Subscribe for 99¢

UPDATED on Friday, Sept. 25 with additional information from district officials about teacher pay since 2008.

ST. LOUIS • More than 100 city school teachers wore black T-shirts and filled the board room inside the St. Louis Public Schools central office Thursday, demanding an end to something they said they can’t take any more: stagnant salaries.

For more than an hour, they stood at a lectern and described to Superintendent Kelvin Adams and the three-member Special Administrative Board what it’s like to not be able to rise much above $40,000 — or be able to move up the pay scale — despite working years in some of the region’s most challenging classrooms.

Jan Ward gripped the lectern and said that her own children qualified for free or reduced-price lunch when they were in school. She teaches at Carr Lane Middle School and has worked for the district for 12 years, she said.

“Many of my colleagues have walked away and gone to other districts,” Ward said. “They get to go on vacations and buy homes. I have $17 in the bank until tomorrow morning.”

Even after the official end of the Great Recession, teachers in the district are watching the value of their wages slip year after year. Several hundred of them are drawing first-year salaries despite having multiple years of experience, according to state payroll records and the district’s pay schedule.

Average teacher pay in district schools has declined every year since 2010. Adjusted for inflation, the average salary for a teacher in St. Louis schools was $46,163 in 2014-15. That is a drop of more than $8,000 from 2010.

That is partly due to the district offering two early-retirement packages during that time, moving higher-earning teachers off the payroll. But teachers at the meeting described the frustration of not moving up the pay scale, and making thousands of dollars less than colleagues in suburban districts. Some have taken second jobs.

“I shouldn’t have to take a second job,” said Evelyn Hines, who teaches at Vashon High School. “If I have to take a second job, when I come back to my first job, I’m tired.”

It’s unusual for teachers in St. Louis to turn out in droves at board meetings. The teachers’ union, American Federation of Teachers Local 420, works together with district administration on issues in a way that is rare in other urban districts, such as improving and getting rid of ineffective teachers. They agreed to furloughs during the recession. It has been years since an outcry for more pay.

Teachers wore shirts stating they hadn’t received a salary increase since 2008. But according to the district, they've received three raises since that time, either by moving up the salary scale in 2008 or 2009, or through an overall 1 percent to 2 percent pay increase. In the three out of four years they didn't get raises, they received up to $1,900 in additional pay. However, that additional money doesn't count toward retirement, and isn't a permanent raise.

The district, like most, has a salary schedule posted online. It states what teachers should make according to their years of experience. The last time teachers moved up this scale was in 2009-10, according to district numbers.

This means a teacher with four years of experience likely is earning the same salary as a teacher with one.

Several teachers brought this up. One teacher called the district's salary schedule "fiction."

At the start of the meeting, the Special Administrative Board approved the tax levy, which brings in local revenue for operating expenses. It has remained unchanged since the 1990s. Mary Armstrong, president of AFT Local 420, told the board the current rate is not enough.

“We are losing more classroom teachers today then we ever have before,” Armstrong said. “We’re trying to work in this district. We want to retain high quality professionals in this district. I don’t have to tell anyone in this audience how many we have trained to work in suburban school districts.”

“We need a raise!” a teacher in the crowd shouted.

Teacher retention in St. Louis Public Schools has long been a problem. But data indicate that early retirement offerings and salary stagnation are making things worse. Average teaching experience has dropped by three years in the past decade, to nine years.

Jim Triplett, teacher of the year at Gateway Elementary School, announced over the summer he was leaving for a job at an elementary school in Cobb County, Ga. In St. Louis, he had been making $38,250, according to payroll records. He had just received his master’s degree.

“I need more money for the work we do for students!” Triplett wrote on Twitter.

Months earlier, Keisha Ducote resigned after spending two years teaching math at Carr Lane Middle School. She now teaches math at North Middle School in Kirkwood, where she makes more than $10,000 a year more.

“We have to make a living too,” Ducote said, adding that she only left St. Louis because she couldn’t afford to stay. “This is our passion, yes. But we went to school to be professionals and we need to be compensated as such.”

The district is stronger financially than it was a decade ago. It has enough in its savings account to keep it out of the state’s “financially stressed” category. But it continues to struggle with declining revenue and rising expenses. Pension costs are around $33 million this year, Banks said. Health benefits have risen to $26 million. Transportation services are $23.5 million.

Teacher salaries make up about a third of district operating expenses, at $83.5 million.

St. Louis Public Schools has several unique challenges. Unlike districts in St. Louis County, it pays for its own special education services. And it operates a system of magnet schools, the highest performing schools in the struggling district. It must bus children to those schools from across the city.

Superintendent Adams said he’d give raises if he could.

“They deserve it,” he said of the teachers. “It’s not just about effectiveness, what they do in the classroom. A caring teacher provides so much more than just the academic part to kids. They provide consistency that so many of our kids need.”

The problem, he said, is resources. It was an argument teachers on Thursday said they don’t buy.

“Your response: ‘We don’t have the money,’” said Margo Tzardok, a school social worker. “Well, how does Hazelwood have the money? Are there more funds in Hazelwood than there are in the city of St. Louis? How about Riverview? How do these districts have the money?”

Walker Moskop of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

Elisa Crouch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.