More than a dozen Anchorage School District administrators got pay raises of 10 percent or more this year, drawing criticism from teachers at recent School Board meetings.
The educators have asked for a 3 percent pay increase this school year, but the district's initial proposed three-year contract for the Anchorage Education Association teachers union includes no such raise.
"This is an insult," teacher Nancy Neil told the board at its meeting last week. "The message it sends is that teachers and other professionals of AEA are not worth a decent increase in pay."
School Superintendent Deena Bishop said that she had to increase pay for certain leadership jobs so she could recruit and retain "the right people" for her team. Plus, she said, she eliminated other administrative jobs so the district is spending less money overall, despite the raises.
"I reorganized to better use the funds I already have," she said in an interview Thursday. "I have fewer people on my team than the previous superintendent but I intend to get more work done."
Bishop took over as the superintendent of the state's largest school district last summer.
Bishop said she compared the employees' salaries to similar jobs at other school districts and other organizations. She said she also looked at other salaries in the district. In some cases, she said, principals earned more than members of her leadership team, which made it harder to recruit for the jobs.
The average principal in the district earns a salary of $109,000 for 207 days of work, said Jim Anderson, the district's chief financial officer.
"Some folks wouldn't come here with the experience I needed because they could make more money elsewhere," Bishop said. "I had to compete with the best."
Bishop said as part of her administrative reorganization, she eliminated 10 positions, including three of the 12 executive secretaries. She also added three new positions, including the deputy superintendent and his $165,000 base salary.
She cut the number of workdays for some positions and added more days to others.
Four of the five top-paid non-union administrators last school year are getting a base salary of about 10 to 16 percent more now for the same number of days worked — 249. The chief financial officer, who earned $146,000 last fall, earns $160,000 this year. The chief of information technology went from $126,704 to $147,000, according to the district.
In the three prior years, they got smaller raises, according to district data.
Other jobs also saw significant raises, including the district controller's salary, which went from $80,800 to $95,000, with four fewer workdays. The treasurer position also had its workdays cut by four and the salary boosted by nearly 18 percent, from $93,511 to $110,000, according to the district.
Bishop said she determined the salaries based on a person's experience, job responsibilities, the number of people supervised and the salaries of similar positions in other markets.
She said some of the salary changes took place in January and others at the start of this school year.
"When I looked at my team here, I knew I needed to get the right people," she said, "and keep the right people."
The district will pay about $7.9 million in salaries for the group of non-union administrative jobs this school year, Bishop said, nearly $83,000 less than last year.
That does not include benefits.
It also does not include the superintendent's base salary, which the School Board boosted by about 30 percent, to $235,000, when it searched for a new superintendent and ultimately hired Bishop.
Teachers still waiting for contract
Meanwhile, Anchorage School District educators continue to wait for a contract.
The administration and the Anchorage Education Association have remained locked in contract negotiations for about two years, said Tom Klaameyer, president of the teachers union.
"We just want to be treated fairly," he said in an interview Wednesday. "We want a contract that represents the value of educators."
In fall 2015, both sides agreed to a one-year contract extension for the 2016-17 school year that included a 1 percent raise to the union's salary schedule and one-time $1,000 bonuses for its 3,400 members, which include teachers, counselors and school nurses. That contract expired June 30.
The union members continue to work under the terms of that contract now. Those who returned this school year moved up a "step" in their salary schedule, about a 2 percent pay increase, said Todd Hess, district chief human resources officer.
For instance, a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree who earned a base salary of $48,886 last school year is earning $50,213 this year, their second year of teaching in the district.
The union's one-year initial contract proposal for this school year includes a 3 percent increase to that salary schedule as well as two more personal days, bringing the total to five. The union also wants the school district to contribute $65 more a month per person toward their health care costs, according to a copy of the proposal.
Anderson said the 3 percent raise plus the increase to health benefits would cost the district roughly $11.5 million.
The average Anchorage teacher earns about $70,670 plus benefits for an average of about 182 working days, he said.
In contrast, the administration has proposed a three-year contract for the union that includes no increases to the salary schedule. It does include a $500 one-time bonus this school year and the next. It also includes one additional personal day and smaller increases to its monthly health care contribution.
"The three-year proposal that the district made, we don't feel is in our best interest," Klaameyer said. "If we're going to be locked into a bad contract for three years than we'd rather negotiate one year."
‘This is the worst start of the school year’
Hundreds of educators have crowded the two September School Board meetings to air their frustrations.
Last week, they filled the meeting room to capacity and poured into the airy hallway to watch the board meeting from television screens.
Those who spoke to the board mentioned concerns with new curriculum and programs, too little training, too many required tests, the absence of a contract, low morale and high class sizes after the district chopped 99 teaching positions between last school year and the current one.
"I have trouble inspiring and reaching kids' hearts when there are that many hearts beating in one room," Sarah Birmanns, a high school teacher, told the board.
Neil, who said she has taught in the district for 18 years, described the district's proposed contract as "insufficient," especially given the administrative raises.
"It telegraphs an us vs. them message," she told the board. "Where are the district's priorities? According to this current offer from the district it looks like the priorities are for upper management and not for the professionals with direct contact with students every day."
Klaameyer said in an interview that the most common comment he heard from educators is, "This is the worst start of the school year — ever."
News of the administrative salary boosts spread among Anchorage educators in recent weeks, after the union discovered the raises while analyzing the budget, Klaameyer said.
It's not that the union doesn't believe the administration should get a fair salary, he said, it's "more the optics of it."
"It just seemed like one of those things they snuck through while at the same time talking about transparency," Klaameyer said.
Anchorage School Board member Starr Marsett said she believed the district and board talked about the salary raises during a closed-door executive session. She said the district needed to do a better job of "not just listening to our teachers but hearing our teachers."
"I do think a lot of our problem is communication," she said. "Instead of being top-down we need to be a little more bottom-up."
Anderson said while contract negotiations can make it seem like the district and teachers are at war, that's not the case.
"Sometimes in the emotion of collective bargaining it does appear that it's an us vs. them mentality going around and there's this leadership that isn't supportive, but that is so far from the truth," Anderson said.
Bishop said she could not reorganize educators like she did with the administration — giving pay boosts to some and making up for the added costs by cutting positions.
"We're talking apples and oranges," she said.
But Klaameyer said the district has already cut many teacher jobs over the years, including the 99 educator positions last year, requiring them to do more with less.
"It is apples to apples," he said.
Contract debate will continue. Klaameyer said the union is "nowhere near a strike."