Toni Myers said it’s a Zoom meeting she’ll never forget.
The president of the Baker Education Association had gathered the district’s faculty in February to make an announcement, requesting they turn their cameras on so she could see their reactions. She hadn’t told them the reason they were all gathered virtually, and by the end of it, some teachers were in tears.
Myers told members of the teachers’ union that they would all be getting a raise next school year. The upcoming raise isn’t just a simple cost of living adjustment or a new column on the salary scale, it’s a fundamental shift in the living standard for teachers in rural Oregon. As first reported by the Baker City Herald, the Baker School District is raising the salary floor for certified teachers from $38,000 to $60,000. The ceiling will see a bump as well.
The new salary scale makes Baker among the best paying districts in a state where the average starting salary is $39,000, according to the Oregon Education Association.
It’s a move teachers described as life changing. The significant pay bump will mean they can afford child care and utility bills. It means they could stay in Baker County or simply stay working as a teacher.
The teachers’ union didn’t need to engage in contentious bargaining sessions or go on strike to secure the raise. In fact, district administration proposed the idea to the union.
District officials believe the raises can achieve a number of benefits: a motivator for current educators to stay in Baker, a recruiting tool in a profession that’s facing a labor shortage and an economic stimulus for a county where the district is the largest employer. It could also set the tone for a debate swirling around the Oregon Legislature about whether the state should set a wage floor for every teacher.
But most of all, Baker believes that higher wages will lead to better taught students.
“If we talk about the single most effective strategy to affect student learning, it’s sticking a highly effective qualified teacher in front of every classroom,” Baker School District Superintendent Erin Lair said.
‘It really is life changing for us’
When she got the news, Brooklyn Primary School third grade teacher Lindsey Rogers scrolled through the Zoom window to see her husband’s reaction.
Rogers’ husband is a teacher at Baker Middle School, meaning both of them would be getting a raise over the summer. And with the Rogerses expecting their first child, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ll be able to afford day care,’” she said. “That was honestly the first thing that my husband and I said to each other: ‘We’re going to be able to provide for our little girl.’ We both were in tears.”
The fact still hasn’t totally settled in for Rogers. She and her husband had done the math before the raises, and they would have been able to afford child care, but only by “crunching pennies.”
“The impact for just one teacher in the district is huge,” she said. “But as a married couple, we were in shock for days. We still are. It doesn’t seem real. It really is life changing for us.”
The Rogers family weren’t the only ones in tears. Several teachers around the district said they started crying as they realized that they were about to obtain a new level of financial security. Myers said one staff member told her that they previously kept their thermostat at 65 degrees all winter to avoid a high heating bill. In an area that can dip below zero during the cold weather season, Myers said the teacher now can turn their heat on without worrying about being able to afford it.
The change is expected to help students, as well, according to the district.
The relationship between teacher experience and effectiveness is a much debated topic among researchers. Some studies conclude that not all teachers will get better with time and any gains their students make diminish after the first few years in the profession. But a 2019 study found that teacher effectiveness continues to grow decades into teachers’ careers, and it can be boosted further by cultivating a positive working environment.
Regardless, there is a consensus that quality teachers lead to better student outcomes. Baker hopes that the raises will allow it to hold onto quality teachers longer and attract more quality educators to the district in the years to come.
For such a big step, Lair was initially unsure that it would work at all.
How it happened
Lair began playing around with the pay boost idea earlier this year.
Discussions were swirling around the state about how to pay teachers more and Lair thought that Baker might be able to offer some of the highest paying teaching jobs in the region.
“I was on my way to a conference and called our CFO and said, ‘I’ve got an idea. Could you run the numbers and see if it works?’” Lair recalled. “‘I have a hunch that it won’t, but I’m playing this out in my mind. And I’m thinking that the long term effect could actually be financially sustainable.’”
Lair had the outlines of a new pay scale for Baker, roughly $60,000 to $86,000, but she needed to know if it would work as a formal salary schedule compatible with the district’s budget.
The chief financial officer returned to Lair with the green light and she eventually found herself in front of Myers with a draft of the new salary schedule. The key was simplifying a 14-step pay scale down to just a 4-step scale. It meant teachers would start at a higher salary in the district and reach the apex faster. The design also guaranteed every current teacher would get a raise. Lair handed over the proposed salaries and Myers found herself speechless.
