Salaries for many Northeast Kentucky public school teachers lag behind those for Kentuckians with similar academic backgrounds, according to income data compiled by state and private sources.
However, most public school teachers in the region make as much or more than the state median household income, according to state education and U.S. Census sources.
Salaries for teachers in Northeast Kentucky range from under $35,000 per year to about $68,500, according to salary schedules posted on the Kentucky Department of Education’s website.
The department posts data from each year since the 1989-90 school year. The Daily Independent studied data from the Ashland, Boyd County, Fairview, Greenup County, Raceland-Worthington, Russell, Carter County and Lawrence County district for the past decade.
The lowest salaries are for first-year teachers at the lowest level of certification and the highest are for those with the highest level of certification and the most years of experience.
Each district sets its own salaries and in Northeast Kentucky the difference between the lowest- and highest-paid teachers at each level can amount to thousands of dollars.
Although teachers do not enter the profession expecting fat paychecks, significant numbers move from lower-paying districts to those with higher salaries, and that affects the quality of education, local educators say.
Each school district bases its salary schedule on rank and years of experience. Rank I requires certification, a master’s degree or equivalent continuing education and 30 semester hours of graduate work; Rank II requires certification and a master’s degree or equivalent education; Rank III requires certification and a bachelor’s degree.
There are two lower ranks for emergency certification as well.
Among Northeast Kentucky districts, the lowest pay for Rank III or above is for first-year teachers in Greenup County, who earned $34,753 in 2018-2019, the most recent year for which data is available from the Kentucky Department of Education.
The top salary level was in Ashland, where Rank I teachers with 32 or more years of experience earned $68,455 in that year, according to KDE.
Salary levels in Boyd County and Lawrence County top out at 26 years, in Carter, Fairview, Greenup and Raceland-Worthington at 27 years, and Russell’s at 25 years.
In each district, pay increases a fixed amount each year, unless the state mandates raises or the district grants them. The last state-mandated raise was 2 percent in 2015-16, and there were 1 percent raises in 2014-15 and 2009-10.
The highest average classroom teacher salaries in the state are $67,488 in the one-school Anchorage district in Jefferson County, and the lowest are $43,407 in the Pineville Independent District in Bell County, which sits on the borders of Tennessee and Virginia.
Average teacher salaries in seven of eight Northeast Kentucky districts are lower than the state average for every year since 2012-13. Russell has remained above the state average every year for the past 10 years except for 2012-13, and Raceland was above the state average in 2009-10 and 2011-12. Ashland exceeded the average in 2009-10.
Fairview had the lowest average eight of the past 10 years and Greenup County in the other two years.
Russell’s average teacher salaries have been significantly higher than the other area districts most years. Ashland’s average was highest in 2009-10.
Teachers by and large are not mercenary but better pay does have an impact, said Russell High School principal Anna Chaffin. The ability to offer more money than surrounding districts makes it easier to attract and retain quality faculty, she said.
“What I’ve noticed is that once you get quality teachers in the district, they don’t leave, and one factor is the pay,” she said.
Russell High doesn’t suffer from high turnover, and job openings bring a quality pool of applicants, she said.
Better pay is one sign the district values its faculty, according to Russell High Spanish teacher Catherine Del Valle, who came there from Greenup County High School.
And that means a lot to teachers and results in many, if not most, riding out their careers in the district, she said. “Look at our building and you’ll see they are all seasoned teachers.”
Teacher retention brings consistency that improves learning, according to Chaffin. “When teachers have the opportunity to settle in and know the students they work with, they build relationships, she said.
Conversely, districts that pay less tend to lose more and better teachers, said Melissa Conley, who teaches at Boyd County High School and is president of the Boyd County Education Association. “We’ve lost 42 teachers in three years to districts that pay better. We’re losing really good teachers and it’s sad,” she said.
To replace the ones who move up and out, the district hires primarily recent graduates, she said.
An average salary of between $46,000 and $58,000 may seem attractive to some, but most teachers have masters’ degrees and many enter the profession with student debt. “The cost of graduate school is skyrocketing and I know teachers with 16 years of experience that still are paying off their student debt,” Conley said.
Average yearly income for Kentuckians with a master’s degree in education is $51,483, according to PayScale, a software and data company that provides pay information to employers.
Kentuckians in other occupations with the same level of academic credentials command significantly higher salaries.
A master’s degree in engineering yields a $72,900 average yearly salary, for instance, and a master’s degree in nursing translates to $87,181 per year.