Due to have her first child in June, Urbana Middle School teacher Nicole Long has considered the costs of day care, plus mortgage, car payments and other bills.
She’s leaving Frederick County Public Schools for Montgomery County, estimating she can earn at least $16,000 more.
For years, Frederick County’s administrators and teachers union have lamented the district’s relatively low starting salaries for freshman teachers, which they say prevents them from recruiting and retaining superior teachers. Later in their careers, too, Frederick County teachers depart for districts offering higher pay.
School district data obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request and information from the union show that Frederick County offers the state’s lowest starting salary for new teachers with a bachelor’s degree.
Generally, Frederick County teacher salaries rank low in Maryland, even with a master’s degree and other graduate-level training. Frederick County teachers rarely earn more than the state average until they’re in the classroom more than 25 years.
This year, Superintendent Terry Alban initially added funding in the district’s operating budget to revise the scale and offer a more competitive starting salary, although she identifies other advantages to working in Frederick County schools.
The union and teachers have criticized the previous Frederick County Board of County Commissioners for not going beyond minimum funding mandated by law, even with years of a budget surplus, resulting in teachers not receiving “promised” raises.
Salaries and morale
Long recalled friends and family telling her she was lucky to secure a Frederick County teaching job in 2008, when the economy was crashing. She remembered feeling especially fortunate that the district would pay for her master’s degree.
In subsequent years, though, the district wasn’t offering teachers a “step” increase on the salary scale, and gave no raises in fiscal years 2010 through 2012. The fiscal year begins in July.
A step was offered in fiscal year 2013, but delayed for three months. At the same time, teachers’ insurance premiums increased 8 percent and they were forced to take a furlough day.
The pattern continued in other years. Teachers either received steps coupled with higher insurance premiums or a step was postponed.
One year, they received a 1.1 percent cost-of-living increase, but insurance premiums rose 2.8 percent. Most recently, teachers received a delayed raise in December, but insurance premiums again jumped. Teachers at the peak of their pay scale actually lost money, said Melissa Dirks, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association.
“And some people literally just saw what was $4 more in their paychecks,” Dirks said. “Every year we got something, we lost something.”
At the same time, teachers grappled with rapid changes to the education landscape.
The state moved to more rigorous state Common Core Standards, and the associated assessment, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Increased class sizes meant less one-on-one time with students, wearing on teacher morale, Long said.
“And the uncertainty of it at all,” she said. “Eight years ago, a lot of teachers made personal decisions thinking they were going to be a certain step on the salary scale.”
The price to the district
Frederick County teachers fresh out of school with a bachelor’s degree start at $41,259. The highest pay is in Baltimore City, at $48,430. Montgomery and Howard counties follow, at $48,048 and $47,351, respectively.
Salary scales increase with a cost-of-living adjustment, and step increases move teachers up the scale, Dirks said.
A majority of the teachers hired every year are new graduates, according to Dirks.
College graduates unfamiliar with Frederick County focus on what they’ll be paid, Alban said in a phone interview.
“They equate that with how much the community values education and values schools,” Alban said.
But teachers also look further ahead, Dirks said. After 10 years, Maryland teachers must have a master’s degree or equivalent college credits to retain their license. New teachers research what they’ll make with a master’s degree.
Teachers’ salary scales are divided into three degree tracks: bachelor’s, master’s, and master’s with 30 additional credit hours, most of which must be graduate-level.
Many teachers strive for a master’s plus 30 credits as soon as possible to maximize pay, Dirks said.
But even Frederick County teachers on that top track generally lag behind the rest of the state, regardless of experience.
Only in their 25th year are Frederick County teachers with a master’s and additional credits paid more than in most other state jurisdictions, although they still fall behind salaries in much smaller counties, such as Queen Anne’s and Charles.
A Frederick News-Post analysis of school district data shows that about 66 percent of Frederick County public school teachers earn less than $69,999 annually.
Teachers have publicly cited stagnating salaries as a reason for leaving Frederick County.
In 2014-15, 31 teachers left for other school districts in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
In Loudoun County, Virginia, teachers earn $47,975 in their first year with a bachelor’s degree, according to an online salary scale. In Fairfax County, under a 260-day contract, that same teacher would earn $55,776.
