Education 101: On the Backs of Our Teachers

Education 101: On the Backs of Our Teachers
By Save Our Schools Los Alamos

Welcome back to Education 101, the weekly column that explores K-12 public education funding. As a preface to today’s column, because it touches on school system compensation, we’d like to disclose that there are no school employees or family members of school employees involved in the development of these columns; just concerned parents and citizens.

We’d like to start by reviewing some issues outlined in previous columns.

In 2011, New Mexico ranked 33rd out of 50 states in state and local per pupil K-12 education funding, with average spending of $9,250. If Los Alamos had been a state, it would have ranked 47th with state and local per pupil funding at $7,453.

Recognizing the importance of quality public schools for Laboratory recruiting and retention, the Atomic Energy Commission and then the Department of Energy made inflation adjusted contributions to education in Los Alamos for almost 50 years, steadily contributing 35 percent of educational costs. In 1997, that contribution shifted to a flat $8 million annual supplement. In the 17 school years since that change, inflation has eroded that contribution from 35 percent of school costs to just 22 percent today.

This loss of buying power has not been offset by gains in funding under the State Educational Equalization Formula, the source of most of our educational funding. On the contrary, we are a donor district under the state distribution model. On the positive side, our schools have benefitted from proactive work by our School Board and County Council to generate lease revenue from unused and other real property. This has slowed, but not averted, our evolving funding challenge.

We have also discussed the state’s refusal to allow local jurisdictions to supplement educational operating expenses with local funds. Although the State allows communities to contribute capital funding for school facilities, the limit on operating education funds means our opportunity to provide a student experience to community standards is capped by the State, rather than being a matter of local discretion.

The LAPS five year budget forecast, showing the impact of enrollment declines, indicates that our schools are facing annual funding gaps of between $2 to $9 million dollars in the coming five years.  Exacerbating the situation, those forecasts don’t account for the added adverse impact under the state funding formula when a bulge of experienced teachers retire and are replaced with newer teachers, as is expected to occur here.

Save Our Schools Los Alamos has formally questioned the legitimacy of the state prohibition on supplemental local funding for education operating expenses, and that discussion is playing out with the New Mexico Public Education Department.

As we have studied this issue, and reviewed the long-term budget data, we’ve wondered how the Los Alamos Public Schools have done as well as they have for as long as they have; sustaining near parity in terms of quality with the heyday funding of the 1970’s through the late 1990’s. We still have robust athletics, music, dance, and scientific enrichment opportunities. Advance placement and special education support are probably better than ever. By a number measures, many students have not yet felt the impact of our funding decline. How is this possible?

Sadly, our conclusion is that school quality has been sustained on the backs of our teachers and school staff, whose wages remain out of sync with the rest of our community and with the cost of living as members of our community. Quality has been maintained by holding salaries down. While this appears to have worked in the past, we are concerned about both the viability and the fairness of this approach moving forward.

We believe that Los Alamos values teaching as a profession; that the community understands that great schools are built around great faculty and staff working together with committed, engaged parents; and we believe that if school budgets and teacher salaries had been under local, rather than state, control for the last forty years, we would be in a very different and very much better position today. 

Save Our Schools Los Alamos tries to conduct data-driven analysis, but we’re going to take a rare departure here and offer a view based on anecdotal evidence. We offer that for decades, highly trained scientists, engineers, and administrators came to Los Alamos, earned competitive salaries, and brought trailing spouses who embarked on careers in education with the Los Alamos Public Schools. In this way, generous Laboratory compensation essentially subsidized the opportunity for highly qualified and skilled household members to pursue careers in education.

But, our demographic is shifting. It’s now more common for PhD’s to marry PhD’s, MBA’s to marry MBA’s; and teachers to marry other teachers. Rather than having an excellent pool of teacher prospects arriving in Los Alamos as trailing spouses, we now have to rely on attracting and retaining top teaching talent as a standalone proposition. That’s a new dynamic and we are ill equipped to address it under our current funding outlook.

