Education FundingOn April 26, Jefferson County Public Schools released a study that shows teachers in the Louisville area are among the best-paid in the country. They receive, on average, $8,000 more per year than teachers in comparable districts.

Great news, right? Not according to JCPS. Paying its employees well is seen as a major problem that requires an immediate (and drastic) fix: a freeze on most salaries during the upcoming 2016-2017 school year, including those of teachers.

Why is this a problem? Is it because JCPS is low on money? Is the school system facing deep budget cuts and can’t afford to pay teachers so well? No. In fact, at no point has anyone at JCPS suggested the district is, or will be in the future, unable to pay teachers the supposedly “premium” salaries they now enjoy.

The problem is a lack of “internal and external equity,” according to Superintendent Donna Hargens. In other words, the simple fact that JCPS pays teachers and other employees better than other districts is the problem. The salary report itself just assumes this makes sense and instead focuses on how it happened:

“The problem developed over the last 17 years. It’s the result of steps, cost of living increases and state mandates. There were no evil-doers here.”

It’s a big relief to know there was no evil intent behind JCPS paying its most valuable employees better than other districts, though you might be confused about how such a thing could be “evil” at all.

Tom Hudson, the chief business officer for JCPS (who makes $176,000 per year), doesn’t think you should be confused. He thinks you should be angry. “What I don’t understand is why the community hasn’t been outraged that we’ve paid these people this much money over the years,” he said during a press conference on May 2.

Perhaps it is because “these people” are our mothers, our fathers, our siblings, our extended family members, our friends, and our mentors. Perhaps it is because we know how difficult the job of a public school teacher can be, and we know how important teachers are to our children and our community.

Teachers do uniquely hard work; anyone who has a teacher in their family or who has friends who teach knows the old stereotypes about teachers working short hours and getting “summers off” are simply wrong. Teachers often stay long after the last bell of the day has rung, and pour their own limited financial resources into their classrooms as school supply budgets shrink or stagnate. They not only babysit our children all day while we work, but they also try to mold them into intelligent and responsible citizens in the meantime, often in the face of resistance from the kids themselves, from societal problems, and from our bad parenting. Anyone willing to do this critically important labor deserves to be paid well for it.

JCPS-79The school district also has a keen interest in attracting and retaining the best teachers it can. JCPS cares for over 100,000 students, many of whom are poor, are neglected, or who struggle with various emotional, behavioral, or societal limitations. Local schools serve the richest and poorest students alike (though a lot of the richest have fled to Oldham County or to private schools), and every student comes to school with a unique set of skills and needs. Teaching in our local public schools is a tough job, and good teachers are always in need. High pay can help JCPS find and keep them.

Predictably, a backlash to the report and to JCPS’s salary freeze proposal is now picking up steam. Daily “walk-ins” (where teachers, students and supporters hold protest rallies before school begins) are taking place all across the county.

Perhaps desperate to ease tensions, JCPS now claims the report is being “misinterpreted,” and that the “problem,” according to district spokesperson Allison Martin, is that over 7,000 people in non-teaching positions make too much money, not that teachers do. Yet the proposed salary freeze would hit teachers just as hard as other JCPS employees, so it’s unclear what difference that distinction makes, or why the district hasn’t modified its salary freeze proposal to match its new spiel.

Regardless of which employees are “overpaid,” the whole discussion turns on a faulty premise: that one of the biggest local employers paying its thousands of employees well is some kind of liability or problem to fix. Like Jacobim Mugatu, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. We should be hanging banners from every building in the city to celebrate how much we value our educators. And JCPS should launch a nationwide PR campaign to attract top teachers from other districts by waving big salaries in front of them.

But if JCPS really does need to reallocate resources so badly, it should start by cutting the pay of people like Tom Hudson, consistent with the findings of a 2014 investigation by former state auditor Adam Edelen, which revealed that JCPS pays its vast army of central office administrators disproportionately. Rather than freeze the pay of people who make around $14 an hour, perhaps the district could freeze the pay of the 150 administrators who make $50 an hour or more.

Much like universities, which rely more and more on tuition hikes and underpaid adjuncts to support their bloated, expensive armies of administrators (not to mention unprofitable athletic departments), our public school system is top-heavy. A reallocation from the top down is what it needs, not a squeeze in the middle or at the bottom. Though the district should always avoid cutting jobs, eliminating unfilled central office positions is a good start.

If our country’s founders were right to view public education as the very base requirement of a successful civilization, then we owe it to our teachers to pay them well. It is the very least we can do considering the uniquely important – and difficult – task they have undertaken. And we should stand in solidarity with them as they fight to protect their jobs and their dignity in the face of an unceasing, unthinking, and often unnecessary demand for austerity.

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Joe Dunman
Joe Dunman is a Louisville, Kentucky attorney whose practice focuses on civil rights and employment law. He tweets @JoeDunman and blogs at www.joedunmanlaw.com.