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Some Illinois public school teachers earning six-figure salaries

“We’re not just teachers” says Dirksen Middle School teacher Crystal Pedroni. “We’re nurses counselors we are their parents when their

“We’re not just teachers,” says Dirksen Middle School teacher Crystal Pedroni. “We’re nurses, counselors, we are their parents when their parents are not there.” | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 3, 2011 12:33AM

Want to wind up making at least six figures as a public school teacher?

Send your resume to Highland Park or Deerfield High School, both in Township High School District 113.

The district — which has no teachers union — boasted the highest average teacher pay in the state last school year, at $104,737.

More than half of all District 113 full-time teachers — 55 percent to be exact — pulled down at least $100,000 in total compensation, including benefits and extra pay for extracurricular activities.

“I would love it if we weren’t number one,” said District 113 School Board President Harvey Cohen. “Our goal isn’t to say, ‘Lake Forest pays $50,000 so we’ll go $60,000.’ ”

But, Cohen said, in a consistently high-scoring, affluent district with average ACT scores of 25.7 and highly credentialed teachers, “you get what you pay for.”

As teachers’ salaries face national scrutiny and calls for pay tied to student performance, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of educator earnings, based on total compensation last school year, found that public school teachers who make at least $100,000 like those in District 113 are the exception rather than the rule in Illinois.

Statewide, 11.25 percent of high school teachers and 2.26 percent of elementary-grade teachers hit that mark. Statewide, the average elementary teacher made $61,140 — including all benefits, summer school pay, after-school stipends and retirement payouts. The average high school teacher took home $69,366.

In Chicago, where the typical teacher stands at the head of a classroom comprised of 87 percent low-income kids, a six-figure pulldown was rarer still. Just over 1 percent of Chicago public elementary and high school teachers hit that mark.

Back in the ’60s, said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, Chicago teachers were highly compensated compared to many suburbs, but “that has changed drastically and we have tougher conditions. The fact is, teachers who choose to stay do so because they are totally committed. It’s not about the pay.”

As expected, most of the top-paying districts are affluent, serving few low-income kids. But Dolton District 149, with 90 percent low-income students, was the exception.

Hardscrabble Dolton 149 offers the eighth-highest average pay for elementary teachers in the state — at $80,097. Its percent of elementary teachers in the $100,000-plus club is sixth-highest statewide, at 25 percent.

Dolton 149’s average teacher salary topped that of No. 26 Northbrook/Glenview District 30, No. 28 Lincolnshire-Prairieview District 103; and No. 45 Winnetka District 36 — even though Dolton 149’s average teacher experience of 12.5 years was less than each of those highly affluent districts.

District 149 officials and teachers alike make no apologies for their teacher salaries.

Superintendent Traci Brown said the district serves a large number of kids from not only low-income homes but also foster homes. It needs to attract and keep highly skilled, highly credentialed teachers to address the needs of its highly challenged students, she said.

The payoff has been test scores that have risen from 42 percent of students passing state tests in 2003, when Brown became superintendent, to 65 percent last year, Brown said.

“The Board of Education of Dolton 149 strongly invests in teachers,” Brown said. “If we want to attract the best and the brightest, we have to be able to compensate them likewise.”

The head of the Dolton 149 teachers union agrees.

“I don’t believe a teacher from Winnetka could teach here,” said Crystal Pedroni, a health teacher at Dirksen Middle School who earned a “teacher of the year” award this year from the Calumet City Lions Club, based on a nomination from her school district.

“We have a school board that has a vision to put more money on the teachers’ end. The teachers are the people who have direct contact with students. We deal with their day-to-day needs as well as instruction. We are not just teachers . . . . We’re nurses, counselors, we are their parents when their parents are not there.

“. . . I don’t believe that people should be comfortable having their children taught by low-paid teachers,” Pedroni said. “I’m union president. I’m going to tell you — this is something that’s important. You pay people what they are worth and you attract highly qualified people.”

