New Jersey’s educators are demanding strong starting salaries to close wage gaps
By Christy Kanaby
As the saying goes, no one goes into teaching to get rich. Most see teaching as a calling, with a strong desire to serve others and enrich the lives of the countless students they connect with over the course of their careers. It’s exhausting work, fraught with constant challenges, and yet, New Jersey’s public school educators make it work. And—as countless reports can confirm—they are among the best in nation, year after year.
These days, however, it’s getting harder for teachers to remain in the profession. Between heroically navigating the pandemic, helping students recover academically, facing constant budget cuts and lack of classroom materials and the ongoing political rhetoric over state mandates and curriculum choices, the profession is facing a massive educator shortage.
For those who remain, they—like many Americans—feel the impact of the current economic conditions. However, unlike peers in other professions, educators are not paid for their expertise, expenses or time. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that teachers earn 19% less than comparable professionals, while the Learning Policy Institute estimates the wage gap is widened to 30% by an educator’s midcareer. Teachers historically have taken second and third jobs just to make ends meet. This, coupled with the sheer mental, physical and emotional toll endured each day, has caused many to question whether they’ll make it until retirement.
It’s clear something needs to change. This is about more than finding ways to keep quality educators in our state’s classrooms; it’s about developing cohesive plans to attract the best and the brightest to fill open positions. While there are a considerable number of factors out of educators’ control, many are taking full advantage of their right to collectively bargain and are heading to the bargaining table to demand salary increases commensurate with the amount of work educators do.
NJEA has been steadfast in its belief that to recruit the best, school districts need to be willing to offer strong, competitive salaries. Since 2008, through its “$50K Right Away!” program, NJEA has been working with its local affiliates to bargain $50,000 starting salaries, and—to date—556 of New Jersey’s 584 school districts have them in place.
Now, we have set our sights higher and have been working with our local associations to fight for “$60K Professional Pay Means Teachers Stay.” By doing this, local affiliates aim to quell the exodus and begin to rebuild the profession, salary step by salary step.
Reaching for the top
The Ewing Township Education Association (ETEA) was one local that set its sights on this goal. Historically finding themselves with below-average settlements in Mercer County, ETEA members began to execute a methodical plan to not only increase the district starting salary, but to wind up with a contract that put them at the top.
Lead by ETEA President Ryan O’Donnell and NJEA Field Representative Jenn Larsen, the local analyzed all the starting salaries in the county. Quickly realizing that an average settlement would still leave them thousands of dollars behind other districts, the local began to piece together ways to achieve an aggressive settlement percentage.
“Our 2021-22 starting salary was $51,000, and we were losing new staff to neighboring districts that offered higher salaries of $8,000 and $10,000 more,” said O’Donnell. “Because we could not compete, our district began to hire people at higher salary steps—without the corresponding experience—to attract new hires, which caused a lot of animosity among members.”
ETEA immediately rolled up its sleeves and got to work. It held salary guide workshops in every building for its members to explain that the current 2.92% increment cost—the cost of moving from one step on the guide to the next—and the high number of steps on the guide were hurting the local’s ability to improve its salary guides. Through this direct effort, ETEA members began to understand what the bargaining team wanted to accomplish, and it empowered the team to hold firm in its demands.
“The toughest obstacle was educating our members about how a salary guide works. Everyone always wants to see big numbers added to their step,” O’Donnell continued. “Unfortunately, since our increment percentage was so high, we could only add $200 to each step with a typical settlement.”
With that in mind, both ETEA and the Ewing Township Board of Education worked to reach settlement percentages that allowed both new hires and those who’ve worked in the district for many years to benefit. In the end, ETEA bargained a five-year deal, with settlement averages that helped them achieve their two original objectives: to take a turn at the top of the county list and to offer a starting salary of over $61,000 in 2025-26 and $64,000 by 2026-27.
“Showing what it would take to achieve our overall goals, eliminating steps on guide and our dedication to increase starting salaries definitely helped us to retain members,” O’Donnell stated. “Our new salary guides will put us back in a competitive market for new hires, as well as allow us to increase salaries for all members down the road, which will increase our morale.”
