 2011, when he came home from work early and his youngest son, then 3, looked very confused and asked him why was he home for dinner.

“Dinner time, daddy gone,” his son kept repeating.

The comment left him shocked and speechless, but it prompted him to spend more time with his family.

He reminded the men to avoid being so busy making money that they forget to spend time with their children, and to be engaged in their lives. He urged them to add specific activities, such as reading, doing homework, or coaching their child’s sports team, to add structure to the time they spend with their children.

“We are in this together,” he told the fathers. “There is no manual for teaching dads how to be great fathers. It’s a process. Some of us seem to figure it out earlier than others.”

more money fewer problems

Detroit teachers will finally get paid for their years of experience if agreement holds up with district

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Good news for Detroit district teachers stuck at a low pay level: The finance committee of the school board Friday recommended an agreement with the city’s largest teachers union to raise the pay of veteran teachers — and to bring in experienced teachers at higher salaries.

“This is a major step for the district to fully recognize experience,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “A lot of the adult issues have been put aside to focus on children.”

The changes will be for members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the city’s largest teachers union.

For years, Detroit teachers have bargained for contracts that severely restricted the pay of experienced teachers who wanted to come into the district. As a result, new teachers can currently only get credit for two years of experience, regardless of how many years they’ve taught in other cities or in charter schools.

Vitti has called that restriction a major reason why it’s difficult to attract new teachers and keep existing ones. And with fewer teachers, classroom sizes start to balloon.

Detroit currently has 190 teacher vacancies, down from 275 at this point last year.

The committee also recommended giving a one-time bonus to teachers at the top of the salary scale, to recognize outside experience for current and future teachers, and to repay the Termination Incentive Plan as soon as this September.

The incentive plan took $250 from teachers’ biweekly paycheck and held it to pay them when they left the district when emergency managers were in control, but the money was never given back to teachers, said Ivy Bailey, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Teachers who have paid into the incentive plan from the beginning will receive $9,000. The teachers union made a contract with the district last year that stipulated the money be paid by 2020, but the new agreement would move the payment to this September.

Finally, a bonus — $1,373.60 — for more than 2,000 teachers at the top of the pay scale would be paid in December.

Potentially, some teachers receiving bonuses and who are eligible for the incentive plan payment would receive in excess of $10,000,

“The bonus for teachers on the top is focused on ensuring that we retain our most veteran teachers as we work on an agreement in the third year to increase, once again, teachers at the top step so they can be made whole after emergency manager reductions,” Vitti said.  “We can do that once our enrollment settles or increases.”

In all, the district proposes to spend a combined $5.7 million to pay current and future teachers for how long they’ve worked, $3.2 million on bonuses for veteran teachers, and $22 million on the incentive plan.

“This is something none of us were expecting,” Bailey said. “This is good for everyone. We already ratified a contract, so this is just extra.”

It’s a tentative agreement between the district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Bailey said.

If an agreement is reached and the school board approves it, the changes could give the district a new tool in trying to reduce the teacher shortage. It’s a major change for district teachers who saw their pay slashed by 10 percent in 2011. The new contract ratified by the union members last summer promised to increase teacher pay by 7 percent over three years but many teachers grumbled that it wasn’t enough to bring them back to where they were in 2011. 

The two groups are still in talks to “iron out the details,” Bailey said. Specifically, the union wants to make sure that district employees like counselors, therapists and college support staff also receive higher salaries commensurate with experience.