The gap between the suburbs' highest- and lowest-paid teachers is cavernous.
Maine Township High School District 207 in Park Ridge topped the list with an average teacher salary for 2011-'12 of $116,044. In stark contrast, tiny Emmons Elementary District 33 in far Northwest suburban Antioch was the lowest-paying district surveyed with an average salary of $47,624, a Daily Herald study of state school report card data from 91 districts in the North, Northwest and West suburbs shows.
District 207 spokesman David Beery said Maine teachers deserve their pay and standards are high.
"In part, we think the salary scale that has come about in District 207 is a result of the high value that the Maine Township community places on education," Beery said. "District 207 has excellent teachers from whom much is expected and who deliver quality learning experiences for our students."
Administrators and union leaders at schools on the other end of the scale -- many of which are in Lake County -- think just as highly of their teachers.
They attributed the salary disparity to several factors, including the experience and education levels of their staffs, geography and financial limitations.
"Pay is based on what a community can afford," Emmons Superintendent Eileen Conway said. "Property taxes is what we count on, and they are lower in our community."
What data shows
Average teacher salary was among the hundreds of categories included in the recently released annual report cards from the Illinois State Board of Education.
The reports include standardized test score averages and information about administrative pay, gender and racial compositions, teacher experience and student-to-teacher ratios, among many other subjects.
The average salary for an Illinois teacher in 2011-12 was $66,614, the data revealed. That's up more than 2 percent from the previous year.
For the 90-plus suburban districts reviewed by the Daily Herald, the average salary was an estimated $71,093, up nearly 2 percent.
East Maine Elementary District 63 in Des Plaines recorded the biggest increase in average teacher pay, jumping more than 11 percent to $63,024.
Rosemont Elementary District 78 experienced the biggest drop, with average teacher pay decreasing more than 8 percent to $64,453.
Who's at the top?
All of the 10 highest-paying districts on the Daily Herald's list are high school districts, which is typical. Four are in Cook County, three are in DuPage County, two are in Lake County and one is in McHenry County.
Rounding out the Top 10 were Bensenville's Fenton High School District 100, Arlington Heights-based Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Stevenson High School District 125 in Lincolnshire, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, DuPage High School District 88 in Addison, Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128, Glenbard High School District 87 in Glen Ellyn, Crystal Lake High School District 155, and Leyden High School District 212 in Northlake.
Educators cited several factors for the high salaries.
For starters, they use competitive compensation packages to attract quality educators. They also employ teachers who have longer-than-average careers, as well as a large number of teachers who have earned advanced degrees, which boosts salaries.
Take Maine Township District 207, which has three campuses, about 500 teachers and 6,800 students. Of those teachers, more than 94 percent have achieved at least a master's degree, report card data shows.
The state average for advanced degrees is less than 62 percent.
Likewise, the average professional experience among District 207's teaching staff is slightly more than 16 years. The state average is less than 13 years.
That combination "places a high percentage of our teachers at or near the top of our pay scale," Beery said.
And if teachers are being paid well, they'll likely stay in the district longer -- which, in turn, increases their pay over time.
Glenbard District 87 ranked eighth on the salary list. The district's estimated 600 teachers made an average salary of $95,058, a 5 percent increase from the previous year.
Tom Tully, president of the Glenbard Education Association union, credited a solid property-tax base and a community that wants to invest in the schools.
"We are lucky enough to be in an area that provides resources ... that have allowed us to get the contracts we have," Tully said.
Glenbard's teachers started the 2012-13 term with a new, five-year contract. The deal calls for pay raises of less than 1 percent in each of the first three years and slightly greater raises in the final two years.
Tully called those raises "very modest," but he wasn't complaining. Glenbard's pay is good enough to retain their best teachers, he said.
"We have a goal of being a destination point rather than a steppingstone," Tully said. "Teachers who are happy end up staying in the district."
'It's a small pie'
Nine of the 10 at the bottom of the salary list are elementary districts. That's not unusual, as such districts historically pay less. Those same nine districts all operate in Lake County. That's not unusual, either. In fact, during the 2010-11 term, all 10 of the lowest-paying districts were in Lake County.
Only one district in the new ranking's bottom 10 doesn't fit either mold: East Aurora Unit District 131 in Kane County. It was the ninth lowest-ranked district in terms of teacher pay, the data revealed.
The other districts in the bottom 10 were Emmons, Fox Lake District 114, Gavin District 37 in Ingleside, Mundelein District 75, Lake Villa District 41, Big Hollow District 38 in Ingleside, Antioch District 34, Grass Lake District 36 in Antioch, and Diamond Lake District 76.
Sydney Ryan, president of the Emmons Council labor union in District 33, didn't seem surprised so many Lake County districts were at the bottom of the list.
Schools in towns that primarily consisted of farmland only a few decades ago don't have the revenue of communities that have been around for a century or more and have seen commercial and industrial developments bolster their tax base.
"(It's) location, location, location," Ryan said in an email. "We are a suburban area that has grown out of a rural area."
Teachers in Emmons and similar districts in the area get pay increases, Ryan said, "but you have more ground to make up over time than areas that started with a larger, more diverse tax base to draw from."
The situation isn't new for Emmons, a single-building district that serves kindergartners through eighth-graders and has about 35 teachers. It was the lowest-paying district on the Daily Herald's 2010-11 list, too.
Conway, in her first year as Emmons' superintendent, blamed ongoing budget issues for the relatively low salaries.
The district relies heavily on homeowners for its property-tax revenue, she said, and that makes up most of the revenue in the district's relatively petite $5 million annual budget.
"It's a small pie to split," Conway said in an email. "We are well aware that our teachers are among the lowest paid in the county. It is disappointing because they are extremely hard working, dedicated individuals."
Under the terms of the district's current two-year union contract, teachers received 4 percent raises for the 2011-12 term and another 4 percent raise for this year.
Still, the average pay for teachers at Emmons is nearly 27 percent lower than the state average.
The contract expires in June 2013. Negotiations for a new contract have not yet begun, Conway said.
Despite the district's low pay scale, Conway isn't worried the rash of strikes that have disrupted classes in Chicago and across the suburbs this fall will spread to Emmons.
"I believe we have an excellent relationship with our union, and we will be able to work together to do what is right for the teachers and for the students," she said.
Ryan said she and her peers aren't thinking walkout, either.
"Emmons has never had a teacher strike," she said, "because we work hard to have a good working relationship with both the administration and the (board)."
Salaries: It comes down to location, says union leader in Antioch district