Leading the way
While many locals are realizing the current benefits of strong starting salaries, others like the Riverside Education Association (REA) have been making it a mainstay for the last few decades. Striving to view salary guides as an emotionless math problem, the REA worked to use its starting salary goals to uplift others.
“We never viewed a high starting salary as ‘taking money from the top’ because the way that salary guides are constructed, those bottom steps have virtually no impact on the overall settlement,” said Andrew Jacobs, REA negotiations chair and Burlington County Education Association (BCEA) treasurer. “NJEA has long promoted the idea of high starting salaries because ‘a rising tide lifts all ships.’”
This approach was not without challenges along the way. Years ago, Riverside was on track to be the first school district in Burlington County to reach the $50,000 threshold in one of its contracts, though the Riverside Board of Education didn’t want to be the first to do so. REA was forced to make some adjustments to its guides, which created a small salary bubble—or unusually large increment cost between two steps— they eventually had to smooth out.
Additionally, Chapter 78’s implementation created some turmoil. REA members’ take-home pay was significantly impacted, and veteran members pushed to put more money at the top of the guides to mitigate the issue. However, the REA leadership continued to work to keep the integrity of the guide—and the association’s long-held views—intact.
“It’s easy to believe that the top of the guide has to get a certain number of dollars or the contract will never ratify,” Jacobs said. “There were many one-on-one conversations that happened over the years to educate membership about why we were doing what we were doing, and the long-term goal of keeping the integrity of the guide.”
This unwavering focus—and the local’s ongoing commitment to a low increment cost— has paid off. Despite a contentious round of negotiations that went to fact-finding in the last round of bargaining, REA successfully negotiated a starting salary of over $60,000 for the 2020-21 school year, which was the second year of the contract. This positioned them well for their latest round of negotiations. Working with NJEA Field Representative Angel McDermott, along with a new superintendent and business administrator, both sides believed that strong salaries shouldn’t happen at the expense of veteran salary increases. This collective mindset resulted in a five-year deal that will bring the district’s starting salary to over $70,000 in its final year.
“Our entire association is benefiting from our commitment to guide construction because we construct all of the guides in the same way: pay the increment and pay equal dollars,” stated Scott Atkinson, REA president. “For this reason, we are proud that our ESPs are also being paid considerably better than other districts, as well. Once we stopped thinking about salary guides as a process to endure every three years, we were able to build something that will serve our members well in the long run.”
Breaking the pattern
Achieving strong starting salaries isn’t just possible for those in counties with historically higher average settlements. Locals that choose to make a long-term commitment to salary guide best practices, as well as seek to build partnerships with their boards of education can achieve it, too.
In late spring, the Flemington-Raritan Education Association (FREA) ratified a contract that will include a starting salary of over $60,000 in the 2023-24 school year. Led by FREA Negotiations Chair Sue Vala and NJEA Field Representative Brian Rock, FREA negotiated settlements more in line with surrounding counties. In their five-year deal, these settlement percentages helped them achieve overall significant salary improvements, resulting in an increase of $6,525 at the top of the guide.
FREA President Aileen Marsh credits the good relationship they have established with the Flemington-Raritan Board of Education with her local’s ability to reach this above-average settlement amicably. In the last few years, the FREA partnered with the board to pass a facilities referendum, as well as worked to elect a former FREA member to the board itself.
“I have worked in Flemington-Raritan as a teacher since 1999, and I’ve always been proud of the level of devotion and professionalism of the staff here,” said Marsh. “We have worked hard to develop and maintain open and honest communication among the association, the board, and the administration, through good times and bad. Our solid relationships have now led to a great settlement for all our members.”
Educating educators is key
Building relationships with board members and spotlighting the valuable work educators do on behalf of their community’s students are just couple of areas that many locals that have achieved their starting salary goals have in common. But when asked what locals can do to also reach this milestone, one thing was clear: educators need education, too.
