Charter freedom doesn’t mean higher teacher pay, salaries show

If teaching in North Carolina public schools is no way to get rich, teaching in Charlotte-area charter schools is even less so, a list of 2014 educator salaries compiled by the Observer shows.

The Observer obtained salaries for 22 area charter schools. Most teachers make from the low $30,000s to the high $40,000s, those reports show. Only 55 of approximately 840 full-time charter school teachers listed make $50,000 a year or more, or 6.6 percent.

More than one-third of the 7,229 full-time teachers on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools salary list made $50,000 or more in the past year, with a pay scale that starts at $35,418 a year. With extended assignments, bonuses, stipends and state longevity pay added, CMS has eight teachers making more than $90,000 a year and 211 earning $70,000 or more.

The highest-paid charter teacher was listed at $69,773 at Lake Norman Charter School.

The Observer’s first-time listing of charter-school salaries comes as debate rages over teacher pay and the role of charter schools in North Carolina’s public education scene.

The state authorizes school districts to hire a certain number of teachers based on enrollment. Those teachers are paid on a state scale that provides small “step” raises for experience and larger bumps for earning advanced degrees and national board certification. Most counties, including Mecklenburg, kick in a supplement.

Charter schools, which serve a small but growing share of the state’s students, are free to set up their own pay systems as well as require longer work days or school years and fire teachers at will. Those schools, run by independent nonprofit boards, receive a share of state and county money for education based on their enrollment and have flexibility about spending it.

In theory, charter schools could devise innovative systems to provide top pay to star teachers, with greater range between their best and worst performers.

In reality, some charter leaders say, the absence of tenure means weak teachers don’t last. And the amount of money available precludes extravagant rewards for top performers.

A recent national study found that North Carolina charter schools get an average of $1,722 less per pupil than traditional public schools, mostly because they don’t get local money for facilities.

“It’s all about living lean,” says Shannon Stein, managing director of Lake Norman Charter School. Her Huntersville school has 29 teachers earning $50,000 or more, more than three times the number at any other charter school in the region.

Stein, whose school opened 15 years ago, says it’s especially tough for new schools to carve out generous salaries in a budget that must include facilities, supplies and furnishings. “It’s kind of like setting up a new household,” she said. “You have to buy all those things.”

Joy Warner, director of the Community School of Davidson, says her staff’s pay is “abysmally low” because money for all public education falls short in North Carolina. She said her teachers know they won’t make much, but they get small classes and strong support from assistants.

Lawmakers are debating ways to improve the state scale, including plans to provide bigger raises earlier in teachers’ careers and offer performance-based rewards. For charters, statewide raises would mean a larger per-pupil allotment that could be used at the schools’ discretion.

Comparisons are tough

Charter school researcher Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform says such variation is the reason it’s difficult to compare teacher pay in charter and district schools. He says he’s not aware of any such research.

“Most charters have higher expectations for hours worked than is the case in (traditional public schools),” said Wolf, who led the national study comparing funding for charters and district schools. “Some charters pay more, at least for their best teachers, and compensate by using larger classroom sizes. Other charters pay less, in spite of the higher work hours expected, and either compensate in the form of teacher autonomy and mission commitment or burn out their teachers.”

The salaries provided to the Observer don’t allow for direct comparison; without knowing each teacher’s qualifications, it’s impossible to judge whether they’d make more in one setting or another.

Benefits add to the complexity. Teachers who work for school districts are state employees, which means they qualify for longevity pay starting at 10 years and participate in the state retirement system.

Charter teachers don’t qualify for longevity pay, which ranges from 1.5 to 4.5 percent of salary. Charter boards decide whether to enroll their faculty in the state pension system. Charlotte-area charter schools are almost evenly divided on that option.

Aristotle Prep, for instance, offers a 401(k) retirement account with the school matching employee contributions of up to 3 percent. Some say that approach is more appealing to young teachers, who can take their savings with them if they change jobs and may not want to give up 6 percent of their paycheck for a state pension.

Cheryl Turner, director of Charlotte’s Sugar Creek Charter School, says it’s easier for charters to compete for early-career teachers.

Recent pay freezes have resulted in a state scale that provides no difference in pay for the first seven years of a teacher’s career. Turner said her school provides raises before that but can’t compete with the high end of the CMS salary scale. “For the most part we don’t have teachers who have been here forever,” she said.

Ways to boost pay

ROTC instructors, who get a federal supplement as active members of the military, traditionally top the list for CMS teacher pay. Seven of the eight teachers who earned more than $90,000 in the past year are ROTC instructors, the new list shows.

The other holds one of the new “opportunity culture” jobs created at Allenbrook Elementary, where CMS and private donors from Project LIFT are trying to boost achievement. The teacher, who was already at the top of the pay scale, took on added responsibilities to oversee more students and to coach colleagues. The supplement pushed her pay to $94,000.

The opportunity culture plan, which requires schools to restructure existing jobs, is designed to create high-paying classroom career options that last. CMS has received millions in private and government grants to test performance-pay bonuses, but those programs expire when money runs out.

The Observer requested sources of additional payment from all charters; five schools reported bonuses or supplements. Most, however, were focused on administrators. Pine Lake Prep in Mooresville, for instance, paid $2,500 bonuses to seven administrators and awarded $400 or $800 to most other staff.

Christy Morrin, principal of Queens Grant Community School in Mint Hill, received the largest charter school bonus reported, $15,465, in addition to a salary of $89,030. The school reported five teacher bonuses ranging from $400 to $1,000.

Differences and common ground

Charter schools are allowed to hire unlicensed teachers for up to half their faculty. CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison has said that makes him question charter school claims of low student/teacher ratios because charter schools may be labeling unlicensed classroom aides as teachers.

Community School of Davidson uses “some weird nontraditional teaching roles” to provide classroom support, Warner says. For instance, a science teacher listed at a full-time salary of $20,000 a year is an unlicensed assistant who does enrichment activities with classroom teachers, she said, while a lead math teacher listed at $21,000 a year is a licensed teacher who spends most of her time doing math support, rather than teaching.

For all the differences, Morrison and several local charter leaders say they’re seeking common ground. Many families have students in district and charter schools, or who move back and forth between them, and some educators say improving both types of schools benefits all students.

Teacher Danielle Derwich agrees. She says she got a raise when she left Lincoln County Schools to work for Lake Norman Charter five years ago, but she made the move simply because the charter school was closer to her home.

“To me there’s no difference,” she said. “It’s not about where you teach. It’s about the children.”

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