Low pay puts some Mo. teachers in financial straits

Tuesday, January 8, 2008 | 3:26 p.m. CST; updated 12:12 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Joel Chaky teaches social studies to middle and high school students Monday through Friday. On weekends, and some nights, he’s a cook at a restaurant.

To make ends meet for a family of seven, Chaky simply cannot afford to focus solely on teaching — not when he’s earning Missouri’s minimum teacher salary of $23,000 annually.

A look at the legislative session

KEY DATES: The Missouri General Assembly’s 2008 session runs from Wednesday, Jan. 9, to May 16. A spring break runs from March 14 through March 24. PARTY CONTROL: Republicans hold a 20-14 advantage over Democrats in the Senate. In the House, Republicans have a 89-70 majority over Democrats with four vacancies. Special elections for three of those seats are scheduled for Feb. 5. TOP ISSUES: Efforts targeting illegal immigration; larger property tax breaks for seniors and military retirees; expanded health care coverage for the poor; higher salaries for teachers; changes to Missouri’s judicial nomination process.

“You choose a profession you love to do, and you go to school for four years, and you should be able to support a family on that wage,” says Chaky, 31, a new teacher at the rural Chilhowee School District who prepares food in Warrensburg, 20 miles to the northeast.

Chaky’s double duty is not unusual among Missouri teachers, particularly in small towns. That’s because Missouri schools pay their teachers some of the lowest salaries in the nation.

An effort is under way to change that. A teachers’ association is pushing a plan that would amount to an almost 25 percent pay raise for starting teachers.

House Speaker Rod Jetton places better teacher wages among the priorities for the annual legislative session that convenes Wednesday. It’s expected to share headlines with proposals to crack down on illegal immigrants and expand health care and property tax breaks to lower-income Missourians.

To ensure students get a decent education, “We’ve got to do something to get teachers’ salaries up in Missouri,” said Jetton, R-Marble Hill.

Chilhowee is one of least 20 school districts paying their starting teachers the minimum allowed under state law. Scores more are barely above that.

The Missouri State Teachers Association says more than 400 of Missouri’s 524 public school districts would have to raise salaries to meet their proposal. That plan would set a new minimum starting pay at $31,000 and establish, for the first time, a statewide salary floor that would gradually rise as teachers gain more experience.

The plan calls for the state to cover the gap between local schools’ current pay and the proposed minimums, meaning some districts would get a greater share of money than others. The tab could run as high as $80 million, said Todd Fuller, a spokesman for the teachers association.

The cost could prove a problem in an election year during which lawmakers are looking to balance sought-after spending increases for a variety of issues, from government health care to college scholarships.

Another obstacle could be teachers themselves.

The Missouri National Education Association, a union that also represents many Missouri teachers, is not on board with its rival’s proposal. It’s not against higher starting salaries, but the NEA probably would oppose efforts to set a statewide pay grid for experienced teachers, said union lobbyist Otto Fajen.

The two teachers groups have been locked in a power struggle for some time.

A report released in December by the NEA ranked Missouri’s average salary of $40,462 for public school teachers as 42nd nationally during the 2005-2006 school year.

The NEA prefers to negotiate salaries on a district-by-distict basis using collective bargaining powers granted to teachers last year in a precedent-reversing decision by the Missouri Supreme Court, Fajen said. By contrast, the Missouri State Teachers Association filed a joint legal brief with the Missouri Council of School Administrators opposing collective bargaining for teachers as having a negative effect on students.

While teachers’ groups disagree on the best ways to raise salaries, many teachers in rural areas continue to struggle financially.

Gene Neff, 60, started out as a physical education teacher 37 years ago in the tiny K-8 Orearville School District in Saline County. Over the years, he taught elementary students, upper-grade social studies and served as the school administrator. When he switched from a full-time to part-time employee seven years ago, his salary had topped out at about $25,000, Neff said. He earned extra money by officiating sports.

Neff has accepted the low pay because he prefers the rural community.

“I guess I could go to a bigger school, bigger setting, but you’ve got bigger headaches, bigger jobs,” he said. “Here, I’ve been comfortable.”

But when low pay prevents teachers from living a comfortable lifestyle, many choose to leave.

At Chilhowee, just three of the 18 teachers earn more than the proposed state minimum of $31,000, and just three have been at the district for more than five years, said superintendent Stephen Pope.

“Being at the very bottom of the heap, we’ve kind of become the minor league for big schools,” Pope said. “Our new teachers will stay here a year, and when they can get on with a big district that pays $7,000 to $8,000 more, they’re gone.”

Local voters approved a tax increase last year to start chipping away at that gap. But Pope said he also has signed a petition supporting higher statewide salary requirements.

“We’ve got to have some continuity for our kids,” he said.

Chaky, who began teaching at Chilhowee Jan. 3 as his first job out of college, hopes he is invited back for next school year when he could have the chance to coach the school’s new football program.

But Chaky also is a realist.

“I have to consider whether I’m going to go somewhere else for more money,” he said.


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