“I encourage members to attend NJEA’s Summer Leadership Conference (SLC), Winter Leadership Conferences (WLC) or the Jim George Collective Bargaining Summit,” offered O’Donnell. “Use those conferences to learn as much as possible about health benefits, bargaining, salary guides and any other new trends the education world is facing. You’ll be amazed at what you discover you can do.”
Christy Kanaby is an associate director in the NJEA Communications Division. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Know the lingo
To properly understand salary guides and the way they’re constructed, it is necessary to become familiar with the vocabulary associated with guides. Below are some of the most commonly used terms.
Structure – the overall composition of the guide, including the minimum and maximum salary rates, the pattern and size of the increments, the pattern and size of the column differentials, the length of the guide and any unusual items (such as “balloons”).
Minimum – The beginning step of a guide, considered to be the hiring step with no experience.
Maximum – The highest step on a published salary guide. It may also be called the “career rate.”
Column differential – the difference between the salary rates at the same step on two adjacent columns. A differential is the additional salary that an employee would receive for placement on the next column because of an additional academic degree or credits.
Increment – the difference between two consecutive salary rates on the same column. An increment is the additional salary that an employee would receive if that individual advanced one step.
Number of increments – the number of movements required to travel from the minimum salary rate to the maximum salary rate on a given column. Note: The number of increments is one less than the actual number of steps.
Balloon or “bubble” – an inordinately large increment.
Longevity – Additional money paid to an employee above the salary guide. It is usually based upon years of service to the school district or the profession in general but can be a specified dollar amount or a percent of salary.
FTE – the number of full-time equivalent employees in the district, which is based on an employee’s full time or part-time status. Each full-time employee is counted as 1.0, and each part-time employee is counted at their decimal equivalent (i.e., 0.5 for a half-time employee.)
Distribution of the salary increase – the way in which the negotiated salary increase is allocated to FTE throughout the guide. The increase may be distributed as a flat dollar amount for each FTE or a flat percentage amount, or by using some other approach that results in different amounts being allocated to different FTE on different steps of the guide.
ESP union doubles members’ wages
Though there aren’t many positive things to say about the COVID-19 pandemic, the one thing it did was shine a bright spotlight on the value of our schools’ educational support professionals (ESPs), especially those who transport our most vulnerable students.
The Atlantic County Special Services Bus Drivers/Aides Association (ACSSBDAA) is a 49-member local in the Atlantic County Special Services School District, a special education school district educating classified students from pre-k to adult in Mays Landing. ACSSBDAA is just one of hundreds of school employees’ unions that went above and beyond to meet the needs of New Jersey’s children during this unprecedented time. Also, just like those hundreds of unions throughout the state, ACSSBDAA found itself losing members to better paying jobs as they continued to deal with the impact of inflation.
As he was preparing for negotiating a successor contract, outgoing ACSSBDAA President Rich Miller—now the local’s vice president—saw the disparity between what his public school bus drivers were being offered as a starting hourly wage, compared to private-sector drivers. Holcomb and First Student—both private companies in the surrounding areas—were offering $21/hour. It led the local leadership to begin to worry about the union’s future, and Miller was determined to close the gap.
“We needed more money … otherwise, members like me will go to a private company, and our local association won’t exist anymore,” observed Jerome Walker, the union’s elected shop steward.
Both the ACSSBDAA and the board of education recognized the need to attract and retain drivers, and what they eventually bargained led the local to be nominated by NJEA UniServ Consultant Brian Currie for the 2022 Jim George Bargaining Award.
Working with Currie, the ACSSBDAA’s negotiations team—led by newly elected ACSSBDAA President Karin Trasferini, Miller, Treasurer Cindi Hulse, Secretary Regina Costanza and Walker—began negotiating with the board in the fall of 2021. By May 2022, the two sides reached an agreement for a five-year contract with the help of NJEA Field Representative Mario Montanero and Greg Yordy, NJEA associate director for Research and Economic Services. Among the achievements were:
- Salaries went from $14.35/hour in 2021-22 to $19.08/hour in 2022-23 and will reach $27.09/hour by the end of the contract—nearly doubling members’ wages over the life of the contract.
