Experienced, highly educated teachers are the most valuable educators. On that, Nebraska’s metro area school districts agree.

Pay scales uniformly reward teachers with pay boosts for their years in the classroom, and for the steps they take toward advanced degrees.

But the most educated and veteran teachers aren’t evenly distributed among or within districts. And often the schools facing the biggest socioeconomic challenges and struggling with the poorest achievement are staffed with teachers who are the least experienced.

That’s one of the findings of a World-Herald examination of teacher pay in the 11 metro Omaha districts as well as the Lincoln Public Schools.

Full school salary data have been added to the paper’s online payroll database. Users can find information on pay for teachers, administrators and other employees at all 12 districts. They can also compare pay among schools and districts.

The Omaha Public Schools had the lowest average teacher pay of any metro-area district, at just over $46,000, according to data from the Nebraska Department of Education for the 2013-14 school year. Bellevue, with an average pay of almost $51,400, was the top district.

But OPS wasn’t at the bottom of the list because its teacher pay scales are particularly low. Actually, OPS already pays as much if not more than most districts pay for comparable teachers.

Instead, average salaries in OPS are lower than in other districts because its teachers tend to be less experienced, with fewer advanced degrees.

The disparities in teacher experience and education are particularly noteworthy given the challenges OPS faces. Among the 12 districts, OPS has the highest rate of poverty, with nearly three-quarters of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.

Within OPS itself, the same disparities exist. Teachers at the 10 highest-poverty OPS schools were all paid less than the Omaha district’s average because of lower experience and education levels.

It’s a pattern that holds true in most other districts. In 10 of the 12 districts, the elementary school with the highest poverty rate had an average teacher pay below the district average. Westside and Elkhorn were the only exceptions.

To be sure, research hasn’t shown that veteran teachers and those with master’s degrees are always the best.

Still, assigning a rookie teaching corps to low-performing, low-income schools is a nationwide problem, said Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. This experience gap is especially evident in urban districts such as Omaha, he said.

“Teachers with lots of experience tend to gravitate toward schools in wealthier neighborhoods,” said Griffith, who is advising an education task force assembled by the state of South Dakota.

Omaha’s Belvedere Elementary and Lincoln’s Maxey Elementary are the most dramatic examples of the staffing and pay gap.

Belvedere, near Fontenelle Boulevard and Curtis Avenue in north Omaha, was at the bottom of the heap when it came to teacher pay. On average, its teachers entered the 2013-14 school year with less than eight years of experience, the lowest of any metro-area school. Belvedere teachers also had nearly the lowest rate of master’s degrees — just over 35 percent.

Not surprisingly, their average pay was $41,800.

At the other end of the spectrum was Maxey in southeast Lincoln, where teachers earned just shy of $56,000 and their experience level — 20 years, on average — was higher than any school in the 12 districts.

Maxey and Belvedere differed in another key way: poverty.

At Belvedere, 92 percent of students qualified for subsidized lunch. At Maxey, less than 10 percent qualified.

Belvedere Principal Christina Windsor said several factors played into her school’s low experience levels.

When she took over at Belvedere three years ago, she didn’t dissuade teachers who wanted to transfer out. She didn’t mind that she was losing some experienced teachers, because she felt it was important for Belvedere’s staff to be filled with teachers who wanted to be there.

She embraces the opportunity to train new teachers, and looks to hire staff prepared to work in an urban setting.

“It’s important that we have urban school teachers,” she said. “Teachers who have urban school setting experiences come in with a different mindset.”

She also said Belvedere teachers are adding skills and experience. Last year, she said, three second-year teachers started taking steps toward master’s degrees in math.

But Windsor noted that teacher quality isn’t just about education and experience. With so much research into best practices, teaching styles and the like, she said even inexperienced teachers have enough information to be effective.

“Even with the young teachers we have, we’re still making growth,” she said. “I’d put them up against anybody.”

Maxey’s principal, Suzanne Reimers, said the school’s average experience spiked recently after a new school opened nearby. Maxey had to lose staff, and the most senior teachers were the ones who stayed, she said. The remaining teachers were also well-educated — two-thirds held advanced degrees.

