Education

Trend in teacher step increases: A longer road to the top

Why teachers go back to school

Edwardsville School District Superintendent Lynda Andre explains what teachers in her district typically pursue in their own education to bring back to their classrooms.
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Edwardsville School District Superintendent Lynda Andre explains what teachers in her district typically pursue in their own education to bring back to their classrooms.

Students were out of school for nearly a month in East St. Louis while their teachers and School District 189 negotiated a contract for 19 steps.

The teachers’ union wanted to keep it at 11 steps, while the school district wanted to raise it to 21.

Just what does “19 steps” mean?

In Illinois, a year of service for teachers generally equals one step on their contract, or what amounts to an annual pay increase. This helps districts retain and reward teachers.

So, if teachers get a raise every year, why do they need contracts? When a teachers’ union and district agree on a new contract, it typically changes the salary amount paid to teachers at each step, all the way to the highest pay. It also can alter the number of steps it will take to reach the top of the salary scale.

“Each year a teacher is in the same district, there’s a step increase,” said Susan Sarfaty, superintendent of the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education. “The more steps you have in a salary schedule, the longer it takes you to get (to the highest pay).”

“Between 20 and 25 (steps) is the norm,” Sarfaty said.

Each year a teacher is in the same district, there’s a step increase. The more steps you have in a salary schedule, the longer it takes you to get (to the highest pay).

Susan Sarfaty, St. Clair County Regional Office of Education superintendent

Even though East St. Louis teachers wound up agreeing to accept eight more steps than they previously had, they still have the lowest number of steps of the four similarly sized unit districts in the metro-east.

Edwardsville Unit School District 7 and Granite City Unit District 9 each have 30 steps, while Collinsville Unit District 10 has 20 steps. Unit districts encompass all grades, K-12.

But even when compared to non-unit districts, East St. Louis’ 19 steps is more in line with the norm. Belleville High School District 201 teachers have 21 steps in their contract, O’Fallon High School District 203 has 23 and Belleville Grade School District 118 has 30.

“A compact salary schedule ... that’s rare,” said Ric Stephenson of the Illinois Education Association. The IEA is not associated with any of the unit districts surveyed, but is affiliated with other districts in the metro-east including Alton.

“If it takes 25 years ... to get to $70,000, your career earnings aren’t going to be as much as if you have 11 steps because they’ll be earning more longer,” Stephenson said.

To be fair, says Kelli Hawkins, director of public information at East St. Louis District 189, the purpose of the higher salary is to attract and retain teachers.

“We have different challenges,” she said. “All teachers have a set of challenges, its just the nature of the challenges are different on where you serve.”

Challenges facing East St. Louis that the other large districts don’t have include “free and reduced lunch, ethnicity, salary and (low) tax base” she said.

Why have steps?

The idea behind the steps and raises that come with them are two-fold: to retain teachers and encourage them to pursue higher education on their own.

The lowest teacher retention in the area is East St. Louis at about 70 percent, according to the most recent Illinois School Report Card released by the Illinois State Board of Education. East St. Louis also has the fewest steps, even after the negotiated contract that returned students to schools on Nov. 2.

19 salary steps in East St. Louis, which has the lowest number of steps, the highest initial pay, and the lowest teacher retention rate of the four largest unit school districts in the area.

Hawkins said the teachers who retire from District 189 are doing so at 30 to 35 years of service.

“About 65 percent of the teachers are at the top of the scale,” she said, meaning they were on the highest step.

Another administrator disputed retention numbers provided by the state, saying Granite City Unit 9 District enjoys “probably no worse than about 98 percent” teacher retention, according to Superintendent Jim Greenwald. According to ISBE, teacher retention at Granite City is 80 percent.

“I do not have, on a regular or semi-regular basis, people leaving,” Greenwald said. “We have people constantly calling, seeking employment in this district.”

Greenwald said something that factors into staff retention, in addition to the step contracts, is training and resources.

“We have a large number of people who have gone on to seek master’s degrees,” Greenwald said. “We don’t just hire people and say, ‘Hey, have a great career.’”

More education, more money

On many pay scales, teachers also can earn more money if they have a master’s degree.

About 50 percent of Granite City’s teachers have a master’s degree or higher. Greenwald said the district is in its second year of a three-year contract with teachers; prior to this contract teachers were provided tuition reimbursement, but that was excluded from the current contract.

“We put tuition help on hold; it’ll be something discussed (in the next negotiation) I’m sure,” he said.

Both East St. Louis and Edwardsville have about 60 percent of all teachers who have master’s degrees.

East St. Louis teachers at step 10 with a master’s degree earn $61,449 compared with a teacher with a bachelor’s at step 10 earning $58,455. Edwardsville teachers at the same step and education earn $54,355 versus $48,771. Just less than half of Collinsville’s teachers have master’s degrees.

The pay increase for higher education is a “horizontal” move on the step scale and is widely used to encourage teachers to go back to school for more education, Edwardsville Superintendent Lynda Andre said.

“Most districts have built-in horizontal movement ... the goal here (at Edwardsville) is to get to a master’s,” Andre said.

Of Edwardsville’s 429 teachers, 59 percent hold a master’s degree or higher. Andre pointed out that Edwardsville is “lucky” in that the district shares a town with a university specializing in education-related classes.

Edwardsville, like many other districts, must pre-approve the graduate-level coursework before a teacher takes the classes if the teacher wants to reach another horizontal step, Andre said. The district does have criteria for what is allowed, but Andre said most teachers pursue classes related to their field.

Whether teachers associations or unions want to admit it, there’s an automatic built-in raise (in step contracts), and you have to account for that whether you get new money or not.

Robert Green, Collinsville superintendent

Collinsville Superintendent Robert Green said surrounding districts pay more, “so once in a while we lose a teacher or administrator to another district for that reason, but that’s something as a super I’ve always faced in other districts.” Green was previously a superintendent in Indiana and an assistant superintendent in Kansas.

“Whether teachers’ associations or unions want to admit it, there’s an automatic built-in raise (in step contracts), and you have to account for that whether you get new money or not. It’s a contract we’ve legally agreed to, (but) when we’re not getting new money it’s very difficult to fund,” Green said.

Green said low reimbursement from the state of Illinois has hurt school districts. “(The state and schools have) been in this down cycle for five years.”

Hawkins, the East St. Louis spokeswoman, agreed dwindling school funding is a factor.

“We can’t sustain (contractual obligations) based on revenue from property taxes and temporary funding reductions,” she said, adding that reduction in force has been an option used in the past.

Steps to full pay

A look at how many years – which loosely correlates with “steps” in teacher contracts – that the largest unit districts like East St. Louis District 189 take, and a sample of two other pay steps.

School district

Number of steps

First year

Salary at step 10 with a master’s degree

Top pay with a bachelor’s degree

Old East St. Louis District 189

11

$42,786

$74,353

$72,672

New East St. Louis District 189

19

$42,786

$61,449

$74,125

Edwardsville District 7

30

$37,230

$54,356

$57,334

Collinsville District 10

20

$36,140

$56,017

$63,245

Granite City District 9

30

$35,977

$56,384

$70,955

School district

Number of students

Number of teachers

Percentage with master’s degree

Average class size

Edwardsville District 7

7,551

429

58.7

23

Collinsville District Unit 10

6,496

398

49.1

19

East St. Louis District 189

6,116

330

60.6

22

Granite City

6,486

319

50

22

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