Mayor, school district aim to make Nashville teachers the ‘best paid in the state.’ Here’s how they plan to do it.


Meghan MangrumNashville Tennessean

Nashville teachers will see a pay increase every year under a new plan paid for by Mayor John Cooper’s proposed $50 million investment in teacher compensation announced Thursday.

Teachers will see on average a $6,900 increase this year as the city and the district seek to provide competitive, living wages to its educators.

The nearly $50 million needed to revamp the district’s pay structure is made possible by an already recovering economy and the city’s strengthened faith in the public school system, the school board and the leadership of Director of Schools Adrienne Battle.

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The proposed pay increase and new salary structure will impact all certified staff, including teachers, librarians, school counselors and social workers. But the proposal does not include classified support staff or certified administrators. Instead, those employees would receive a 2% cost-of-living increase in addition to annual step pay increases in the proposed budget.

Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Adrienne Battle listens to Mayor John Cooper deliver his annual State of Metro address at the Music City Center Thursday, April 29, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

The proposal comes as pressure has increased in recent years to fix the district’s salary structure, which many have argued is stagnant and doesn’t provide a living wage for many of Nashville’s teachers.

“This is a very historic investment for MNPS and recognizes the value and the service of our employees by being able to revamp our pay scale for all of our teachers,” Battle told The Tennessean. “As you know, this has been a challenge for us for many, many years, in being able to invest in step increases and in teacher pay across the board.”

Making Nashville teachers the best paid in Tennessee

Sue Kessler, executive principal at Hunters Lane High School, recently stopped at Green Hills Mall to purchase an outfit for her own son’s graduation. Kessler was tired, having worked a full day at school. But as the salesperson rang up her purchase, Kessler found out that they also worked for Metro Nashville Public Schools — she was a teacher.

Unfortunately, this isn’t rare, Kessler said. Many teachers work second jobs after the end of the school day to afford Nashville’s high cost of living and make ends meet. But that’s not ideal for them or their students, she said. 

“I need my teachers to go home and pour into their own families so they can have balance in their lives,” Kessler said. “That’s how you keep effective people effective — not by expecting them to work 18 to 19 hours a day at one of their two jobs so they afford to live.” 

PREVIOUSLY:A long-awaited study floats ways to boost Nashville teacher pay. The plans will have to wait.

In 2019, through a partnership with the district and the Nashville Public Education Foundation, Cooper’s administration launched a study to figure out how to attract and retain teachers.

Global Perspective teacher, Meredith McGinnis helps junior Jada Blake with an assignment in class at John Overton High School in Nashville, Tenn., Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

But the study results were unveiled in May 2020 — amid the COVID-19 pandemic and just months after a devastating tornado ravaged Nashville. The city last year asked for departments, including the public school district, to cut their budgets, instead of dreaming of investments. 

The study, conducted by the national ERS Group, concluded would cost the city annually $28.2 million to provide steeper increases for early and mid-career teachers, $32.6 million to increase all teachers to or above the maximum salary of other Tennessee districts and another $2.7 million to provide stipends to reward teachers in high-need schools. 

Mayor John Cooper delivers his State of the Metro address in Nashville on Thursday, April 29, 2021.

The study found that under Metro Schools’ current salary scale — which is based on a teachers years of experience and higher education degrees — it could take up to 15 years for a teacher to reach a living wage of $60,000 and hundreds of teachers may not see salary increases from year to year.

This year, Cooper said he hopes to make the strategy the study outlined finally a reality: Making Nashville teachers the best paid in Tennessee.Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account

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“Increases in teacher pay allow teachers to stay in the classroom instead of pursuing higher-paying positions, leading to higher retention rates,” Katie Cour, president and CEO of the Nashville Public Education Foundation, said in a statement.

“Higher teacher retention rates are significant contributors to effective and stable school cultures, leading to better student outcomes,” she said.  “And higher pay is a way for Nashville to publicly recognize and value the incredible work our teachers do every day on behalf of our students.”

Keeping teachers in the classroom

Teacher pay is among the priorities the school board focused on in the aspirational budget it approved earlier this month. The budget included a request for $37 million on top of last year’s budget to continue operating as is, in addition to more than $84 million in what school board members called “focused investments.” 

