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New Buffalo teacher contract helps close pay gap with suburbs

The new Buffalo teacher contract not only helps close the pay gap with suburban districts, but in some cases the updated wage falls near the top in salaries, a Buffalo News analysis of contracts shows.

The three-year contract  – which provides a 10 percent increase this year, 2 percent each of the two following years and a one-time bonus  –  makes salaries that were at or near the bottom of the pack more in line with other districts throughout Erie County.

And on top of those raises, many stand to gain much more over the next three years, thanks to an unexpected addition of steps to the salary schedule that inflates the maximum pay for a teacher with a master's degree and extra training to $96,389. That's  a 24 percent increase in what those teachers can now earn.

"It explodes the earnings," Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said of the impact of the extra steps. "It's way more than 10 percent."

It can be difficult to compare contracts from one district to another because they all compensate differently based on education, years of service and additional training. Some suburban contracts will also be up for renewal soon, so their pay scales are likely to go up by the time the new Buffalo contract expires.

Still, it is clear that Buffalo teachers moved up the rankings, and some stand to make substantially more pay – especially those at the end of their career.

The Buffalo News compared the new salary schedule for Buffalo teachers to pay scales for 26 other school districts in Erie County. The contracts were among those collected by the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany and dumped in an online repository for the public to get a better idea of how state and local tax dollars are spent. The News used base salaries for the 2016-2017 school year for teachers who hold a master’s degree, because they are consistent across the districts. The comparisons do not include extra pay for teachers who completed additional training, or health insurance benefits, which can drive up overall compensation.

The most current contracts show:

-Starting salaries in Buffalo will immediately go from the bottom of the pack to near the top. Prior to the new contract, the starting teacher salary in Buffalo was $37,552. Only the Alden Central School District had a lower starting pay. The district, however, proposed increasing starting salaries to attract new teachers to Buffalo. As a result, starting teachers in Buffalo will earn $43,114 this year. That's the sixth highest starting salary behind Frontier, Grand Island, Lake Shore, Lackawanna and West Seneca. West Seneca has the highest starting salary – $47,031.

-The pay scale for Buffalo teachers in the early to middle part of their careers will move them from the lower half of the pack to the upper half. Prior to the new contract, Buffalo teachers with 10 years’ experience earned an annual salary of $52,357.  The disparity with suburban teachers wasn't as wide for this group, but their pay still ranked them at the bottom half among local school districts. This year, however, Buffalo teachers with 10 years' experience will have their pay bumped to $57,586. That's seventh highest among local districts behind West Seneca, Cheektowaga-Sloan, Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda, Grand Island, Williamsville and Lackawanna. Lackawanna pays the highest – $68,250.

-Buffalo teachers at the top of the scale earned $74,657 under the old pact. That ranked them last among local school districts. Their position won’t change much this year, despite a $7,500 boost in salary. As a comparison, teachers at the top of the scale make the most in Lackawanna. They'll earn $99,619 this year.

-It's by the third year of the new contract when Buffalo teachers really start closing the gap. By the 2018-19 school year, the last year of the contract, Buffalo teachers at the top scale will earn at least $92,948 – more if credited with additional training. That's more in line with what teachers will make in other districts, but not the highest. Three years from now, teachers at the top of the scale in Sweet Home will earn $98,735; in Lackawanna, $103,643.

Along with the raises, Buffalo teachers will benefit from the addition of extra steps to the salary schedule, which had the effect of blowing out the pay scale and pumping up compensation for teachers at the end of their career, something that also carries an added benefit.

"There's an incentive to do that, because teachers' pensions are calculated on their salary during their final years of work," said Ken Girardin, a policy analyst for the Empire Center.

Teacher pay scales, just like those of other public employees, are built around what are called step increases that award them raises roughly every year they serve in a district. The number of years it takes local teachers to reach maximum pay ranges from as long as 30 in Holland to as few as 15 in West Seneca. Buffalo's salary schedule has 27 steps, so while teachers are guaranteed raises most of those years it takes them longer to reach their maximum compensation.

Buffalo's salary ladder also had one other unusual component. Several decades ago, district and union leaders agreed to take out some of the steps, so at some levels teachers stayed at the same pay rate two years in a row without receiving a raise. The contract approved Monday added them back in, giving teachers five additional years of raises.

The change has no impact on teachers in the first 15 years of their career, before they reach the newly added steps. But those who will be past that point in the next three years stand to make as much as 24 percent more than they would have under the previous contract.

Without those extra steps, the maximum pay for a teacher with a master's degree would have only reached $88,868 – about $7,500 less than what the new contract includes.


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