It wasn’t long ago that Broken Arrow Public Schools teacher Kourtney Pierce lived with her parents and survived paycheck to paycheck.
With a beat-up car at the end of its life, Pierce didn’t know how much longer she could keep working at one of the lowest-paying districts in the Tulsa metro. Then a pair of monumental raises changed everything.
The fifth-grade teacher at Oak Crest Elementary moved out and bought a house after Oklahoma passed a minimum $5,000 statewide teacher pay increase in 2018.
This year legislators approved a second raise averaging $1,220. Broken Arrow sweetened the deal by more than doubling the amount awarded to its teachers.
Now Pierce has a new car and a new house. She feels a stability that’s been missing since she began teaching six years ago.
“I’m finally financially stable,” she told the Tulsa World on Friday. “Like, last night I went to the Old Dominion concert. So now I’m able to have fun but still pay all my bills and not have to worry about how I’m going to eat the last six days of the month.”
A Tulsa World analysis found 11 of 17 local districts now pay starting teachers at least $40,000 in total compensation after implementing the latest state-mandated raise. Only two — Owasso and Bixby — met that mark last year.
Many districts approved an average increase of $1,220 as included in the state budget. Others produced even higher raises than what was required through conservative budgeting and taking advantage of new common education funding.
Broken Arrow secured the largest raise among the 17 districts with a 10% pay boost, moving from last place to 11th in starting base salary and from 12th to third in total compensation.
The district also joined Bixby and Bartlesville in covering teachers’ full 7% retirement contribution. Although the practice is customary in the Oklahoma City metro, most districts here either pay a portion of the expense or none of it.
Superintendent Janet Dunlop said the state budget’s inclusion of $74 million for school operations allowed Broken Arrow to prioritize teacher salaries this year without sacrificing elsewhere.
Mounting budget cuts over the past decade forced public school leaders across Oklahoma to make tough decisions about how to spend limited operational funds. Was it better to maintain small class sizes or offer competitive pay?
“We all chose different paths,” Dunlop said. “There wasn’t a right or wrong way. So when other districts were continuing to offer a little bit of a bump in pay each year, we held off. We would offer a stipend if we could, but we did not put anything into the salary scale.”
That choice led to Broken Arrow falling behind its neighbors, making it harder to compete for teachers despite favorable classroom conditions.
When the state added additional operational dollars to the funding formula this year, district officials decided to “dump every penny” into paying educators, Dunlop said.
The superintendent has seen a tremendous difference in school climate. Teachers are happier. They feel appreciated.
But it’s also understood that better paychecks won’t be enough to maintain morale in the long term. More funding is needed to get schools back to where they used to be.
“The teacher pay raises were fantastic,” Dunlop said. “But I don’t want anyone to be misled in thinking they take the place of also having some additional operational funding, because we can’t spend the raises on anything else. So all those other gaps that came from 10 years of budget cuts are still there.”
Sand Springs jumped from 11th to sixth in total compensation for starting teachers after approving an 8% increase — the second highest among the local districts.
It accomplished that feat despite not covering any of teachers’ full 7% retirement contribution, which is deducted from their salaries. Instead the district decided the best way to compensate teachers was to pay them that money directly, according to Superintendent Sherry Durkee.
Sand Springs focused on boosting salaries this year to fulfill its goal of hiring quality teachers for every classroom, Durkee said. That can’t happen without a competitive rate of pay.
“We felt like it was the right thing to do,” she said, “and we’ll continue as we can to make sure we’re putting pieces in place to attract good talent.”
Meanwhile, Bixby continues to offer the second highest pay in the area. The district’s starting total compensation of $40,120 trails only Owasso by about $570.
Because Bixby fully covers their 7% retirement contribution, teachers there don’t have to worry about it coming out of their base salary. To make up for the extra cost, the district required teachers to work an extra 30 minutes on Fridays.
Superintendent Rob Miller stressed the importance of offering competitive pay, seeing that it plays a big role in where teachers decide to work.
Bixby, like others, has struggled to find a balance between addressing class size issues and improving compensation. Last year, district officials added about $1.4 million in new positions to keep up with growing student enrollment, lessening the limited funds available for teacher pay. This year’s state budget has allowed them to better address both needs.
However, Miller said there’s still a lot to be desired when it comes to affording additional teachers, counselors, support staff raises and upgraded technology for classrooms.
“It’s a challenge because even with the increased funding over the last two years, most of that has gone to teacher pay,” he said. “So we’re still squeezing pennies as much as we can to try to meet all of those goals at the same time.”
Tulsa Public Schools became the final district to implement the raise after approving an average increase of $2,084 earlier this month. Because raises aren’t distributed evenly across the teacher pay scale, not everyone got the same amount.
Some, particularly those higher on the pay scale, received the minimum $1,220 secured in the state budget.
Tulsa Classroom Teacher Association President Patti Ferguson-Palmer, whose bargaining unit began negotiating with TPS in July, said she took exception to complaints about veteran teachers not receiving as much as their newer colleagues.
For one, veteran teachers received way more from the 2018 raise, she said. The goal this year was to bring Tulsa’s starting salary to $40,000 to catch up to the suburban districts.
Ferguson-Palmer said she also wanted to see larger raises across the board. But after months of negotiating and listening to concerns from TPS about the imminent $20 million shortfall, she believes her team did the best it could.
“What we’ve gained over the last two years, that’s historic,” she said. “I’m going to go into retirement a whole lot better off than I would have years ago. I think that’s what people don’t realize. There is no way that TCTA would agree with screwing veteran teachers. That would be shooting ourselves in the foot.
“But no, we have too much respect for them. They got $8,000 last year. We tried to give more to the people this year who got less last year. That’s equity.”