 So, back to the data on compensation. For our general discussions of school funding, we’ve focused on New Mexico and national averages; but of course those averages (against which we do poorly) are no true reflection of our community. According to recent census data, Los Alamos and White Rock are tied for fourth place with Bethesda, MD for communities over 5,000 population in terms of the percentage of adults with advanced degrees (24.6 percent), behind only Palo Alto, Calif. and Lexington, Mass.

The census also shows that Los Alamos County has the third highest median household income in the United States. To frame our comparison, we looked at teacher salaries in communities with comparable Median Household Incomes and we looked at how teacher wages have fared in comparison to general wages here in Los Alamos over the last decade. These reviews suggest that our school staff are substantially undercompensated compared to their counterparts in our peer communities; and that our school staff is falling further behind relative to Laboratory, Federal, and County employees in our community over time. Again, we believe that if there had been local control of education funding over the past decades, as there has been for County operations funding, this situation would not exist and we would not be facing today’s multi-dimensional education challenge.

In the table below, we provide a summary of how Public School Teacher Salaries (PSTS) stack up against the Median Household Income (MHI) in our peer communities. The median household income data comes from the U.S. Census; average teacher salaries come from various sources listed at the end of this article.

2012 U.S. Counties with Highest Median Household Income (MHI)

with Corresponding Average Public School Teacher Salaries (PSTS)

and % of PSTS to MHI

County                                   MHI                Avg PSTS                              %

1.  Falls Church City, Va.      $121,250         $62,956                                 52%

2.  Loudon County, Va.         $118,934          $59,237                                50%

3.  Los Alamos, N.M.          $112,115          $46,699                                42%

4.  Howard County, Md..       $108,234         $66,148* (2010 data)             61%

5.  Fairfax County, Va.          $106,690         $62,074                                 58%

6.  Hunterdon, N.J.                $103,301         $64,600* (2013 data)            63%

7.  Arlington, Va.                   $99,255           $68,979                                 70%

8.  Douglas, Colo.                 $98,426           $51,838                                 53%

9.  Stafford, Va.                     $95,927           $53,241                                  56%

10.  Somerset County, N.J.   $95,574           $73,911                                  77%

US Average                         $51,371           $56,383                                 110%

This chart tells us that nationwide, the average teacher makes a little better than the average household wage. As you might expect, in the highest-earning Counties, teachers make substantially less than the average wage; but nowhere among our peer communities do they make as little as they do in Los Alamos.

Please note that we did not cherry pick the peer communities. This is straight census data. At first we were concerned about the comparison because of the geographic concentration of the peer counties, but upon some historical analysis, we concluded that over the past decade, localities tied closely to federal spending have rocketed to the top of the list, while the prolonged recession has battered other wealthy areas of the country. It’s noteworthy that eight of the ten counties on our list have very high concentrations of federal contractor employees and federal employees. In fact, these are highly representative and comparable peer communities.

So, (although it may not feel like it) that large majority of us here in Los Alamos who are closely tied to federal spending have done well; and in the other similarly federal-centric Counties in our peer group, teachers have done well along with the rest of the population; but here, our teachers are falling further behind.

To Save Our Schools Los Alamos, this situation reflects a disconnect between our community values and our effectiveness in supporting our values with appropriate funding. To us, that’s a matter of equity. But for those not moved by the issue of fairness, it’s also a tactical problem. Because of the changing demographics discussed above, we are concerned that it will be increasingly more difficult to recruit and retain quality staff to sustain quality schools under the current pay scales, held back by State-imposed spending caps.

We’re concerned about reports of outstanding teachers leaving the profession to take other jobs here with better pay and benefits. The same applies to school clerical staff, nurses, librarians, maintenance staff, and even bus drivers; all of whom can leave our schools to earn substantially more working for Los Alamos County or others. We should want a school system that can attract and retain the best talent in all job categories — for the long run.

In this light, Save Our Schools Los Alamos is continuing to advocate for more local control of school funding because we believe that the sustainment of high quality public education is absolutely essential to the viability of our community moving forward.     

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