Along with increased compensation, the district has also hoped to invest in other strategies to help recruit and retain teachers, such as increasing paid family leave time, making Veteran’s Day a paid holiday, restricting longevity pay for certified and support staff and expanding professional development opportunities.

BUDGET REQUEST:Metro Nashville school board approves 2021-22 budget request, $84M increase for student, teacher supports

Research shows that highly qualified teachers have the biggest impact on student achievement. But recruiting and retaining teachers is tough as both the state the nation grapple with ongoing teacher shortages.

The study found more than 18% of teachers did not return to Nashville schools in 2018.

While the Nashville school district provides a competitive starting salary for teachers compared to other Tennessee districts, the salary schedule is flatter than many other districts. And the state as a whole ranks 39th in the nation when it comes to average teacher pay, according to data released by the National Education Association Monday.

Fourth Grade Teacher Kenneth Knight assists students in connecting to the internet on the first day back to in-person learning at Crieve Hall Elementary School on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

New teachers are most likely to leave the classroom during the first three to five years of their career where the district’s current salary curve is the flattest. But mid-career teachers in Nashville are also likely to leave the district for surrounding counties with better pay, and often lower costs of living. 

In recent years, teacher salaries have also been frozen multiple times, leaving teachers without any increases for several years in a row despite the cost of living and insurance going up. 

‘Investing in our teachers pours into our students as well’

Battle said an investment in teachers is an investment in Nashville’s students, especially after the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought. 

“I don’t want to miss the opportunity to emphasize what it does to have a quality educator consistently in our buildings to change outcomes for students, whether it be academically or through their social and emotional needs,” Battle told The Tennessean. “Investing in our teachers pours into our students as well.” 

Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Adrienne Battle wipes a tear as she listens to Mayor John Cooper deliver his annual State of Metro address at the Music City Center Thursday, April 29, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

Amanda Kail, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association — the local teacher’s union — has said the city must stay focused on competitive teacher pay.

“Kids are not going to learn in classrooms where there is a revolving door of teachers,” Kail told The Tennessean on Monday.

“One thing that we are hopeful about is that the mayor and the district will make a commitment to maintaining step raises every year,” she said ahead of the mayor’s State of Metro address. “If we don’t do step raises every year, then we are going to end up in the same boat that we were before.”

Cour echoed the need for ongoing investment. 

“That’s why it is reassuring that we are not using one-time funding,” she told The Tennessean Thursday.

Jhea Roberts, left, receives tutoring from teacher Natalie Sheats at DuPont Hadley Middle School Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

More money for social-emotional learning

Meanwhile, the mayor’s $81 million proposed investment also seeks to allocate $2.5 million toward social-emotional learning and supports for students.

The funding could help pay for establishing advocacy centers in every elementary school, increasing the number of restorative assistants who work with students and help manage student discipline across the district and beef up the district’s “Navigator” program, which pairs staff members with students to check in with on a regular basis.

Some community advocacy groups have emphasized the need for the city and the district to put more focus on these efforts.

PREVIOUSLY:Teacher pay hikes, more supports for students likely among Metro Nashville Public Schools upcoming budget priorities

Dawana Wade, a Nashville faith leader, said that putting more social and emotional supports in schools would help decrease the racial and socioeconomic disparities in discipline often seen in Metro Schools.

“We believe and we understand that it is more imperative right now, for the mayor, the council, the school board and the director of schools to stop passing the buck,” said Wade, who chairs the social and emotional committee that is part of Nashville Organized for Action and Hope’s Education Task Force.

“That is what we are asking for. To one, fully fund the Metro Schools budget. Two, fully fund social and emotional support in that budget. If not, what we are going to continue to have is high rates and disparities in discipline and racial disparities in discipline for our students.”

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School board member Rachael Anne Elrod also praised Cooper’s move, but criticized his messaging.

“I’m excited about the announced investments in Metro Schools. Securing staff pay is critical and $2.5M for SEL is needed, but even $80M is not ‘fully funding’ MNPS,” Elrod said in a tweet

The city bears the brunt of the responsibility for funding Metro Schools because of the state doesn’t fully fund the Basic Education Program funding formula for schools, Elrod argued. The city currently is suing the state over the BEP.