Flint, MI—Over the years, Flint Community Schools (FCS) teacher Nadia Rodriguez could have gone to another district for better pay. But, she said, she stays for her students.
“It’s my community,” Rodriguez said. “The kind of thing that teachers go back and forth about is: I stay for these kids. I can’t look at my students and leave them. They count on me to be there, and I know what’s going to happen if I’m not there. If I’m not there, no one is there.”
Rodriguez is in her fifth year of teaching at Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary School. Despite her years of experience, she said her salary remains at the district’s current starting rate, $38,000 annually, for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree.
That’s given a years-long freeze in the annual advancement of teachers’ “steps,” or their increase in pay based on their years of service. The freeze has put a strain on meeting day-to-day costs, Rodriguez told Flint Beat.
“One thing that’s been pretty clear across our country is the cost of living has skyrocketed,” she said. “It just makes those daily sorts of things that much more difficult: paying for your family, getting gas in the car, our insurance … You’re trying to balance it all with everything being more expensive.”
The current salaries also make it challenging to recruit, retain and address the shortage of teachers in Flint Schools, she noted. So, as chair of the Political Action Committee of the United Teachers of Flint (UTF), Rodriguez said the union is pushing for teachers not only “to be made whole,” but also to improve their base salaries at Flint Schools.
“We don’t have enough teachers in the classroom,” Rodriguez said. “If we don’t increase the pay, we’re not going to be able to attract them.”
Bruce Jordan, Michigan Education Association’s UniServ director, is assisting UTF with its bargaining.
Jordan said the first step freezes were put in place roughly a decade ago to address the district’s budget woes amid Flint’s declining population. During the same time, he said, a wage concession occurred as well.
So, Jordan argued, although the 2022 to 2025 bargaining agreement between the district and UTF will see teachers move forward a step on their salary schedule next school year—and another step in the 2024 to 2025 academic year—that doesn’t go far enough to bring back the wages that truly reflect teachers’ years of service.
“Sooner or later, you got to make it right,” he said.
Jordan added that “competitive salaries” for teachers start at or above $40,000. In nearby Swartz Creek Community Schools, for example, the starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor degree is $45,000.
At a Feb. 15, 2023 FCS Board of Education meeting, Nancy Burkhardt said she has been teaching at Flint Schools for more than 30 years, starting at the now-disbanded Mott Adult High School. She said atop her years within FCS, she also holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Michigan-Flint.
Even so, Burkhardt, now a teacher at the district’s Accelerated Learning Academy, said there are staff members with less seniority, or recently hired in, who earn more than her. And, she said, there are new teachers who earn just below her salary, which she shared with Flint Beat is just under $49,500.
Burkhardt told the Board she’d reached out to the district with her salary concerns and received a response from Sharita Galloway, FCS executive director of human resources.
“She basically told me that there was nothing that she could do,” Burkhardt said.
Burkhardt went on to summarize Galloway’s email, saying the HR director had told her the administration would not take action on her compensation and the Board is “well aware of many of the inconsistencies that exist in the teacher’s salary scale due to the several years of freezes. But that’s in no way a reflection of your service, engagement or a commitment to the district and Flint community scholars.”
Though disappointed in that response, Burkhardt, who is not part of UTF, said she feels her place remains at Flint Schools.
“Over the years I’ve been asked by my friends and family about moving on to school districts that would pay me more,” she told the Board. “My calling has always been here with my students. I’ve been placed here for a reason.”
With the Board approving wage increases for paraprofessionals in November 2022 after renegotiations, Jordan said it’s time to open wage negotiations for teachers again, too.
Joanna Coselman, another teacher at Durant-Tuuri-Mott and the elementary vice president of UTF, is in her 23rd year of teaching at Flint Schools. She said teachers haven’t recouped their loss of income since the early 2010s.
“We have never been made whole again,” Coselman said. “That’s causing teachers to leave the district.”
Jordan said UTF is prepared to “engage collaboratively” with Flint Schools to renegotiate wages, but they aren’t ruling out stronger actions if necessary.
“Without something, it wouldn’t surprise me that these teachers will gear up for a strike on this issue,” he said. “It’s extremely serious.”
Reopening wage renegotiations requires the go-ahead from the Board, which has been discussing the matter according to Kevelin Jones, FCS superintendent.
“The future is going to consist of doing something for our teachers,” Jones said. “There is no way forward without ensuring that our teachers are impacted financially.”
The Board and the FCS leadership see that teachers deserve more, he said, noting that all the board members “want to see teachers get something.”
He added, “All of my administration, my whole cabinet, agrees that teachers should get something. It’s a matter of when. It’s a matter of the Board being able to discuss it in further detail with our lead negotiator and myself, and then a decision will be made.”
With respect to recruiting, Jones noted that the district’s efforts include providing signing bonuses for new hires to fill vacancies. That bonus amounts to up to $3,000 for teachers, Galloway told Board members at a March 1 meeting.
Flint Schools is also hiring a human resources manager who will coordinate Flint Schools’ recruitment efforts, Jones added.
“Having a person out there actively seeking for teachers, I do think that’s going to help,” he said.
According to Mid-Michigan Area Public Schools Consortium’s job postings, there are a total of nine teacher vacancies at Flint Schools as of March 3, 2023. Jones acknowledged that teachers’ current salary does make it tough to recruit. But aside from pay, he said issues such as Flint Schools’ aging infrastructure, vacant properties and beyond all play a part in that as well.
“Everyone’s trying to figure out how to deal with the shortage, and it’s not easy because you can’t make people come to your district,” Jones said. “You have to offer something for them to come and that’s why we are trying to do the renovations, erect buildings and … change the culture.”
For Coselman, what’s kept her teaching at Flint Schools is her connection to the district, her students and the broader Flint community, she explained.
“I think it’s because I’m from here,” Coselman said. “I feel these kids deserve something they’re not going to get. I’m in a spot where I have my students for two or three years, so I form bonds with my students. I really truly care about my kids. They’re not just a number. They’re not just a face.”
When it comes to wages, Coselman said she is optimistic that the new Board will recognize the value of teachers’ in the district and move forward with renegotiations.
“I’m really hopeful that they see what assets they have here in their staff, and the fact that a lot of us are here because we could go anywhere else, but we want to be here,” Coselman said. “We want to make a difference. We want to impact these kids’ lives.”