Battle Creek

Salary surprise for Battle Creek teachers swells Bearcat pride

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Natasha Hager says a $10,000 bump in the salary she’s paid to teach third grade at Verona Elementary will go a long way to quelling concerns about her family’s finances, but the unexpected pay raise goes deeper than that for educators like herself who work for the Battle Creek Public Schools.
“A raise is one thing, but when you’re talking that significant of an amount of money it will single-handedly change the lives of all of the teachers and have a widespread impact,” says Hager, who graduated in 2009 from Battle Creek Central High School. “It’s incredible. It puts it all in a different financial state. Our personal lives will be so much easier, but knowing that there’s this deeper appreciation is so important. Being a teacher in general you’re either celebrated or often hated the most. Having a district that sees the work you do every day and appreciates that — I think that’s huge.”
She says it’s not so much about getting more money, but “like we’re finally being seen. A point of contention has always been the financial aspect. It’s about time that teachers in the district are really, truly celebrated because this job is difficult.”
On May 25 leadership with BCPS announced that the school district had reached an agreement on a new pay scale with the Battle Creek Education Association (BCEA) union representing teachers in the district. Beginning in the 2023-24 school year, all teachers will receive an average increase of more than $10,000 to their salary at each job level. This major investment in the district’s teaching staff came one week after the announcement of the Bearcat Advantage, a new scholarship covering up to 100% of college tuition and fees for eligible BCPS graduates. 
“We were all just shocked and after seeing the Bearcat Advantage even more so,” Hager says of herself and her fellow teachers. "The Bearcat Advantage is amazing and the district is doing all these great things. Then we wondered what was happening for teachers and less than 24 hours later we learned about the pay raises. All of us just really felt lighter. Everything became a lot less difficult.”
This includes the pressure to take on a second job to make ends meet.
More than half of all K-12 teachers in the United States earn income from sources other than their base teaching salary, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And not just during the summer, although that’s when teachers tend to dedicate more hours to their second job or side hustle — be it landscaping, counseling at a summer camp, tutoring, Airbnb hosting, or any number of other ways to earn extra cash, according to Education Week.
Hager says she is fortunate that she never had to take a second job.
“It’s something I thought of at one time, but I have two children at home, one with special needs, and I also live in a two-parent household so it’s different for me,” she says. “I can’t imagine what that would be like. Teaching is a huge time investment and to have to walk out of here and go do another job I can’t imagine having to be split so finely and you’d never have time for yourself. At that point, you’re not doing anyone any good.”
Inadequate pay is a long-standing issue for teachers, says Nick Kauzlarich of the Economic Policy Institute, whose research reveals that public K–12 teachers are paid nearly 20 percent less than college-educated, non-teaching peers.
To demonstrate the disconnect between teacher salaries and the cost of living, a United Kingdom-based educator job site Teaching Abroad developed the Teaching Salary Index. The index is a measure of the average teaching salary in the top 100 developed economies compared to the respective countries’ per capita gross domestic product, or GDP. According to their findings, the United States was among the 93 percent of countries in which educators make less than the local per capita GDP, which is a measure of the cost of goods and services. For American teachers, the report found a $8,908 difference between the average salary and the GDP, the report found.
Increasing teacher salaries has been a long-term priority of district leaders since 2017, when the W.K. Kellogg Foundation provided BCPS with a historic $51 million investment in support of a district transformation initiative focused on addressing opportunity gaps and reducing barriers to success for children in the community, says BCPS Superintendent Kimberly Carter. Through the district’s transformation work, she says several teacher incentives have been made available over the last several years, including bonuses, paid professional development, and a partnership with the City of Battle Creek offering up to $20,000 in home purchase assistance.
“This has been a long journey of transformation that began in 2017,"  Carter says. “Prior to that we were facing significant deficits in our Fund Balance and we were needing to make some changes. Teachers had salary freezes for long amounts of time in their annual contracts. We were one of the lower-paid districts in the area when it comes to what teachers are being paid.”
In Michigan, the starting teacher's salary on average is $38,963, compared to on average $42,844 nationally. With the new agreement in place, the average BCEA teacher salary will increase from $56,800 to $68,300 beginning in the 2023-2024 school year. The starting pay for BCPS teachers will increase from $40,170 to $50,000, positioning BCPS as one of the highest-paying districts for new teachers in all of Southwest Michigan.
“We want to create an environment where students can be academically successful. We know that happens with highly-qualified teachers in every classroom,” Carter says. “This has always been a long-term priority for the district. We had to take intentional steps to create the conditions for allowing this to happen.”
From concept to reality
Discussions about the teacher pay raise began at the end of 2022. BCPS adopted a zero-based budgeting process and committed to prioritizing the rightsizing of teacher compensation.

This is a key component in the long-term vision for BCPS which is to increase student enrollment, which would, in turn, provide the district with more state funds, allowing the district to better compensate staff, Carter says.
“Last year, BCPS saw its first increase in enrollment in over a decade and anticipates further increases following the announcement of the Bearcat Advantage college tuition scholarship, paving the way for this investment in teachers across all levels,” she says.
BCPS began the 2022-23 school year with 40 teacher openings. To compensate for this shortage, classroom sizes were increased, not an ideal solution, acknowledges Carter who says 278 staff is the approximate number for the school district to be fully staffed.
“For BCPS we need teachers from K-12 across all subjects. We have the greatest need in Special Education. All of the areas are pretty widespread. We want to make sure we’re attracting top talent to those areas,” she says. “We know that BCPS is competing with school districts regionally, statewide, and nationally for teachers in all subject areas.”
Hager says she’s hopeful about filling the vacancies “because every teacher right now knows that another district will pay them more. Having said that the pay increase BCPS has done puts them in the running for highly-qualified, skilled teachers who want to work here and feel that they have the ability to because of the money they can now receive."
Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education shows that school districts throughout Michigan are experiencing teacher shortages in just about every subject area. The shortage in Michigan mirrors what’s going on nationally.
Carter says the pay raise initiative is an understanding of what the contributing factors are to a national teacher shortage.
“It’s about the culture and climate and level of compensation educators received,” she says.
“It’s important to note that this is both a retention and recruitment strategy. Our teachers now across the nation have options and they have really great opportunities to make different decisions. We want them to choose BCPS while honoring the staff we already have. We see and appreciate their work.”
When it comes to recruitment of teachers who are looking for a school district they want to join, Carter says they look for additional support, including a reduction in class sizes, access to classroom supports, on-site nurses, and behavior interventionists, in addition to pay.
“We all have to be honest as a community,” she says. “Educators have not been adequately compensated for many, many years. The pandemic brought forth a reckoning as a community that we need to invest in one of the most significant areas in our community. Teachers are experiencing higher levels of stress and higher amounts of work. They’re demanding the respect they’ve always deserved.”
Hager says she hopes that the actions taken by BCPS leadership will change the tone and perception of the school district.
“I feel like BCPS has always been in competition with surrounding schools as a whole. I’m hoping that seeing the Bearcat Advantage and seeing teachers paid and appreciated more and this investment in the education of our students will spread out to the community and positively impact the inner city of Battle Creek and improve the lives of people living here and all of the children living here.”

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.