Friday, March 25, 2011

Catholic School Salaries and Pay Scales

In an earlier post, I discussed creative ways to pay Catholic school teachers to secure their services or keep them in the fold, recognizing that often what we can afford to pay is not what area private schools or public schools can offer. Those ways included giving signing bonuses for new teachers, offering low cost rent options using property owned by the Church but no longer used, and offering merit bonuses. I continue to believe each of these is an effective outreach and have used each in my ministry as a Catholic school principal.

Since writing that article, I am now principal of a new school in a new diocese. Unlike my previous diocese, this one does not have a “diocesan pay scale” from which I must pay teachers. Nor does my school’s Board of Trustees dictate a pay scale for our school. Instead, the Board approves a line item in the budget for “salaries” and I have complete freedom within that budget to pay teachers as I see fit, depending on their value to the school and the “market forces” at work for their particular position.

I have found this lack of a prescribed template extremely liberating, and truth be told, in the best interest of the school I serve. In my previous school, I often lost out on the battle for a fine teacher candidate, simply because the salaries I could pay that person paled in comparison to what others were offering. I didn’t go down within a fight, however! I would often “scaffold” his or her salary offer by including a laundry list of non-teaching stipends (coaching, extra-curricular clubs, etc) as a means of approximating market rates. I won some and I lost some. But the truth is, I was waging battle beginning with the self-inflicted wound of a pay scale that worked for some disciplines but not for others.

Let me be specific. Catholic schools have always had the greatest difficulty securing and retaining good science teachers, especially in the physical sciences (Chemistry and Physics). The reasons are simple: What a young graduate in the physical sciences can make in the corporate/business world dwarfs what Catholic school pay scales usually dictate for first year teachers. Depending on the source, the average beginning salary for a person with a B.S. in Physics in the corporate world is between 45K and 60K whereas most Catholic school pay scales currently begin in the high 20’s or low to mid 30’s. And that gap widens as that person gains experience as a scientist! By contrast, when we have an open position in English or History, we are overwhelmed with highly qualified candidates, some with PhD’s, most who are willing to work within the salary scales common to our schools.

Let me guess what some of you may be thinking: Is it just to pay some of our teachers more than others? Are we saying that the cracker-jack English teacher is less deserving of higher wages than teachers in our science department? I’d say “No, the cracker-jack English teacher is not less deserving.” But let me quickly add: If a school has a true maestro teaching English, they’d be wise to compensate that person generously, because they are a rare and great gift to the school! And in a school unconstrained by a pay scale, such maestros can be rapidly rewarded by higher than average increases in salary in successive years of teaching. But I believe it is foolhardy to insist that the beginning teaching salaries for English and Physics teachers should be the same. Once they’re in the fold, without a pay scale to hamstring them, principals can make rational judgments about relative worth and adjust salaries accordingly down the road.

In the world we live in, those with science degrees get paid more than those with degrees in Arts and Letters. As an Arts and Letters guy myself, I was painfully aware of that reality when I decided to major in theology, and reminded of it every time someone asked me “What are you going to do with a theology major, become a priest?”

Insisting on a common pay scale artificially inflates what we need to pay some incoming teachers, or (more commonly) artificially deflates what we should offer others. Abolish pay scales. They don’t help us.


Patrick said...

My high school was able to hold on to some pretty worthwhile teachers and it confused me. Thinking back I realize why these former scientists, doctors, and professors liked to work there. I now would like to teach in a Catholic school despite the knowledge of the low pay but am still having a hard time finding a job despite holding state certification and being willing to relocate to many place east of the Mississippi. I think it is just a hard time for teachers when it comes to pay and jobs in general.

Joanna Gurchiek said...

I completely disagree with your belief that incoming science teachers should be offered a higher beginning salary than teachers of other disciplines simply because that is what is happening in the corporate world. Using that rationale, it would be the coaches, not the science teachers that command the highest percentage of your salary budget. Because the world has placed a higher monetary value on coaches, does that make them the most valuable contributors toward the education of your students? When you begin valuing your teachers according to the dictates of the corporate world you have lost your way, indeed.

Your most gifted teachers are teaching in your school because they have a God-given passion to pass on their knowledge and skills to the students of the next generation. They believe their profession to be a Divine Calling and would not consider their salary to be the deciding factor as to whether they choose to teach in your school or choose a position in the corporate world. When you set a different pay scale for the various disciplines, you are conveying to your teachers what you consider to be their worth as educators in your school, which has little to do with their true value based on what they are contributing to your students, your school, and the world at large.

I would argue that you may want to reconsider your belief that you are acquiring the best and most talented teachers because you are offering them a higher salary than other teaching disciplines in order to snag them from the corporate world. What exactly makes a teacher valuable in your eyes? That is the question.

Faustin N. Weber said...

Mrs. Gurchiek,

I appreciate your input, but I don't think I've "lost my way" because I am "valuing teachers according to the dictates of the corporate world." First, such a position automatically assumes that the "corporate world's way" of paying entry level salaries is somehow evil or contrary to our faith. I see no evidence of that. When we choose a major in college, all of us understand their are economic consequences to our decision. Second, to recognize that there are market forces at work that may make it more difficult to secure an entry level Physics teacher vs. an entry level English teacher is to simply recognize what is true, not to imply a value judgment that Science is more important than English. As I say in this article, if a school gets a really good English teacher, it would be wise to rapidly increase his or her salary. But to insist that everyone begins in the same place and plods their way through the salary scale at the same rate-regardless of market forces--virtually guarantees a school is overpaying some and underpaying others, and regrettably, also increases the likelihood it will not secure top level prospective teachers nor hold onto its best teachers.

I understand completely that Catholic school teachers make a sacrifice to work for our schools, and they do so because they are committed to the mission of our schools. I am daily humbled by their sacrifice and commitment. But they are also fathers and mothers who support families, and if the school down the street is offering them 5-10K more than us, it's going to be awfully difficult for them to pass that offer up when they're making, on average 35-45K/year. With a salary scale that dictates what I can pay these teachers, I don't have the ability to counter these offers...and I believe, frankly, that's a silly, self-inflicted wound with which to saddle our principals and schools.