McHenry County high school teachers get paid more than elementary counterparts

When Cindy Mecum of Lake Geneva began her teaching career at age 21, she didn’t realize her preference for elementary education could mean less money.

"I wouldn't have known at that point," said Mecum, a fifth-grade teacher at Grant Intermediate in Marengo-Union Elementary Consolidated School District 165. "Now, I'm definitely more aware of it."

There is an apparent gap – albeit a relatively small one – between high school districts and their respective feeder districts across McHenry County. In District 165, the very starting salary, not including the Teachers Retirement System contribution, is $33,134, according to the fiscal 2015-16 salary schedule.

When students move from there to Marengo Community High School District 154, however, their teachers will have started out at $36,788 without the retirement contribution.

A similar picture is painted when looking between other elementary district contracts and those of their respective high school districts in the county.

For example, the salary schedule for Crystal Lake-based High School District 155 starts at $43,829 without the retirement contribution,while its four feeders – Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47, Cary Community Consolidated School District 26, Fox River Grove School District 3 and Prairie Grove School District 46 – all start at a lower rate.

The discrepancy in pay between elementary and secondary education teachers is a commonly known concept among those in the field in and beyond McHenry County. Even nationally, reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a higher median pay in 2014 for high school teachers than for those in elementary education.

Secondary teachers had a median salary of $56,310 per year nationally, while elementary school teachers received about $53,760 annually.

Still, both local and state officials can offer little explanation of why such a gap exists.

Charles McBarron, director of communications for the Illinois Education Association, said it’s a question that arises every so often.

One common theory from him and other local officials is that the gap began years ago, before unions, when high school teachers predominantly were men.

“Well before unions, it was common for administrators to pay men more than women, but unions have ended that unfair practice,” McBarron said.

Beyond theories, he said, there might not be a definitive answer.

“We don’t know if anyone can say for certain why or if there is one specific reason,” McBarron said.

What he did say with certainty was that whatever reason existed at one point shouldn’t serve as justification anymore.

According to the Illinois licensure requirements on the Illinois State Board of Education website, the steps to become either an early education teacher, an elementary school teacher or a secondary education teacher are the same. Content and coursework will vary, but the process is consistent.

While high school teachers may in fact need more specialized training in a particular subject, local officials are quick to point out elementary education teachers have to become proficient in a multitude of subjects and deal with students who might need more developmental support.

“For high school [districts] and feeder districts ... all teachers at some point will deal with the same kids,” McBarron said, adding, “And all development along the way is important.”

McHenry County’s unit school districts – which encompass pre-kindergarten or kindergarten through 12th grade – also can be affected by the apparent gap.

“For us, it’s a balancing act trying to compensate our high school teachers in a world where they could go to another high school district and get paid more,” Community Unit School District 300 Chief Financial Officer Sue Harkin said.

In McHenry County, the starting salaries range from about $32,350 at Alden-Hebron School District 19 to about $41,700 at District 300, without the retirement contribution.

For Mecum, the gap is something she eventually noticed, but she said that would not have deterred her from going into elementary education.

“People who go into education aren’t going into it for financial reasons,” she said, later adding, “Even now, 13 years in, I’ve never sought out what the difference is. I know it exists, but not to the point where I’d ever want to change my level of profession.”