- All wages now are calculated in 15-minute increments, and drivers are paid from the time they pick up their bus until they return it to the yard.
- Each bus driver is guaranteed to work at least five hours per day for 180 days.
- Perfect attendance bonuses of up to $500 each year.
- CDL licenses are renewed and paid for by the district.
- Drivers no longer need to wait three years to be eligible for full health benefits. For the first year of the employment, new drivers will be eligible for single coverage through the New Jersey Educators Health Plan (NJEHP) and eligible for full family coverage in the NJEHP the second year.
- Drivers will be reimbursed up to $100 for annual physicals.
These notable achievements at the bargaining table weren’t just for the drivers. Throughout the negotiations process, the ACSSBDAA was adamant that the bus aides be compensated appropriately as well, especially since many were barely making minimum wage.
“In our local, no position is left behind,” declared Trasferini. “Aides are vital, too, and they deserved more.”
On Feb. 4, 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation increasing New Jersey’s minimum wage from $8.85 an hour for school employees to $15 an hour by 2024. When the two parties began negotiating, the minimum wage was set to become $13/hour in January 2022. The law is clear: the requirement to meet the minimum wage law is on the school district and should be not be funded out of any contract settlement.
Both the ACSSBDAA and board of education understood this and were careful to ensure that any funds to meet the state mandate were in addition to the salary settlements. In the final memorandum of agreement (MOA), the bus aides’ starting hourly wages went from $13.21 in 2021-22 to $16.25 in 2022-23, and they will reach $26.24 by the end of the contract—doubling their earnings.
Like the drivers, aides were guaranteed five hours of work per day, and all wages are also calculated at 15-minute increments. And, like the drivers, they will be immediately eligible for health benefits on the first day of employment.
“If a union wants to have a profound impact on the lives of every member, it must be willing to give all members of its team an equal voice and have the courage to ask for what they deserve,” Montanero said. “The Atlantic County Special Services Bus Drivers/Aides Association did just that, and they are now the proof that it’s possible.”
$60K professional pay means teachers stay
As of press time, 120 local associations have negotiated a starting salary at or above $60,000 in their current settlements. Four locals have negotiated a starting salary above $70,000. Here is the current list of such districts.
- Atlantic County Special Services
- Atlantic County Vocational
- Margate City
- East Rutherford
- Fort Lee
- Northern Highlands Regional
- Burlington County Institute of Technology
- Burlington City
- Burlington Township
- Lenape Regional*
- North Hanover
- Pemberton Township
- Camden County Educational Services Commission
- Mount Ephraim
- Cape May County Special Services
- Lower Cape May Regional
- Soaring Heights
- Cumberland County Vocational**
- Upper Deerfield
- Delsea Regional
- Kingsway Regional
- West Deptford
- West New York
- High Bridge
- Lebanon Township
- East Windsor Regional
- Ewing Township
- Lawrence Township
- Mercer County Special Services
- Mercer County Vocational
- Princeton Regional
- South Amboy
- South Brunswick
- Asbury Park
- Atlantic Highlands
- Freehold Regional
- Henry Hudson Regional
- Sea Girt
- Spring Lake
- Upper Freehold Regional
- Boonton Town
- East Hanover
- Hanover Park Regional
- Long Hill
- Morris County Vocational
- Morris Hills Regional
- Morris School District
- Mountain Lakes
- Parsippany-Troy Hills
- Rockaway Township
- Bay Head
- Little Egg Harbor
- Southern Regional
- Passaic County Vocational
- Pompton Lakes
- Penns Grove-Carney’s Point
- Upper Pittsgrove
- North Plainfield
- Somerset Hills Regional
- Watchung Hills Regional
- Sussex County Vocational
- Wallkill Valley Regional
- Morris-Union Jointure
- Union Township
- Warren County Vocational
*Includes at least a $70,000 starting salary in current settlement
**Shop teacher guide