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Teachers winning as districts compete with raises, benefits

Bilingual education teacher Cristina Fritts loved her elementary school.

But the lure of a better paycheck and working closer to home prompted the five-year teaching veteran to leave the Georgetown district to work in neighboring Leander.

“I had a great group of teachers I was working with, and I loved it,” Fritts said. “I had a rapport with the families. But I started looking this year at how much money I was getting working in Georgetown. Health insurance went up, and even though we were getting a raise, it still wasn’t going to be enough. For our family, that extra money makes a difference.”

Her job switch is just the sort of thing that school districts in Central Texas are trying to avoid this summer as they boost teacher pay by as much as $4,000 and kick in more for employee health insurance to offset rising health costs. Teachers who suffered through budget cuts, layoff threats and wage freezes the past few years are now on the other end of the job market.

“We all know we’re fighting for the same teachers,” said Karielynn McSpadden, Leander assistant superintendent for human resources. “You have to make sure you’re competitive each year. We recognize how key it is to our recruitment and retention strategy to maintain our highest quality teachers for our students.”

Early in the annual budget process, several Central Texas school districts talk with one another to find out how the compensation needle is moving. When a neighboring district increases salaries, there is pressure to follow suit.

“When I move to increase pay, everyone else moves,” said Michael Houser, the chief human resources administrator in the Austin school district. “The target always moves.

“It’s always a challenge for every school district every year,” Houser said. “It’s easy for a teacher to stay in their apartment or their house and drive a little further to another school district. There are fairly easy reasons to move if you’re just looking at salaries.”

Driven largely by state budget cuts that forced school districts to tighten their belts, the average teacher pay actually went down from the 2009-10 school year to 2011-12 at a half-dozen local districts. The fast-growing Hays district was one of a few that continued to give raises even during the lean years.

“We couldn’t afford to lose any ground,” Hays Superintendent Michael McKie said. “To attract the best and brightest educators, school districts have to be competitive in today’s market. We entrust our children’s futures with our teachers. If there ever has been a profession where you need the most highly educated, trained and talented people, it is teaching.”

An analysis of the average teacher salaries in 14 area school districts performed by the American-Statesman found that the Hays district, which was at the bottom in teacher pay in 2009-10, inched up, surpassing two of its peers by 2012-13.

Following the money

This is not the first time Fritts has moved between districts. She made a similar decision a few years ago, leaving the Burnet school district, where she started her education career, because Georgetown was closer to home and offered more pay.

Fritts, who was making $42,000 in Georgetown, will earn $48,695 in Leander, including a stipend for teaching bilingual education, which requires an additional certification.

Fritts said her husband is in sales and his paycheck is inconsistent. “With him not making a steady income, this makes a difference.”

Teachers’ average salaries in Central Texas in 2012-13 ranged from $44,610 in Hutto to $50,201 in Eanes. While average salaries may show a difference of a few hundred dollars between two districts, the pay gap for a single teacher can be much more. A teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 10 years of experience in Eanes, for example, earned $2,400 more in 2012-13 than a teacher with the same experience in San Marcos. In Leander, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 20 years’ experience earned $53,290, nearly $2,900 more than a teacher with similar experience in the Austin district.

This year the Leander district edged up pay for entry-level teachers, adding $250 to the salary, which now stands at $42,750. That is the second-most in Central Texas, trailing Austin. Experienced teachers received a pay increase of $735.

Hutto, which pays its teachers the least, this year is focusing on boosting pay for experienced teachers. The average pay raise will be 1.5 percent, or a minimum of $750, but five- to 15-year veteran teachers would receive an additional raise that averages 5.8 percent — up to $3,280 for the district’s highest-paid teachers, records show.

Raises and respect

Like many other Central Texas school districts, Austin has 10 to 14 percent turnover of its teachers annually. Houser said that while Austin isn’t the top-paying district – the analysis shows the district ranks fifth of 14 in average teacher salaries – administrators try to make working there more appealing by also focusing on benefits, professional development and working conditions.

“When I can’t ramp up one area, I try to ramp up another,” he said.

Last year, Austin trustees approved a one-time pay increase equivalent to a 3 percent raise, which was taken from savings. This year, trustees approved pulling more money from savings to maintain that raise and add 1.5 percent. But after this year, officials said, they can’t afford to draw down their fund balance anymore. If the district doesn’t come up with a permanent revenue stream, such as increasing taxes, employee salaries could revert to the 2010-11 pay.

Houser said to get to the top of the pay list, the district would need to increase salaries 5 percent for three consecutive years. That appears unlikely, he said.

But the district has competitive benefits packages, which help retain teachers; employees receive free health insurance if they choose the standard package, and if they choose a more expensive insurance plan or add dependents, the district contributes more than almost any other in Central Texas, paying $446 per month.

“If we believe that compensation is important to our workforce, we must be determined to get to our goal and to raise salaries and attract the best quality employees we can get, because our kids are worth it,” said Ken Zarifis, the president of Education Austin, a labor union representing about 3,000 Austin school employees. “Raises mean they are respected. It means the district acknowledges them as the professional they are and acknowledges the hard and honorable work they do every single day.”

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