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Teacher contract increases pay and burdens budget

Teacher contract increases pay and burdens budget
Sonja Santelises, Baltimore public schools CEO, will present proposed budget to the Board of Education on Tuesday. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun)

An innovative teachers contract designed to tie pay to performance has given Baltimore's teachers some of the best salaries in the state — but it's also expensive for the city school system.

The starting salary for teachers in Baltimore is $48,400. That's comparable to the pay offered by Boston, Austin and Cleveland, but more than the salaries of teachers in other big systems in the region.

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The top pay for a Baltimore teacher is nearly $103,000. Only Montgomery County has a higher maximum pay.

Seven years ago, city school leaders were desperate to stem the turnover of city teachers, and to hold on to the best. New teachers would come at the beginning of their careers, stay briefly, then leave to teach elsewhere.

Leaders decided to start paying teachers more. But today, the teachers contract is squeezing the district's budget.

The district and its teachers union are now negotiating a new contract. Their deadline is May 23.

Linda Eberhart, a former administrator who was involved in negotiations for the current contract in 2010, knew that research showed a year or two with a bad teacher could change the direction of a child's life.

Under then-city schools CEO Andres Alonso, the system negotiated a landmark teacher contract that based pay on more than just years of service, and factored in evaluations, additional duties and leadership.

"Our goal was to be number one in new teacher pay, to be able to recruit new teachers especially in the math and sciences," said Eberhart, who is retired from the school system but served until recently on the Maryland State School Board.

The new contract was unlike any other in the nation at the time, she said. Instead of setting teacher pay solely on the number of years in teaching and their education degrees, it pays teachers based on their accomplishments in the classroom.

Leaders hoped to attract and maintain a stable work force that could lift student achievement.

Baltimore went from having one of the lowest starting salaries for teachers in the state to the highest.

But now some say the contract is unsustainable.

Between last year and next year, school administrators expect an increase of $46 million in salaries and benefits, according to consultants hired by schools CEO Sonja Santelises to analyze the budget.

Average teacher pay during the 2014-2015 school year was $67,000 in the city and $61,000 in Baltimore County, according to state data.

"Our teachers work harder than any other teachers in the state of Maryland," said Marietta English, the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. "They have more challenging conditions and they have more children in poverty."

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English said the city's budget problems are not the fault of the teachers, but of declining enrollment, which means reduced state funding, and the need to rebuild aging schools. She said teacher salaries and benefits should not be cut to balance the budget.

Neither school district officials nor English said they want to ditch the contract.

The contract allows teachers to earn Achievement Units, or AUs, for increasing student achievement.

English said the boost in pay is warranted. An independent researcher found that student achievement rose among teachers that had earned the higher pay through the AU process.

Eberhart said she believes the AU process is no longer working.

"The concept is good, but it sort of has fallen apart. They are giving out the AUs without the accountability part. That is my gut," she said. "I think the structure has some real positive pieces to it, but now we need to get in and negotiate with the union."

@lizbowie

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