The two highest-paid public school teachers in the suburbs made about $190,000 in the 2009-10 school year, the final year before they retired.
That's $190,000 each.
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The top-paid teacher was a physical education teacher with 28 years as a high school football coach, while the runner-up was a high school English teacher who also led his school's theater program.
The Daily Herald analyzed the salaries of 14,217 teachers in 89 districts it covers in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties. Salary information for full-time teachers who worked a traditional nine- or 10-month school year was taken from the Illinois State Board of Education.
The 2009-10 data, the most recent available from the state board, includes extra-duty pay for coaching and clubs, vacation and sick-day buyouts and bonuses. It does not include the cost of employer-paid health insurance.
The average salary for the 150 highest paid teachers was $141,327. The average salary of the 14,217 teachers the Daily Herald analyzed was less than half that at $68,377.
The $100,000 club
More than 10 percent of teachers in the 89-district sample made more than $100,000 in the 2009-10 school year even as districts struggled to balance budgets, according to the analysis, which also found that men were more likely than women to make six figures.
Former Stevenson High School football coach William Mitz finished his 28-year career with a number of accolades, including state runner-up, 197 wins and 21 straight playoff appearances dating to 1999.
But one statistic Mitz isn't talking about: He was the highest-paid schoolteacher among the 89 districts in the 2009-10 school year, making $191,214. Mitz did not return five phone calls seeking comment on this story.
Mitz retired as a teacher after the 2009-10 school year, and he returned to the field last year as head football coach at Jacobs High School in Algonquin.
When he retired as a physical education teacher at Stevenson in Lincolnshire in 2010, his base salary was $116,766.18. He made $28,425 for extra duty pay for coaching football, wrestling and track. Add to that $43,802 in severance pay for post-retirement health care.
At Stevenson, Mitz was among more than a dozen teachers who announced their retirement in spring 2006, just before the district and state made changes to early retirement options.
"We will never again see these types of retirement programs (because) incentives for retirees have been significantly reduced, as have benefits for new hires," said Mark Michelini, assistant superintendent for business at Stevenson. "It is a thing of the past."
The state made changes to the retirement system that now limit increases to 6 percent per year for a teacher's final four years. When Mitz and others in the top 10 announced their retirement, that bump allowed 20 percent for the final two years.
Michelini said Mitz's position was not filled; his coaching duties have been assumed by other faculty members, and the stipends he made will be recouped through lower faculty numbers.
"He was kind of an anomaly," Michelini said. "He was a very successful coach of three sports. Nobody coaches three sports anymore, just like you don't see three-sport lettermen anymore."
While Mitz took home the highest total salary in the 2009-10 school year, James Liesz, an English and drama teacher who retired from East Leyden High School in Franklin Park at the same time, made a base salary of $122,470.80. His total salary, which does not include post-retirement health care benefits, was $189,218. He made $48,030.67 in stipends. And, Liesz says, he worked hard for that money during his 34-year career.
"I lived at school," said Liesz, who said he would turn on the coffee pot and start his day before anyone else arrived at the school. "My day started at 5 a.m., and I wouldn't get home until after 10 p.m. I would have rehearsals or shows after school. I never worked less than a 12-hour day, and there are many devoted teachers that do, too."
Liesz, who directed two shows a year, said criticism about teacher salaries is unfounded.
"There are a lot of dedicated teachers out there, and what angers me when people say teachers are overpaid is that they say it's a nine-month job, but it really isn't."
Liesz, who has a master's degree plus 72 additional hours, also said salaries and stipends are heavily taxed. He said he was in the 28 percent tax bracket last year.
In Crystal Lake High School District 155, about 35 percent of the district's teachers made more than $100,000 in 2009-10.
A local grass-roots group -- Grafton, Algonquin, Nunda and Dorr Community Advocates -- mobilized this year as a voice for the community during contract negotiations between the teachers union and District 155. Taxpayers in the district, which is trying to fill a $15 million budget gap, are tapped out, said the group's president, Chris Williams.
