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St. Louis Teachers Take Legal Action Over Pay-Discrepancy Claims

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

The union representing St. Louis Public Schools educators says half its members are being underpaid in violation of its contract.

American Federation of Teachers Local 420 will take their grievance against the district to an arbitrator beginning Tuesday. It’s seeking more than $10 million worth of salary increases and back pay for nearly 1,000 teachers and support staff.

The union claims the district is paying some teachers considerably more than others with nearly identical credentials or less experience.

The district is “cheating its employees,” union president Sally Topping said in a statement.

Topping was unavailable for an interview.

Teachers are paid based on what’s called a “step schedule” in contract parlance. Teachers can be placed higher on the schedule if they have more experience or have a master’s degree. Earning a post-graduate degree is also a way for current teachers to jump to a higher-paying step schedule.

The union has examples of pay inequities ranging from a few hundred dollars to $21,000. Many are in the $4,000-$10,000 range. In one example, between two teachers with bachelor’s degrees on Step 2 of the salary schedule, one is paid $53,677, and the other is paid $42,838.

SLPS Superintendent Kelvin Adams declined an interview through a spokeswoman, who said the district doesn’t comment on pending legal action.

SLPS teachers are halfway through a three-year contract that included raises with money generated from a 2016 property-tax increase. That contract was negotiated by previous union president Mary Armstrong.

Teacher-union contracts often allow school districts to increase salary as an incentive in hard-to-fill positions, such as high-school math or special education. Teachers can also earn extra pay for taking on additional duties or responsibilities, such as being a mentor teacher or serving as a faculty advisor to student activities.

But the egalitarianism of teachers’ union contracts means there’s little districts can do to pay high-performing educators more money or entice teachers into undesirable schools.

“Pay is a way to allow the district to move quality teachers to where they’re needed most,” said Michael Podgursky, an economist who has researched education funding and teacher pay.

“The single-salary schedule hampers a lot of that.”

The union’s grievance paperwork does not detail why these teachers are paid more or less.

High-poverty school districts such as St. Louis often struggle to fill teaching positions, and pay is a factor in teacher turnover. The average salary for an SLPS teacher is about $44,000, while a teacher in Kirkwood makes an average of $72,000.

There are more than 80 vacancies in SLPS currently.

The mediation is expected to last four days.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.