“I don’t think people want to leave, but I think when you’re looking at what you can get in another county, it’s a lot of money to walk away from,” Long said. “When you’ve been working for longer than 10 years and not always seeing much of a gain, people are starting future planning and asking, you know, ‘If this happens again, how am I going to retire?’”
‘Acrimonious relationship’ with previous county commissioners
Dirks pinned the flaws in the salary scale on the previous Board of County Commissioners funding the district at the legal minimum, known as “maintenance of effort.”
Most of the then-commissioners did not hide their disdain for the union, Dirks said. She called the commissioners’ funding an “ideological decision,” not based on what the county could afford.
She cited a 2012 example, when commissioners sent $100 tax-rebate checks to homeowners, an expense of $6.7 million. She said the money could have been channeled to the school system or to agencies facing budget cuts.
In an interview, County Councilman Billy Shreve, a Republican and member of that board of commissioners, said his board gave a lot of money to education.
Funding was at the maintenance of effort level, but Shreve said commissioners provided one-time cash infusions for specific purposes. In fiscal year 2013, they funded $1.3 million for wireless internet access in schools. The next year, they approved $1.6 million for school bus radios and $1.5 million for other technology.
In fiscal 2015, a $1 million allocation was paid for more technology.
Shreve recalled that the commissioners were denied in their request to have Blaine Young, then the president of the commission board, try to help fix the salary problem by taking part in contract negotiations.
Shreve defended the $100 rebate checks, saying more than $6 million was pushed back into an ailing economy.
The school board allocates money the county provides, Shreve said. The commissioners looked overall at funding across county agencies. He said police, fire and rescue workers’ salaries should be compared to those for 10-month teachers.
Starting hourly wage for a Frederick County sheriff’s deputy in the new approved county budget is $22.85, or $47,521 a year.
“If the teachers’ union wants to solve the problem, come talk to us and solve the problem,” Shreve said. “They shouldn’t argue their ineffective past negotiating and try to argue that in the media. Sit down and solve the problem; don’t pin it on anyone else. They were unsuccessful in getting what their teachers deserve.”
Keeping teachers in Frederick County
Competitive salaries have become critical, Alban said, and doing so means developing a new scale.
The union and the school district reached a tentative agreement on what that scale should look like, Alban said. She wouldn’t identify when the new scale might be announced.
The $13.8 million that she proposed adding to the district’s operating budget, in part to help revise the salary scale, dwindled to $6.1 million after the school board made cuts to balance the draft budget.
A step increase for all district employees costs a little more than $10 million. In other jurisdictions, it’s cheaper, Alban said.
Alban offered a sports metaphor to describe why high-quality teachers are essential: First-string players go elsewhere without competitive salaries. She doesn’t want the second or third strings.
“I want the superstars,” she said.
Alban has asked early-career teachers how the school system should market itself, if salaries can’t be a top draw.
She described the district’s health care benefits as “middle of the pack” compared to the rest of the state.
The district offers tuition reimbursement for a master’s degree, as well as specific courses for teachers in their first three years, Alban said. Professional development courses in other jurisdictions aren’t geared for brand-new teachers, she said.
Frederick County also has school-based mentors and, in Frederick, a “cool” downtown, Alban said.
Sometimes, perks are intangible, she said.
“We’ve heard how friendly that our [human resources department] was when they came in for interviews. … They just felt a genuine warmth and they feel like that it’s a good place to work,” Alban said.
Recent Hood College graduate Shannon McHale, a New York native, will teach in Frederick County next year.
She said salary isn’t everything for her. She taught as a substitute in Howard and Montgomery counties, but chose Frederick County out of seven districts that extended job offers.
“I’m a long-term substitute at Hillcrest Elementary and just the camaraderie and determination between all the teachers and administrators really made a big difference for me,” she said.
Community roots keep some long-term teachers, such as Chris Hause, a teacher at Green Valley Elementary School, who has lived in the county for decades.
“People who are here want to help kids, want to help educate children and do it within their own community,” Hause said.
Hause said teachers are frustrated and must mobilize to get politicians to listen. On election days, Hause said, she distributes the “Apple Ballot” of union-endorsed candidates. She tries to encourage donations to the union’s political action committee.
“We do it because we love it,” Hause said. “Nobody gets into education for the money. I hope the public would understand how much time it takes out of teachers’ lives, away from their families. We work really hard for what we do.”