It's only a number. But an eye-catching one, nonetheless.
For the first time, average salaries of teachers in two suburban districts in the Daily Herald's coverage area have topped $100,000.
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Those averages are among the data in this year's state report card -- an almost bewildering array of test scores, figures on student progress toward meeting mandated federal standards and numbers on per-pupil spending for every public school in Illinois,
The state figures reveal two districts -- Maine Township High School District 207 and Fenton High School District 101 -- have cracked the $100,000 salary barrier, with Maine teachers averaging $108,336 and Fenton teachers at $101,084.
But it also shows several districts not far away from six figures: Teachers at Stevenson High School District 125 average $94,876, followed by Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 at $93,806 and Northwest Suburban High School District 214 at $91,997.
It's no coincidence the highest-paid teachers come from districts comprised exclusively of high schools, as teacher pay there usually outpaces that of elementary school teachers. And the reasons for Maine and Fenton districts being at the top are varied and unique.
But the numbers spark discussion on a hot-button issue: Are we paying our teachers too much, not enough? And should their raises continue to outpace many in the private sector in a struggling economy?
How they got there
Report card data show average teacher salaries increased almost 10 percent this year at Park Ridge-based Maine Township. District administrators say that figure was inflated when a number of nontenured, lower-paid teachers were laid off last year. The district laid off 75 teachers after the union declined to reopen its five-year contract, which expires next year.
Under that contract, a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree, typically the lowest earner in a school district, made $51,961 in salary and pension contributions during the 2010-2011 school year. That number exceeds the average salaries in some suburban school districts.
Maine Teachers Association President Emma Visee did not respond to several requests for comment on teacher pay.
Meanwhile, Fenton teacher salaries are high for the one-school district because 15 percent of the Bensenville school's small staff is nearing retirement, putting them near the high end of the salary scale, school leaders say. Additionally, pay bumps that come with assisting in extracurricular activities, which happens at most districts, become a greater factor in the equation with a smaller staff.
"Our size hurts us," Superintendent Kathie Pierce said. "We are a small school, but we have a lot to offer students. We have 97 teachers, 90 coaching positions, 44 activities and fewer people to do those jobs. Some teachers do four, five, six activities."
Additionally, she said, 77 of the 97 Fenton teachers spent a total of 2,300 hours doing summer curriculum work.
The bigger picture
Six-figure salaries, although a first for the suburbs, perhaps reflect what has happened during the past decade.
Report card data show while pupil-teacher ratios in Illinois have remained steady or dipped slightly, salaries have increased 43 percent -- from roughly $45,000 in 1999 to about $65,000 last year.
During the same time, though, the consumer price index has increased about 35 percent.
The pay raises are worth it, teachers groups argue. And necessary.
"We have to have the best possible people teaching in our schools," Illinois Education Association spokesman Charles McBarron said. "We have to be able to attract and retain people to do this profession. We have to have reasonable compensation and reasonable retirement benefits." But the definition of "reasonable" has come under fire.
As Illinois' economy tanked, public employee pensions have become the targets of many anti-union organizations, such as the Family Taxpayers Foundation.
Chairman Jack Roeser said the state's financial problems start and end with teachers unions and school boards.
"The public schools' K-12 school system is the worst-managed organization in the whole state, bar none," he said. "These guys spend three times too much money on almost everything they touch."
While IEA's McBarron stressed that all salaries are negotiated locally, Roeser said that simply means school boards are just as complicit in the state's financial struggles.
"They bear total responsibility for accepting their stupid deals," he said. "They are really uninformed and not up to the competitive level of the teachers unions."
Glenbard Education Association President Tom Tully disputed Roeser's claims.
When negotiations for a new contract at the four-school, Glen Ellyn-based district begin next year, Tully said, the school board will have a "high-priced attorney" at the bargaining table, disputing Roeser's contention that negotiations will be one-sided.
Despite nearly half of its 580 members being nontenured, Glenbard teachers average about $90,000 per year. Tully said salaries need to remain competitive to retain teachers. And, while acknowledging a public outcry about teacher pay, he said he believes residents in the district are willing to pay for a quality education for their children.
"We are getting hammered (publicly) because we are needed and they just can't dispose of us," Tully said. "We have good teachers and they are willing to pay for that in the Glenbard area."
Trying to keep up
As top-paying districts broach the six-figure threshold, others merely try to keep up.
Teachers at tiny Emmons Elementary District 33 in Antioch average the lowest salary in the Daily Herald's coverage area at $44,451.
The district's 40 teachers will receive 4 percent raises each of the next two years. While a part of that will be to reward them for strong performance on the annual report card, Superintendent Robert Machak said the move also aims to attract and retain strong teachers.
"We have an obligation to the community to keep our salaries competitive and to attract the best teachers for these kids that we can find," Machak said. "The overwhelming majority of our community wants to see the teachers acknowledged for the jobs they do."
The one-school district consistently scores high in the annual report card. The latest numbers show that 88 percent of its students met or exceeded standards in Illinois State Achievement Test scores.
Machak said that is partially because teachers sit in to answer student questions at the school's three study halls per day, including ones before and after school, and that weekend intervention classes draw substantial interest in the 329-student school.
"When I get new kids, I kid around with them and say it's a lot harder to not succeed here than it is to succeed," he said.
Even with the district's academic success and its low-paid teachers, Machak says he hears from critics, too.
"There is a segment of the population that still thinks we are overpaid," Machak said. "But nobody is here because of the money. We are here because we love working with the kids."