Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part series examining the impact of teacher shortages in local schools
ELLSWORTH — Minimum teacher salaries are going up in Maine.
A minimum starting salary of $40,000 will be phased in over three years, starting with the 2020-21 school year, when schools will be required to pay at least $35,000. The following year, the minimum rises to $37,500 with the full $40,000 minimum kicking in for the 2022-23 school year.
According to the National Education Association, the average starting salary in the nation for the 2017-18 school year was $39,249. Maine’s average starting salary was $34,788. Only nine states paid less: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
Montana has the lowest average at $31,418 and the District of Columbia is highest at $55,209. New Jersey is second with an average of $51,443.
Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, said increases in minimum teacher salaries in Maine will help address the statewide teacher shortages.
“It’s long overdue,” she said, adding it is “absolutely necessary” to pay teachers enough to provide for themselves and their families. The current state minimum of $30,000 annually doesn’t do that, especially since many teachers are burdened with student loan debt, she added.
During the last legislative session, Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-Cumberland County) proposed LD 898, a bill aimed at increasing support for new teachers and raising the minimum salary to $40,000. Although the salary portion of the bill did not pass, Governor Janet Mills’ 2020-21 budget accomplished the same thing, Millett said.
The budget mandates the ramp up to a $40,000 minimum “to ensure that teachers in Maine will not be forced to leave the state for a living wage,” says a statement on the budget Mills issued in February.
Mills originally proposed the $40,000 starting salary to be effective a year from now, but the budget was amended to increase salaries more gradually.
The state has set aside about $2 million for direct payments to school districts that have to raise salaries, said Vicki Wallack, director of communications and government relations for the Maine School Management Association, which represents both school board members and superintendents. This money is separate from money channeled through the state funding formulas.
“The ramp was created in recognition that a significant number of districts in rural parts of the state have multiple steps below $40,000,” said Wallack. “The appropriations committee adopted a more gradual step up to mitigate the impact on property taxpayers.”
In districts where starting salaries are already above the new minimum, the financial impact of the law will be minimal.
In the Ellsworth School Department, starting salaries already stand at $36,500, which is $1,500 more than they will be required to be next year, said Superintendent Daniel Higgins. Likewise, in Regional School Unit 24, the starting salary is $37,000, said Superintendent Michael Eastman. For the 2021-22 school year, RSU 24 will be paying $38,000, according to its teacher contract, which is still above the minimum for that year.
In districts where salaries have lagged behind, however, the impact is expected to be more profound. Some teachers at the bottom of the salary scale in poorer districts could see raises of $8,000 to $9,000 when the full minimum salary increase is implemented, said Scott Porter, superintendent of the Machias Bay Area Schools. As a result, he said, other, more experienced teachers in the same districts “will expect significant increases” which will not be covered by the state.
“If everyone on the salary schedule receives that type of raise, it would cost a significant amount of money for school districts,” he said. “I think most everyone in the state agrees that teachers are underpaid and should start at $40,000, but how to pay for the entire schedule is the problem.”
Ronald Ramsay, superintendent of Maine School Administrative District 37, which is based in Harrington, is concerned because the district negotiates its next teachers contract the same year the state minimum reaches $40,000.
“I expect that negotiations will cost us a lot of money,” he said, adding he expects support staff will also want raises. “Everything we do is driven off the teachers’ contract.”
Ramsay said he doesn’t believe a mandated minimum salary will help MSAD 37 attract new teachers because more affluent districts will still be able to pay more than those in rural areas.
“The state has mandated a minimum salary two other times — once at $15,000 and once at $30,000,” he said. “Each time it happened the end result was a stagnated salary scale for the next decade.”
Millett said in addition to covering the initial costs associated with phasing in the salary increases, the state’s funding for school districts should increase, reflecting the higher costs.
“This increase in salary is part of the cost of education,” she said. “It’s not like they’re going to be expected to bear the brunt of the full increase.”
That won’t help MSAD 37, said Ramsay, which doesn’t receive as much state funding as districts in other parts of the state, meaning the percentage of the budget funded by local tax dollars is higher.
“In our case, unless something changes dramatically, it would be the entire additional cost,” he said.
“The state needs to add more money to school districts that are far below the state average salary range,” he said. “To do this there would need to be an adjustment in the funding formula.”
Leavitt and Millett said state-mandated minimum teacher salary increases will not be enough to address a statewide teacher shortage. Issues related to student poverty, mental health and behavioral problems can cause classroom disruptions and affect children’s ability to learn. Teachers report increasing workloads and spending large amounts of time outside the school day doing planning and prep, efforts that are not always visible to the public. Conditions have caused many teachers to leave the profession and some prospective teachers to choose other career paths.
Still, Porter hopes the salary increases will help draw more people into the field of education.
“This has been the most challenging year in my career to find qualified applicants to fill teaching positions,” he said.