It isn't a secret that public school teachers are some of our lowest paid public sector employees. In New Mexico, it would be particularly hard to keep such knowledge under wraps, considering the average salary for a first-year teacher barely hovered above the poverty line less than a decade ago. For years, state salaries for teachers have lingered among the lowest ranking in the country—and only recently increased to the 44th highest. This rather dismal reality explains why local educators complain of an exodus, or brain drain, of qualified teachers to other states and other vocations at an alarming rate.
In an effort to make New Mexico teachers' salaries more competitive with surrounding states, an education reform bill passed by the 2003 Legislature has teacher salaries steadily on the rise. The bill's new three-tiered licensing system, which will be phased in over five years, has earned New Mexico the more desirable mark of no. 41 and aims to keep more teachers in the state.
But these new salary improvements failed to recognize an important part of the local education system, said Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation (ATF), which is creating a schism among local educators and Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) administration.
“People working with the most marginalized students are now being marginalized,” Bernstein said, referring to the 818 “support staff” at APS that work alongside teachers and who, up until now, had been paid based on the same pay scale, which had been in effect for over 100 years. Many of the support staff (comprised of social workers, counselors, nurses, speech and language pathologists, physical therapists and occupational therapists), after investing years in their profession, are now making the same salary as first-year teachers.
The new three-tiered system works by dramatically raising teacher and librarian salaries (librarians are included because they are required to have a teaching license for their job) if they can prove that they are well qualified. All beginning teachers now start out at Level I, the first tier, with a minimum salary of $30,000. After three to five years of experience, teachers are then mandated to submit a dossier to a review committee comprised of their peers, which should be representative of their skills. If they fail to submit the dossier, or if it doesn't meet certain standards, teachers aren't awarded a Level II teaching license, which they need in order to continue teaching. If they pass, they graduate into the second tier of the system, Level II, which grants them a minimum annual salary of $40,000. After teaching for another three years, educators then have the option of earning a Masters degree and applying to the final tier, Level III, through another employee review system, which would qualify them for a $50,000 annual salary.
Until now getting pay increases was a slow and arduous process for APS teachers; nearly every year they were awarded an automatic cost of living increase, but often only by a meager amount—sometimes as little as an extra $10 a year. Prior to the 2003 reform initative, first year teachers still made an annual salary of $30,000, but without a Masters degree it would have taken them between 21 to 24 years to reach $40,000. With a doctorate degree, it still took 13 years. Now, teachers can make that pay in as little as three years.
The new system is a good one, said Bernstein, who taught elementary education for nearly two decades. Yet she said that by not including support staff in the new system, APS risks losing educators who are just as important to the system.
“[These educators] work with kids that require the most support in school,” she said, adding that many of the support staff, such as counselors and social workers, need Masters degrees in order to be hired. “When my [students] come to school and they don't have clothes, I send them to the counselor and they go to the clothing bank; when my [students] are sick I send them to the school nurse.”
Thomas Heady, a counselor at Edward Gonzales Elementary School, has worked at APS for 10 years. He holds a Masters in Counseling and makes less then $32,000. On a weekly basis, Heady said he works with potentially suicidal children, sexually abused or physically abused children and kids that are homeless. Not being included in the new three-tiered system, he said, makes him feel undervalued. “Some people are considering leaving,” he said, adding that he doesn't want to leave because he wants to stay with the kids that he's built a professional relationship with.
This last legislative session, APS lobbied along with the Albuquerque teachers' union for passage of House Bill 83, which would have created a new pay system for support staff similar to the three-tier system for teachers. The bill didn't pass. Now, the union is asking APS to give support staff comparable salaries to teachers. So far, APS has refused, which has led the teachers' union to declare an impasse in contract negotiations. An impasse was declared on the same issue last year, which prevented a new contract from being signed. As long as there is an impasse this year, the contract, which would implement a lot of other favorable changes, according to Bernstein, still can't go through. Contracts between APS and ATF are usually signed every two years, while salaries are discussed annually.
APS administration and ATF have decided to use mediation in hopes of resolving the issue and would like to present a contract to the Albuquerque Board of Education on July 20. Lauran Morrison, APS spokesperson, said they cannot discuss negotiations while they are still underway, but added that the administration is optimistic that a consensus will be reached. Superintendent Elizabeth Everitt said in a recent press release, “Employee compensation continues to be a top priority for the district, however, the New Mexico Legislature, which provides 98 percent of the APS operating budget, did not approve legislation that would have brought counselors, nurses and other professionals into a three-tier system like that provided to teachers.”
APS' budget for this year is roughly $521 million, about $35 million more than last year. $14 million of the increase is allocated toward salary increases for over 2,000 teachers and librarians (out of 5,700 that work in Albuquerque) that will be bumped up to $40,000 this next school year. The majority of the remainder of the increase is allocated toward mandated costs, such as increased insurance premiums and testing costs. Without additional funding or raises, there are over 350 support staff that will now make less than teachers with equal years of experience. If APS added them to the three-tiered system, it would require an additional $1.3 million.
Robert Lucero, an APS school board member, said that support staff should be included in the new system. He said that the state doesn't give APS enough money to easily add the staff to the system, but APS should nonetheless be creative in finding the necessary funds.
“I really think that we can turn over a few rocks and see what we can do to find the money to increase those salaries,” he said. “The board needs to find the money today, and then in January go up to the Legislature and [ask] them to recognize these employees that are so important.”
Representative Rick Miera, chairman of the House Education Committee, who cosponsored House Bill 83, said support staff should receive increased salaries, but shouldn't be included in the same three-tiered system as teachers. Instead, he said a separate but similar system should be created to make support staff salaries more equitable. Miera, who is also a strong advocate for increasing salaries for educational assistants, is planning to reintroduce his bill next year.
Bernstein said until APS makes support staff a priority, contract negotiations will continue to suffer. “They have chosen to place management priorities and bureaucratic spending needs over an equitable compensation system that values all employees,” Bernstein said.