Aaron Garber, Linwood Holton Elementary School teacher. (Photo by Brooke Marsh)
When Aaron Garber started with Richmond Public Schools in 2006, he did so with the expectation that he’d be getting a 2 percent annual raise the following year. That’s how the salary schedule worked: Pay was tied to the number of years spent teaching in the district. At that time, if you worked one year, you received a bump.
The then-fourth-grade teacher at Linwood Holton Elementary on North Side didn’t get his raise, though. Nor did he receive one the next year, or the year after that, or the year after that, or any of the 10 years he has been an RPS teacher.
Garber’s predicament isn’t a result of poor performance or issues with his bosses, but because for nine straight years, the city School Board has frozen teacher raises. The district’s funding, controlled by City Council, took a hit after the recession, when state lawmakers raided the education coffers for localities.
Now a pre-K teacher, Garber is making the same salary, about $45,000, as when he started. His wife, Jennifer Thomas, teaches at Maymont Elementary. After 14 years with the district, she makes slightly more than he does.
Had RPS held up its end of the bargain, Garber’s 10 years of experience would entitle him to a salary of $49,600. His wife would be earning $55,800.
“We are, basically, where we were 10 years ago, and all the costs have gone up: gas, food, raising a family,” Garber says. Despite his love of teaching, he has considered a career change in recent years. He’s chosen to stay, but many others haven’t. From July 2008 through June 2009, teacher turnover in RPS was 5.23 percent. From July 2014 through June 2015, it was 12.76 percent. In Henrico County, turnover is 5.7 percent. Chesterfield County has seen an uptick to 9.8 percent.
The exodus in Richmond is due, at least in part, to the stagnating teacher pay. Recognizing this, Superintendent Dana Bedden last year commissioned a study of RPS’ pay structure. A report, released in November, outlines a plan to lower the starting salary of the district to about $43,800 — still about $1,000 higher than the regional average — and then give raises each year to teachers who stay. Bedden has touted it as a way to keep experienced teachers in the fold and attract new ones to the division. The proposal would affect all 2,350 of the district's teachers.
A two-year plan to overhaul the pay scale will cost about $5.4 million on the front end, or about a third of the $18 million in additional operational funding the School Board says it needs from City Council for the next school year.
If the new salary scale is fully funded, it could mean the Garbers will earn as much as $10,000 more annually. It’s not as much as they would have been making had their pay never been frozen, but close. “I try not to think about it too much, but you look back and you wonder, ‘How much have I lost over the years?’ ” Garber says.
Currently, RPS teachers who have up to nine years of experience, with a bachelor’s degree, make about $44,500. That’s about $2,000 more than the starting salary with equivalent experience in Henrico County, and about $1,800 more than in Chesterfield County. Henrico’s system gives a raise after four years with the division, then another after year 11, before more incremental increases take place. Chesterfield teachers get a small bump after their first year, then another after their third year and again in their 10th year, before annual raises kick in.
RPS teachers say that the raw salary comparisons don’t take into account that they are contracted to stay at work longer than their county peers, or that they work in worse building conditions, or that teaching in a poor, urban school district comes with challenges largely unknown in suburban districts (at least until recently).
For a new teacher, the day-to-day demands can be a lot to handle, says Andy Brower, who is in his third year at Broad Rock Elementary in South Richmond. He says he was surprised to learn that the more seasoned teacher in the classroom next to his earns basically the same salary he does.
“She knows so much more … I’m always stealing ideas from her,” he says. “It just didn’t seem fair that she was only making a little more than I was.”
Brower and Garber are among a cadre of teachers who recently have been speaking out at School Board sessions and council meetings. They have urged both bodies to fund the revised salary schedule plan, which, some argue, should be as important to the district as fixing its long- neglected facilities.
“Children need good buildings, but you could have state-of-the-art buildings with the latest technology available; none of it matters if you don’t have a qualified, motivated teacher in front of the classroom,” says Chris Lombardi, a fifth-grade teacher at Mary Munford Elementary in the Near West End.
Lombardi is a de facto organizer for the group. (He and others appeared in a doctored photo showing teachers waving signs that said “Raise Our Taxes” and “Cut Our Services” during Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ State of the City address in late January.) He has been an RPS teacher for 13 years and says he has grown tired of complaining to other teachers about things out of their control. Instead, he says, he chose to speak up and encouraged others to do so, as well.
“For years, teachers feared they would be reprimanded if they spoke up,” says Keri Treadway, a first-grade teacher at William Fox Elementary in the Fan. That fear, she says, has dissipated somewhat under Bedden.
The teachers say nothing will change if they wait around for the powers-that-be to do something.
Says Garber: “No one else is going to fight for us.”