“I had to process it and I kind of looked at Erin (and said), ‘Are you pranking me or can we do this?’” Myers said. “And she’s like, ‘We can do this.’”
Lair said a number of factors worked in Baker’s favor to allow this development.
The Baker School Board was supportive, meaning the new salary schedule wouldn’t face any political opposition from the district’s elected officials. Previous administrations had been able to sock away enough money that the district is slated to begin next year with $12 million in extra funding carried over from previous budgets, providing valuable seed money for the raises. And unlike many districts in Eastern Oregon, the Baker School District’s student body isn’t shrinking. Enrollment is stable and the district even ended up with more students this year than anticipated.
Baker is projecting out these sets of raises over the next three years. Lair said the district might need to make more financial decisions after that period ends, but said the current statewide picture on teacher salaries isn’t sustainable and will require the state to provide financial help to all Oregon districts..
In the meantime, Lair said the district’s higher wages could stimulate Baker County’s economy as teachers find themselves with more expendable income.
“We are the largest employer in Baker County,” she said. “If we are paying a professional wage to one of the largest groups of employees in the county, the impact on the economic picture in a rural place is going to be changed.”
The raises are a big step that will need help from the state to be sustained long term.
Kati Stuchlik, an academic advisor at Baker High School, described herself as a “perpetual skeptic” who was worried about how long this raise could last. But she took heart in a bill winding its way through Salem that might make Baker’s decision closer to the statewide norm.
“I was really curious about sustainability and how it’s going to look five,10, 15 years down the line,” she said. “I’m still a little nervous about that. But I hear that there’s legislation coming from the state level that’s going to create more of a lock on this.”
Debate in Salem
At a Feb. 1 legislative hearing, the opponents of House Bill 2690 often opened up their statements saying they supported the idea of paying teachers more, before explaining why they didn’t want a bill that would set a statewide teaching salary floor at $60,000 to pass through the Oregon Legislature.
Brett Yancey, the chief operating officer of Springfield Public Schools, made comments that others echoed frequently in formal testimony at the House Education Committee.
“I am speaking in opposition of this, but I want to be clear that I fundamentally do not disagree with paying employees more,” he said.
A representative from the La Grande School District was not in Salem that day, but its business manager sent a letter opposing the bill. In an interview, La Grande Superintendent George Mendoza said he’s happy for Baker and its teachers, but he’s worried that it could lead to some of his teachers heading eastward for higher pay. If La Grande was able to get the proper resources from the state, Mendoza said, he would also push to raise teacher pay.
One of the chief factors working against La Grande, Mendoza said, is its declining enrollment. The state’s weighted funding formula pays districts per student, and Mendoza said La Grande has lost 10% of its student body since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Absent a new stream of funding to local school districts, opponents warned legislators that the pay increase bill could lead to cut positions and massive class sizes, especially in rural school districts. La Grande, which is just 45 minutes from Baker City, was one of several rural districts to testify against the bill, a group that included Coquille, Willamina and South Wasco County.
Countering school administrators’ opposition was Kyndall Mason of the Oregon Education Association. The lobbyist with the state’s teachers’ union told legislators that Oregon’s $39,000 average starting wage for teachers was in the bottom half of the country and lower than the figures for California and Washington. If the state wanted to recruit and retain teachers, it needs to revise its funding formula to boost teachers’ salaries.
“Right now in Oregon, an educator can leave education in general with their level of education and training and make 30% more in any other field,” Mason said. “That simply shows that we are not making the investments we need to in order to compensate teachers appropriately.”
After it was amended to lower the salary floor to $50,000, the bill passed out of the education committee over the objections of Republicans and was sent to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means on April 4, where it remained as of Wednesday.
Even if the bill doesn’t pass, Baker’s pay bump is still set to go into effect July 1.
The debate about state education funding isn’t lost on Lair, the Baker superintendent, but local school officials think momentum is on the side of increasing teacher salaries across the state. Lair and Myers said they’ve heard from both administrators and union officials in other districts that want to raise their own salary floors. A $60,000 floor might not be the goal in every district, but a substantial pay raise is now on the table.
Baker is already seeing more applicants for their open teaching positions and the new candidate pool has more experience. Lair said many candidates have been in the field at least five years, enough to build quality experience but short enough that they still have many years in the classroom ahead of them.
“They can get to Baker, fall in love with it just like we have, and stay for a while,” she said.