"Just as in corporate America, there needs to be a salary cap regardless of tenure and level of education for a teacher," Williams said. "A teacher maxing out at $100,000 who will receive 75 percent of their best five years is doing better than most in corporate America."
District 155 teachers union President Justin Hubly said the paycheck has little bearing on his career choice.
"We do it because it is what we love," said Hubly, who serves as the activities director at Crystal Lake Central High School, heading up music programs. "I don't think I am underpaid or overpaid."
The gender issue
The incentives also likely are contributing to the imbalance of male teachers making six-figure salaries compared to female teachers.
The Daily Herald's analysis found that while female teachers make up about 78 percent of the 14,217 suburban teachers in our sample, male teachers are three times more likely to make more than $100,000. Data show that 1 in 5 male teachers makes $100,000 or more compared to 1 in 14 female teachers.
A look at the top-paid 150 among the teachers the Daily Herald studied found that 71 percent were men.
Men also dominate the highest salaries among all 89 districts, with just two women included among the top 20.
But women more often topped the list of highest paid within each of the 89 districts looked at. A total of 59 women have the highest teacher salaries in their respective districts, compared with 30 men.
Much of the disconnect in salaries and gender has to do with more male teachers taking on extra duties like coaching, Kane County Regional School Superintendent Doug Johnson said.
Indeed, of the top 10 highest-paid teachers, four were physical education teachers who coach.
"It is getting harder to get people to take on important extracurriculars," Johnson said. "If people have families, maybe the mother is staying home and the father is coaching to make more money." said Carl Campbell, chairman of the economics department at Northern Illinois University, adding that male teachers have, on average, more experience because some female teachers may take several years off when their children are young.
While teachers in the top tier are making more than double the $45,000 median salary for American workers, NIU's Campbell said their credentials could be worth more in a different profession.
"Their salaries are probably still less than a typical professional with the same education and experience," said Campbell, who specializes in macroeconomics and labor economics. "They could be earning more in the private sector."
Educators and teachers union representatives say the six-figure salaries are needed to stay competitive and to reward those teachers who take on extra tasks.
But it is a fine line that districts like Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 have to walk.
District 211 had five of the top 20-paid teachers in the analysis, the highest-paid being a driver's education teacher who made $172,163.86 in his final year before retirement.
"We definitely want to attract the best people, and it is critical to keep the best people in front of our students," school board President Bob LeFevre said. "But balancing the cost and the quality is a challenge that we have."
Others say teacher salaries do not compare to those in the private sector when hours actually worked are taken into account.
"In other jobs, when the whistle blows, the job is done for the day. But it is an ongoing job for teachers," said Charlie McBarron, director of communications for the Illinois Education Association. "You do your job in the workplace, and then the job continues at home in the evenings with grading papers, preparing classes for the next day -- and many are available to talk to students on their own time."
Add to that the after-school hours many teachers, particularly those in physical education and driver's education, put in after the bell for practices and lessons.
"These teachers (who earn stipends) are working overtime, but they are earning less than time-and-a-half because it's not done that way," Kane Regional Superintendent Johnson said. "When you calculate actual hours, it sometimes only works out to be about $1.50 per hour."
But those who feel some teachers make too much say teacher salaries aren't commensurate with the actual time teachers work during the year.
Bill Zettler, director of research for the Family Taxpayer Foundation, a Carpentersville-based organization that keeps tabs on various education funding issues on its website, said there is a huge gap between teachers and the average worker.
"All of these specialists only work nine months of the year and have all summer to recover," Zettler said. "They have no commute and are home when kids are at home. That's a lot of quality of life."
Zettler added that most teachers attain tenure after their fourth year, making it difficult for them to be fired.
"Bottom line, they work less during the year and have shorter careers than their peers in the private sector," Zettler said.
The IEA's McBarron sees things differently.
"Teachers are advocates and do go into contract negotiations seeking to make sure that a district is able to deliver a quality education and to attract and retain quality teachers for the benefit of kids," he said. "It is not inexpensive, but we think it is worth it. A quality education is not something that is cheap."