By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Teacher salaries in Michigan dropped an average of $333 from 2011-12 to 2016-17, except in the smallest school districts, according to data from the state Department of Education.
Districts with enrollments below 500 paid teachers an average of $47,337 in 2016-17, an increase of nearly $2,500 over 2011-12.
For example, Hillman Community Schools in Montmorency County, a district with 437 students in 2016-17, saw average teacher pay rise 5 percent over the prior five years even as enrollment dipped by 14 percent.
But local administrators say that trends in average salary figures are misleading in small districts.
Since low-enrollment districts employ far fewer teachers, their average salaries are volatile, said DeTour Area Schools superintendent Angela Reed.
Her Chippewa County district is an example of that volatility. It employed the equivalent of 11.4 full-time teachers in 2016-17. DeTour’s average teacher salary of $92,498 in 2016-17 was the highest in the state, according to state figures.
Yet only five years earlier, DeTour ranked 33rd, with an average salary more than $20,000 lower than it was in 2016-17.
In DeTour the high average salary is due in part to the district’s “highly educated, experienced” teachers, Reed said. The loss of that experience is likely to prompt a major drop in the district’s average salaries when those teachers retire.
“If they all leave and I replace them with $35,000 teachers, that brings our average salary down quite a bit,” Reed said.
Burr Oak Community School District, in St. Joseph County, saw volatile shifts in its average salaries as well. After decreasing by nearly $3,000 from 2011-12 to 2015-16, teachers’ average pay rebounded to $40,272 in 2016-17 — slightly above the mark from 2011-12, according to state figures.
Another reason average salaries are misleading is because some districts supply teachers to other schools who are not counted in the final figures. DeTour Area Schools supplies teachers to the DeTour Arts and Technologies Academy. Those salaries are counted in DeTour’s budget, but the teachers themselves are not included in the district’s teacher headcount.
Although average salaries in Michigan’s small districts have increased, they continue to lag behind the statewide average of $62,280 by nearly $15,000.
Since state funding to schools is on a per-pupil basis, the smallest districts often face hard choices, said Greg Warsen, an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University’s College of Education.
“The non-classroom costs in a smaller district have to be spread over a smaller number of students,” Warsen said. “You’re probably still going to need an athletic director, you’re still probably going to need some bus drivers, you’re still going to have operational costs.
“The dollars that remain for teacher salaries proportionally are going to be lower,” he said.
That low pay means fewer people are entering teaching, said David Crim, a communications consultant for the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state’s largest union of teachers and instructional staff.
Average teacher salaries have fallen statewide for five of the past six years on record, and the number of teaching certificates awarded fell from 5,721 in 2011 to 3,696 in 2016, according to state records.
“Talk to MSU, Central, Western — 50 percent reduction in enrollment over the last eight years in all colleges of education around the state,” Crim said. “Students are not going into teaching.”
At the same time, teachers have been hurt by increases in costs of living, cuts to benefits and student loan debt, Crim said.
MEA President Paula Herbart praised the willingness of young educators to enter the field in such a climate.
“We are lucky that we have people who still find the calling so great that they are willing to sacrifice their own financial security to go into education,” Herbart said. “We must lift them up, and funding has a lot to do with that.”
By MAXWELL EVANS