At $58,052, a 10-year teacher in one of San Joaquin County’s smallest school districts, Oak View, earns more than a 10-year teacher in Elk Grove, which is among the state’s largest districts. That current annual salary is $57,878.

But with a $66,909 salary, a 10-year Galt Joint Union High School District teacher earns more than either one.

The same 10-year teacher in Lodi Unified School District earns $57,670 annually.

When it comes to teacher pay, the Lodi area, and all of California, is a crazy quilt.

Some small districts pay better than large ones. Some provide stipends and rich bonuses for years of service. Some provide extra pay for special certificates, such as special education. Still others provide benefits that might compensate for more moderate wages.

While pay and benefits vary widely, there is one somewhat surprising trend: Despite the state’s economic doldrums, teacher pay is generally on the rise.

Contract by contract

Salaries all come down to the employee contract, typically renegotiated every two years. These documents are public, and most are published on the respective districts’ websites.

Pay often depends on college units earned.

First-year uncredentialed teachers in the Galt Joint Union High School District with just a bachelor’s degree, for example, are paid $34,004 annually. But if they have earned not only a credential but 45 additional college credits, pay jumps to $43,263.

By earning an advanced degree, a teacher can also earn an annual stipend. It varies from district to district, but in the Galt high school district a master’s degree earns an additional $987, while a doctorate gets an extra $1,389.

Annual salaries also increase with longevity; the longer teachers stay in one district, the more they can earn. Lodi Unified’s salary schedule, for example, has an automatic 3 percent increase per year of employment.

Of all the area districts surveyed, at $85,613, the Galt high school district pays the most for 26 or more years of service — that’s roughly $10,000 more than teachers who work for both Lodi Unified and Stockton Unified school districts for the same amount of time.

Comparatively, Galt Joint Union Elementary School District’s scale tops out at $74,812 annually for a teacher with 21 or more years of service.

Jeff Johnston, president of the Lodi Unified teachers’ union, is not surprised that there are variations in salary schedules district by district.

“Examining one point, say the 10-year mark, at each district will result in differences. Questions to consider also include how many units of continuing education an employee has, how many columns the employee group salary schedule has,” he said. “It is impossible to pull on one string alone of any district’s economic condition without also examining the other interwoven conditions that exist.”

At charter schools, salaries are set by administrators as there are no teacher unions to negotiate.

Salaries for teachers who work at an Aspire charter school are set by a principal within a pre-determined range, according to Elise Darwish, the Oakland-based corporation’s chief academic officer.

To create the range, Aspire uses comparable salaries within the district.

“We always look at being competitive with the district,” Darwish said.

At Aspire schools within Lodi Unified, a first-year teacher with a master’s degree typically starts at $43,677 while a 10-year teachers, on average, makes $53,083, which is lower than any other district in this area.

There are no teacher unions, so — much like the private sector — the school’s principal offers an applicant a salary based on his or her experience and special skills such as speaking a language other English, Darwish said.

“There’s a trade-off in the security of my position instead of focusing on the salary,” she said, adding that at 90 percent Aspire has a high teacher retention rate than most districts.

The teachers have not received raises for a couple of years due to the economy, but when the economy recovers Darwish said all of Aspire’s teachers will receive raises for having stayed the course.

Most going up

Despite a sluggish economy and continued budget cuts, California teacher salaries overall continue to rise.

The average teacher in the state last year earned $67,932 (compared to the $51,334 mean salary of all jobs in California), not including health and retirement benefits. Just five years ago, it was $57,000, according to the state Department of Education.

This is likely because in recent years, the newest, youngest and lowest-paid teachers have been laid off due to budget cuts at districts statewide, thus leaving the more experienced and higher-paid teachers.

That’s not the case in Lodi Unified.

Due to a retirement incentive offered to teachers with the most experience, the district has actually spent less on salaries in recent years. It does not make sense for a teacher to remain teaching if he or she is at the end of the salary schedule with 25 to 30 years in the system to remain in the position with less pay, Chief Business Official Tim Hern said.

In 2006-07, the district spent roughly $101 million on teacher salaries, compared to just $86 million last school year.

Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, isn’t convinced regular pay raises are necessary.

“The teachers unions are always singing the blues about how tough life is and how underpaid their members are, but depending on who’s counting, California is first or second in teachers’ pay,” he said. “But they continue to use the students as human shields and imply if they don’t get more money for more wages and benefits, somehow your children are going to suffer. They say, ‘It’s for the children.’ No, it’s usually for salary and benefits.”

The state’s teachers are among the highest paid in the country, but they also have among the highest costs of living.

For example, six of the top 10 average salaries statewide are in the Bay Area — although the highest is Montecito Elementary School in Santa Barbara, where an average teacher earns just over $101,000 annually.

Locally, Galt Joint Union High School District teachers earn, on average, more than their counterparts in the greater Lodi area. A first-year teacher, for example, starts with an annual salary of $41,497, compared to $38,010 in Lodi Unified.

Union president Alex Bauer said the discrepancies among districts have to do with benefit caps used in negotiations.

For example, Stockton Unified teachers pay about $150 out of pocket a month for a health plan similar to the one the Galt high school district employees pay $800 per month for, according to Bauer.

Teachers in Elk Grove negotiated to receive lifetime health care benefits that make up for lower salaries, he said.

“When a district negotiates an increase in benefits, the salary schedule will be lower,” Bauer said. “Correspondingly, if an agreement is reached to reduce benefits, there is usually an increase in salary as a result.”

Lodi Unified trustee and former teacher George Neely said the contracts are so different because not only are they negotiated on a district-by-district basis, but they encompass many facets, including health benefits and working conditions. He pointed out that Stockton Unified, for example, pays substitutes more per diem than Lodi Unified.

“It’s a rough place to work,” he said.

Neither Vosburgh nor Neely support a regional or statewide benefit guideline standards for all teachers. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association favors local control of taxpayer money, and individual teacher contracts reflect this.

“As long as the teachers have agreed to the contracts, the teachers aren’t harmed,” Vosburgh said.

Neely said differences in schools need to be taken into consideration, and he feels some working in specific areas should get paid more.

“Should we pay Title 1 teachers more? What about combo-class teachers? We need to take a hard look at how we compensate teachers,” he said.

What about bonuses?

In Washington, D.C.’s public schools, bonuses are being tied to academic performance in a practice commonly known as “value added.” That doesn’t happen in California, but it is being discussed.

Aspire Public Charter Schools, for example, is working on a merit pay system thanks to a grant from the Bill Gates Institute. Darwish estimates it will be in place by the end of next school year.

In the meantime, the organization continues to pride itself on providing instructional support which includes weekly teacher collaboration sessions.

“We invest a lot in teacher support. We just feel like salary is one part of the teacher picture,” Darwish said.

The California Teachers Association has opposed use of a value-added method, saying that students’ test scores don’t accurately reflect a teacher’s effectiveness. In mainstream public schools, evaluations fall under collective bargaining agreements.

However, Sacramento-based Students First, a nonprofit headed up by outspoken education critic Michelle Rhee, has proposed paying teachers substantially more for effectiveness. So far, the group has been unsuccessful in putting the practice into place in California.

In the end, Neely said being a teacher is a good way of making a living. “I’m not saying they’re overpaid ... but if you have two teachers in a family at the top of the pay scale, that’s $160,000.”

Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com. For more information about local education issues, read our Education Café blog.

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