Griffith said teacher transfer programs to address the imbalance in experience levels tend to be unpopular. So is offering “combat pay” to attract higher-quality teachers to more challenging schools.

He said some districts have experimented with student-based budgeting, which allocates money to each school based on a weighted formula derived from student needs rather than staffing ratios.

Westside hasn’t gone that far, but it does have a unique approach to pay. The district’s pay scales are largely based on experience and education, but teachers can earn extra pay in a number of ways.

“You have good teachers, not-so-good teachers, maybe excellent teachers,” said Enid Schonewise, the district’s assistant superintendent over human resources. “To pay them all the same is not something Westside wanted to do.”

Teachers can increase their pay by participating in district-led programs, taking on extra roles, being mentors, leading development meetings and the like, she said.

At the end of the year they can earn “merit pay,” a few hundred dollars extra based on a performance review. Merit pay is added permanently to the teacher’s base salary, she said.

Of the 12 districts, Bellevue Public Schools had one of the most experienced teaching staffs and the highest average pay. One out of seven teachers made the maximum amount possible under the district’s pay scale: $68,900.

Bellevue’s high-poverty schools had fewer of those higher-paid teachers. At Belleaire Elementary, where two out of three students received free or reduced lunch, teachers made $7,000 less than the district average.

Sharra Smith, Bellevue’s personnel director, said that’s just a coincidence. Teachers tend to work for the district over an entire career, she said, and rarely change schools.

Besides, she said, teacher pay doesn’t always correlate to the best teachers.

“Just because on paper it looks like Belleaire staff was less seasoned, it doesn’t mean those students were receiving any less quality of education,” she said.

In OPS, where schools’ poverty rates range from 8 percent to 97 percent, the district has the power to step in and shuffle teachers to distribute experience among schools.

But it’s rarely done, said district spokesman Todd Andrews. Instead, the district keeps an eye on other factors with the hope that inequities will balance on their own.

“The district tried to achieve the balance organically, via retirements, transfers, etc.,” he said.

Chris Proulx, president of the Omaha Education Association, said a number of factors likely played into OPS’s low experience and education levels.

Teachers in OPS face challenges that they wouldn’t in other districts, he said. As a result, many teachers begin careers in OPS, then transfer to suburban districts. That keeps the district’s experience level low.

“Teaching in an urban center is, in itself, a unique calling,” he said. “(Teachers) seek it out intentionally.”

But the low rate of master’s degrees, he said, may have been driven by the district’s unique pay scale structure.

At most districts, the pay scales for teachers with a bachelor’s degree top out quickly.

In Gretna, for example, a teacher with only a bachelor’s degree can earn automatic pay raises for the first six years before plateauing — at $40,100 in the 2013-14 year. To get a raise after that, a teacher must pursue a master’s degree or rely on contract negotiators to increase the overall pay scale.

OPS, meanwhile, has allowed teachers to continue to move up the pay scale throughout their careers, even if they never pursued additional education. An OPS teacher with only a bachelor’s degree could earn as much as $64,000. None of the other 11 districts offered such teachers more than $47,000.

That changed in the most recent OPS contract, which was passed in May. Now pay for a teacher with only a bachelor’s degree will plateau after 15 years, Proulx said.

“The intent behind it is to serve as a motivator, just telling people upfront: If you don’t advance your education, you’re going to max out your salary,” he said.

Tying pay to education levels makes sense because a teacher’s career options are relatively limited, Proulx said. Short of becoming a principal or other administrator, there aren’t a lot of ways for teachers to advance.

In the 12 districts studied, the most highly educated teachers were in Gretna, where two out of every three held advanced degrees.

As a result, Gretna teachers earned more than $50,000 on average, despite lower experience levels.

Rex Anderson, Gretna Public Schools’ director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said he didn’t know that Gretna had the highest rate of teachers with master’s degrees, but he wasn’t surprised.

The district actively pushes its teachers to pursue advanced degrees because it makes them better teachers, he said. Additional education is particularly meaningful for teachers who already have been working in the classroom, he said.

For undergraduates, Anderson said, everything they learn in college is theoretical. But it’s different for teachers with experience.

“It makes more sense,” he said. “They can say ‘I have kids like this. I’ve seen this.’ They can make those connections.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-3144, matt.wynn@owh.com

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