Brown said the higher average salary also may be driven by the fact that three-quarters of Dolton 149 teachers have master’s degrees. Several have double-masters, she said. As is typical, the added expertise brings added pay. In District 149, top scale of $103,256 kicks in after 16 years of teaching and 18 credit hours beyond a masters.

Under her watch, Brown said, the district has encouraged teachers to get master’s degrees and take extra classes. National Lewis University has offered weekend courses for a master’s degree right on the district’s campus, and Brown hopes to soon provide both master’s and doctoral classes from Western Illinois University in district schools.

Plus, many teachers sponsor clubs or extracurricular activities, earning $31 an hour for their work, Brown said.

While one 2009 study found a typical Chicago public school lost more than half of all its teachers within five years, Dolton 149’s attractive salary is one reason the district has little teacher turnover, Pedroni said.

“The only teachers that leave are the ones that retire. . . . I think that kind of consistency is good for the kids,” said Pedroni, who has taught in the district since 1987. “A lot of kids I have — I’ve taught their parents.”

At Township High School District 113, headquartered in Highland Park, officials tout the same pattern: highly degreed, often double-degreed teachers, low teacher turnover, and a large chunk of teachers who supervise extra-curricular activities for extra cash — something that gives them a different kind of perspective on their students.

District 113 science teacher Bill Stafford said he was attracted to Deerfield High because of its academic reputation and had no idea the district held the highest-paid teachers in the state — or that more than half of its teachers made at least $100,000 in total compensation.

“Wow,” Stafford said. “I’m kind of shocked. I didn’t know that was where we ranked in the state.”

In addition to his base salary, Stafford says he makes about $13,000 extra a year by serving as boys soccer coach and girls assistant soccer coach. After six years at Deerfield High, he is not yet in the $100,000-plus club, but hopes to hit the top of the credential pay schedule this year by completing 60 credit hours beyond a master’s.

At Deerfield High, “Teachers have a real thirst to expand their craft and knowledge,” Stafford said. “I wish I could take some of the classes that my colleagues teach, because they do it masterfully.”

Highland Park resident Peter Koukos, who put two kids through a District 113 high school, said there’s no question the district’s teachers are highly qualified and provide a great education.

But, said Koukos, the area’s former assessor, “One reason it took three and a half years to sell my house is because of the high taxes, 70 percent of which go to the schools.”

“. . . You have high-quality teachers, but is it necessary to have the highest paid teachers in the state?” Koukos said. “If we had the fifth-highest paid in the state, I don’t think the quality of our education would be any less. If it was 10th, I don’t think the quality of our education would be any less. We just happen to be first.”

The district has been without a teachers union for more than 100 years, officials say, and teachers elect peers to represent them in pay discussions. Board President Cohen said the lack of a union is a non-factor when it comes to pay and “I think our employees see that there is no purpose or reason to join a union. We’re fair and open with our employees.’’

The Chicago Sun-Times analysis was based on information entered annually by districts into a database and collected by the Illinois State Board of Education. The Sun-Times counted only full-time employees who worked at least nine months last school year in districts that gave state achievement tests and served kids in at least one grade, kindergarten through 12th. Averages could be affected by pre-retirement extra-pay bumps, end-of-career vacation or sick-day payments, hefty payouts for extracurricular duties or generous health care benefits.

Compared to peers, Chicago public high school teachers ranked No. 71 statewide; high school principals came in No. 45; and elementary teachers came in No. 37.

Former Chicago Schools CEO Ron Huberman came in No. 9 statewide among superintendents, with a total compensation of just over $283,000. That number represents his total pay with benefits added and six furlough days subtracted from a base salary of $230,000, district officials said.

The most competitive compensation in Chicago was earned by elementary principals, whose average pay of $141,695 ranked No. 8 statewide.

However, Chicago Principals Association President Clarice Berry noted that Chicago principals’ pay is tied to the number of students in their buildings. Some CPS elementary schools serve over 1,000 kids. Some are so overcrowded, Berry said, students attend classes in staggered shifts.

“If you have an elementary school with a couple thousand kids, you’ll be on the same level as a high school principal,’ Berry said. ‘‘That pushes elementary principals up there in the range of high school principals.”

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