At Lake Norman Charter School, the board squeezes its budget so that experienced, highly qualified teachers can see their salaries climb past $60,000.
In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, 26 high-performing teachers collected an extra $16,000 to $23,000 for taking on extra duties, pushing annual pay to almost $90,000 for a couple of them.
These are the exceptions. Most area teachers, especially in charter schools, make less than $50,000 a year, an Observer analysis of public school salaries shows.
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Low pay for North Carolina’s teachers is a perennial sore point. A recent national report pegged the average at 42nd in the nation – up from 47th the year before.
More money doesn’t automatically translate to better teaching. But local examples offer signs that rewarding the best educators can pay off.
Lake Norman Charter, a Huntersville school with grades five through 12, has the best-paid charter school faculty in the Charlotte region, the salary databases show. “We really have to tighten our belts to make that happen,” says Superintendent Shannon Stein.
Lake Norman can also claim the last two state charter school Teachers of the Year and the region’s highest ranking on a recent U.S. News & World Report list of best public high schools for college preparation.
In CMS, the Opportunity Culture program that provides five-figure raises will expand from 23 schools this year to 36 next year. In that program, bigger paychecks aren’t simply a reward for results but an incentive for effective teachers to stay in the classroom while reaching more kids.
Ranson Middle School, one of the first to try this approach, saw performance on the eighth-grade science test soar last year after Bobby Miles, who had seen big gains with his own students, took on oversight of all eighth-grade science classes last year. He got a $16,100 raise to create lesson plans for his colleagues and to work with students who needed help. Last year, Ranson logged the highest science growth of any CMS middle school.
But every effort to boost the high end of teacher pay scales demands a tradeoff.
The charter challenge
The way schools hire and pay teachers is one of the biggest differences between North Carolina’s charter and district schools.
Teachers hired by a school district are placed on a state pay scale, based on experience and credentials. National board certification, for instance, brings a 12 percent boost. Most districts, including CMS, use county money to add a percentage to the state scale, which runs from $35,000 to $61,000 a year.
$35,000 minimum 10-month salary on state scale
$40,247 minimum 10-month salary on CMS scale
The state grants each traditional public school a certain number of teachers, based on the student head count. If a school can recruit and keep highly experienced, highly paid faculty, the state foots the bill.
$61,000 maximum 10-month salary on state scale
$72,346 maximum 10-month salary on CMS scale
Not so for charter schools. They get a per-pupil share of state and county money and the freedom to decide how to spend it. They also get more flexibility in hiring – only half the teachers have to be licensed – and can more easily dismiss those who don’t work out.
In theory, that allows charter boards to craft creative pay plans. They can carve off big salaries to entice a handful of superstar teachers, or create a scale that rewards effectiveness over experience. They can schedule extra class time or school days, with paychecks to match the greater demands.
In reality, many Charlotte-area charter schools say the budget isn’t big enough for much creativity. Unlike district schools, which get additional county money for construction and renovation, they have to squeeze money for buildings into their operating budget. At Lake Norman, for instance, 13 percent of the budget goes toward paying the mortgage.
Like many other charter schools, Lake Norman uses a pay scale that’s similar to that of CMS. Unlike most of them, it has several teachers at the high end of the scale, with the highest at $72,592.
Craig Smith, principal of Lake Norman’s high school, adds that one of the most important recruiting tools is participating in the state retirement system, which is optional for charter schools. That costs money, but he says it would be tough to recruit experienced public school teachers if they had to give up that benefit.
Lake Norman, which is in its 18th year and has about 1,600 students, has an advantage over newer and smaller charter schools, Stein says.
New schools, like new homeowners, are grappling with a new mortgage while trying to buy supplies and furnishings. And fewer students mean less money to cover everything involved in running a school, from administration to maintenance.
The Observer obtained salaries for 33 charter schools serving Mecklenburg County students (some are in adjacent counties). More than half of them have fewer than 500 students, and most of those schools have few or no teachers earning $50,000 a year – a level that corresponds on the state scale to a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 25 years’ experience, a master’s degree and 20 years’ experience, or a master’s and board certification with 15 years’ experience.
The region’s six largest charter schools account for more than two-thirds of the teachers who hit the $50,000 mark.
For most charter schools, including Lake Norman, the recruitment pitch focuses on less tangible rewards, such as engaged families, better school climate and fewer mandates from central offices.
Jessie Locke came to Lake Norman after eight years in CMS. She was struck by the charter students’ focus when she coached cheerleaders at Lake Norman, she says. And, the charter school offered comparable pay. Now that she’s on faculty, Locke says administrators are supportive when she and her colleagues have ideas, such as a recent plan to divide language arts classes into separate reading and writing sections. “I can’t imagine ever working anywhere else,” she says.
Bigger salaries in CMS
CMS, with 146,000 students and a workforce of 18,650, dwarfs all the region’s charter schools combined. And the top teacher salaries there are far higher.
The district’s 10-month pay scale tops out at a little over $72,000, but nine ROTC teachers make more than $90,000. That’s because they get a federal supplement as active members of the military. Some teachers on 11- or 12-month assignments also can top the maximum.
Opportunity Culture raises are boosting pay for other CMS teachers, but the money isn’t coming from taxpayer supplements or philanthropists’ grants. Instead, the effort is designed to be sustainable because principals must find the money in their existing budget, often by eliminating other support jobs.
The concept was created by a Chapel Hill education reform group called Public Impact, with Ranson and a handful of high-poverty CMS schools as national guinea pigs. It’s been spreading within CMS ever since, and now includes schools across the county. Grants have paid for training and planning, but not salaries.
Ranson Principal Erica Jordan-Thomas has highly paid “multiclassroom leaders” over every subject that has a state exam: language arts, math and eighth-grade science. To do that, she eliminated facilitator jobs, a quasi-administrative post that provides teacher support.
Miles, who holds a degree in school administration, was looking for more responsibility and higher pay in 2014. Instead of applying to become a facilitator or administrator at another school, he took the Opportunity Culture job that lets him plan lessons for all eighth-grade science teachers. Although he doesn’t have an assigned class, he spends Mondays and Tuesdays working with students who need extra help. And he creates virtual lessons for students who are working ahead.
At first, he says, it was a bit awkward being chosen for a higher-paying job that put him over his colleagues. But they’ve seen the benefits, as Whitaker Brown can attest.
Brown was hired as a rookie science teacher in 2013-14. That year, he says, lesson planning ate his nights and weekends, leaving him exhausted. The next year he worked on Miles’ team. “I didn’t find myself staying late every day and planning,” he says. And the results have been so good that Brown has been tapped for an Opportunity Culture job next year.
Miles, who aspires to lead his own school, says the Opportunity Culture job keeps him longer at a school that needs him.
“I think it’s a great opportunity between being a classroom teacher and an assistant principal,” he says.
The best-paid teachers
Here’s what 2016 salary information provided by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and 33 area charter schools shows about teachers earning at least $50,000 a year. Annual compensation includes any bonuses and stipends reported. Percentage indicates the share of all teachers in the school or district at that level. Fourteen charter schools listed no teachers earning $50,000 or more.
Pine Lake Prep
Queens Grant Community