By Kirstie Kipfmiller
Lansing Star staff writer
In the past year, there have been many concerns and unknowns for Lansing teachers. When it comes to their salaries, many cannot help but worry.
“I am concerned that my salary keeps going down the longer I work,” said Bridget Cooper, a teacher at J.W. Sexton High School.
The issue is not that salaries are decreasing, exactly, but rather that teachers’ raises have decreased in recent years.
“Any time an employee has to pay for things from their check, well, then, their net pay will decrease,” said Shirley Rodgers, president of the Lansing Schools Board of Education. “It’s not necessarily that they didn’t get a raise, but they’re now paying for something that maybe they didn’t pay for in the past.”
Due to recent action in the Legislature, teachers’ pay increases have stood still, while health care costs and pension payments have increased. Teachers are required to give 3 percent of their pay to fund retiree pensions and 20 percent toward healthcare.
“Our benefits have been cut in order to balance budgets, since the government does not see teachers as important,” said LaDonna Mask, principal of Wainwright Leadership Law & Government Magnet School.
In June 2010, the union and Lansing school district negotiated a one-year contract that agreed to a pay freeze, which halts annual raises and step increases; benefit cuts; the layoff of 95 teachers and an employee increase in contributions to health care plans. The agreement is in response to Lansing’s $18 million deficit. With this agreement, the deficit should reach zero by June 30, 2011.
Affective July 1, 2010, legislation requires teachers to contribute 3 percent of their salary to pay for retirement health care benefits. This 3 percent is automatically deducted from each paycheck. The Michigan Education Association, a teachers union, states that the money goes into a trust created by legislation to pay for retirement health benefits. However, there is nothing stating that legislation cannot use these funds to cover costs of health benefits for current retirees. Also, there is no guarantee that the funds will be used for those who actually contributed the 3 percent.
The law, signed by the governor on Sept. 27, states that every public employee must pay at least 20 percent of the cost of their health insurance. According to the unoin, this law will affect cities, townships, counties, villages, school districts, intermediate school districts, charter schools, public universities, community colleges, the state and any other public employee.
“I have a family of five,” said Lori Barber, a social studies teacher at J.W. Sexton High School. “Because of the way things fell, there were a couple months where we didn’t do any of our regular medical things. It was basically like, ‘OK, nobody get sick because we really can’t afford to go to the doctor right now.’ With this deductible, we have to pay ahead of time.”
The situation is taking a bigger toll on teachers than most people realize.
“Now we have to budget for prescriptions. Some of our co-pays have not just doubled, but tripled,” said Barber.
“It’s hard to ask people to contribute more to their health insurance,” said Rodgers. “They’re supporting their families, they need their health insurance. People are having to make choices about what they will spend their money on, and that’s tough. I don’t like being in that position.”
Many teachers say they do not get paid enough in general.
“The profession is underpaid for the time and energy expended,” said Dave Brigham, a fifth grade teacher at Elmhurst Elementary. “Unfortunately, the general public has little idea what teaching entails and little progress will be made until that knowledge is accepted as a fact by our society.”
A teacher’s duties go well beyond teaching, grading papers and setting up lesson plans.
Brigham describes a teacher as a counselor, nurse, master organizer, mentor, scientist, historian, mathematician, writer, reader, actor, director, social worker, motivational speaker, creative inventor, collaborator, student, technologist and role model.
“A lot of teachers volunteer their own time to do clubs and do other extra-curricular activities without asking for more pay,” said Barber. “I wear so many hats when I’m in this classroom.”
“People don’t necessarily appreciate the emotional toll and the emotional investment that most teachers make in their job,” said Rodgers. “It’s not just a job where they come 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and they have nothing else to do after that. They’re putting in time at home, they’re putting in time on the weekends and nobody ever thinks to talk about that. I think that’s unfair.”
Teachers are also required to maintain their certification by attending school to further their education and which they do not get reimbursed for.
“Our country does not value education enough,” said Cooper. “We are not putting enough money into public education, including teachers’ salaries. Our priorities are all wrong.”
For Barber, one of the most frustrating parts is that the people who are making the decisions have no idea what it’s like to be in the classroom.
“Legislators, politicians, central administrators have not been in the classroom in forever,” said Barber. “They don’t know what’s going on in the classrooms and on the front line. They’re making all of these arbitrary cuts, and all they’re doing is hurting students.”
“I would like to see the Legislature, at the very least, recognize that children are not widgets that you run off a production line, and they will all turn out the same,” said Rodgers. “If they could recognize that, it would be a big help.”
Barber, like many other teachers, is concerned about what lies ahead.
“I’m afraid,” said Barber. “When is it going to stop? When are they going to say, ‘OK you’ve given enough. Now it’s time to get a pay raise’? I want them to realize that we’ve made some cuts and we’ve made sacrifices. When are we going to get some of the stuff back?”
Brigham said that, despite the complaints, “teachers continue to be very hard-working and dedicated to the education of students – regardless of pay.”
Barber said, “I knew going into this profession, you’re not going to get rich. I’m pretty happy with what I have. It’s reaching out to kids and building relationships with them. When you can build an established relationship with them, with trust, even if it’s helping them with one thing, I just see the gratitude. I make a difference just for a day. That’s what it’s really about.”
Click here to see an organized timeline of the events regarding teachers’ compensation.