Erroneous reports of Michigan teachers taking pay cuts are not uncommon, but teachers employed by the Flint school district have a legitimate claim of stagnant pay.
The big story at Flint schools, though, has been a 77 percent decline in student enrollment over a 14-year period. The district had 21,007 students in 2003 but was down to just 4,883 students in 2017. That decline in enrollment is bigger than Detroit’s 71 percent drop over the same period, from 157,003 students in 2003 to 45,237 in 2017.
And while Flint schools are usually among Michigan’s best-funded in terms of combined local, state and federal dollars per pupil, the recent exodus of students from the district has meant serious challenges for its annual budget and operations.
One consequence was that for several years, the school district spent more than it took in, hit by a spiraling enrollment decline along with rising pension costs.
The double whammy made Flint schools a rare instance in which individual teacher salaries declined. That’s one finding from information provided by the district as well as OpenTheBooks.com, a nonprofit that tracks public sector salaries.
The salary of one Flint teacher decreased from $64,665 in 2013-14 to $62,676 in 2016-17. Another teacher was paid $63,237 in 2013-14, but only $59,703 in 2016-17. Pay for a third teacher fell from $60,884 in 2013-14 to $59,703 in 2016-17.
It can be difficult to track the salary of a teacher because bonuses and opportunities for extra pay are usually available each year. But the reductions endured by the three teachers appear to represent the declines felt by many of Flint’s 355 teachers.
According to the district’s union contract, salaries start at $32,065 for a first-year teacher and are capped at $66,780 after 13 years. Raises are given every two years, and in 2016-17, the average salary of a Flint teacher was $62,545, according to the Michigan Department of Education.
The large drop in enrollment meant fewer state dollars for the district, because most Michigan school aid is allocated on a per-pupil basis. In 2003, the state gave Flint schools $159.6 million, and by 2017, this was down to $41.2 million.
Despite the reduction of $118.4 million in state funding over that 14 year period, on a per-student basis, the district received roughly the same amount of inflation-adjusted state revenue in 2017 as it did in 2003.
Nevertheless, that epic student exodus caused budget problems because the district couldn’t downsize fast enough to keep up. One result was a $3.7 million deficit in 2011, with deficits in successive years. The annual gaps kept accumulating and by 2014, the deficit had topped-out at $22.0 million. Remarkably, however, within two years the district had wiped out all its red ink.
The enrollment decline was aggravated by skyrocketing pension expenses. In a manner similar to how state school aid is allocated on a per-student payment, the state-run school pension system imposes annual district assessments on the basis of payroll. So while the total pension bill fell, on a per-employee basis, it skyrocketed.
In 2011, Flint Community Schools was required to contribute $10.9 million to the underfunded state pension system. The requirement fell to $7.3 million in 2017 – but that amount was assessed on a much smaller payroll. On a per-employee basis, the district was actually paying much more.
In 2011, it paid $4,450 per full-time employee to the Michigan Public Schools Employees Retirement System. By 2017, the payments had increased 89 percent, to $8,403 per employee. Flint Community Schools had 2,448 full-time staff on its payroll in 2011 and just 874 full-time workers by 2017.
Flint Superintendent Bilal Tawwab didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
Tom Gantert writes for Michigan Capitol Confidential, from where this article is adapted.