It’s a frequent argument in teacher contract negotiations: Parity, the notion that the teachers negotiating a new deal are underpaid compared to unions in neighboring districts.
Wyoming Area teachers have made the argument in recent months as they continue to push for a new contract to replace one that expired in 2010, pointing out that district teachers have the lowest average salary among Luzerne County school districts.
And almost anyway you look at it, state data back them up. The average Wyoming Area salary for “professional personnel,” a category that refers primarily to teachers, was $54,618 in 2012-13, according to the state Department of Education.
That’s almost $2,000 less than the next lowest average, $56,345 at Northwest Area, and more than $12,000 below the highest average of $66,663 at neighboring Wyoming Valley West.
The picture is roughly the same if you compare average salary for classroom teachers only. Wyoming Area is still the lowest at $52,293, with Wyoming Valley West still the highest at $65,594.
But “average salary” is only a piece of the parity picture. Different factors can skew such a comparison.
For starters, lengthy contract talks can make a district’s average drop through simple math: When teachers and school boards fail to come to an agreement, the union works under the terms of the expired contract, but lose routine raises teachers in other unions get through the “Step/Column” system.
That system is designed to reward teachers for staying in the district and increasing their education. Terms vary, but all local teacher contracts have set raises for years worked up to a district limit, and for college credits earned, typically up to a doctorate.
Which means average pay for Wyoming Area teachers has been sliding compared to other districts each year the two sides fail to come to an agreement, simply because their wages remain at 2010 levels while teachers in other districts were receiving step/column increases.
How much did it slip? If you go back to 2009-10, the last full year of the expired contract, Wyoming Area teachers had the fifth highest average in the county.
The step/column system also skews the average by providing lower wages to newer teachers. The less time teachers have been in the district, the less they are typically getting paid.
According to state data, Wyoming Area’s professional personnel have an average of 11.9 years working in the district. Six other districts have a higher average, which would almost certainly increase average salary because of step/column raises.
The average level of advanced education also impacts a salary average through the “column” raises. Again, the terms of contracts vary, with some districts giving increases every three or six credits beyond a bachelor’s degree while others require considerably more before a raise is granted. But in this category Wyoming Area has the second lowest average in the county.
The state reports educational level on scale from one to six, though getting a teacher certification requires a bachelor’s degree, which means they start at four. A five means a master’s degree and a six means a doctorate.
Wyoming Area’s average in 2012-13 was 4.6. Only Pittston Area was lower, at 4.2. Four districts had an average of 4.8 and four more had an average of 4.7.
Nuances back claims
When the Wyoming Area union first went public with the claim that its teachers had the lowest average salary — in a full page newspaper ad in February — lead union negotiator John Holland defended the claim. “It’s a factual statement,” he said. “We can debate it, but it’s an accurate statement.”
Holland also pointed out that, when teacher averages are comparatively high during contract negotiations, school boards will raise the issue without mentioning the nuances created by the step/column system. “If it was the other way around, they’d be putting that in the paper,” he said.
But the nuances prompt a caveat in either case: When anyone compares only average teacher salaries without addressing the factors that go into that calculation, they are usually painting an incomplete picture.