“Undervalued and Underappreciated:” Understanding the Impact of Teacher Raise Discrepancies and Why They Matter

Julien Amsellem, Editor-in-Chief

Take a stroll through the hallways of the high school at 3:20pm and you’ll notice something very different. Whereas in years past rich discourse between teachers and students could be heard emanating from each classroom even after the academic help period, now an eerie silence has come to dominate. Doors, once open and inviting, are now closed, darkness prevailing on the other side. These changes are not random nor a product of chance but rather indicate an underlying problem at the heart of the Hastings district: teacher compensation. Recent decisions by the school’s central administration and Board of Education (BOE) regarding raises has caused displeasure to flare amongst the teaching staff, leaving many feeling “anger, disappointment, dismay, [and] devalued,” as described by Mr. Greg Smith, the chairperson of the History Department. With no changes in sight, the state of relations between teachers and central administration, as well as the future of teaching at Hastings, appears tenuous and uncertain.


Contracts and Raises: The Core Controversy

In the Hastings district, many unions exist to represent various groups in the school, such as administration, teachers and guidance counselors, office secretaries and teacher’s assistants, and custodial staff. Each of these unions separately negotiate their contract, which typically occurs on three-year cycles. In addition to these groups, a few non-represented personnel (those who aren’t part of a union) also exist in the school, including the superintendent, the assistant superintendent of curriculum, confidential secretaries, and the school treasurer. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of the union contracts had ended — including the one representing the Hastings Teachers Association (HTA) — but due to the challenging circumstances, negotiations were slated for a later date. For the HTA, that date arrived this July, but with unagreed upon terms still remaining with the BOE, the teachers left for the summer without a contract. When they returned this fall, consensus had still yet to be reached on those terms, and so the entire teaching staff began the 2022-2023 school year without a contract. 

According to Dr. Greg Stephens, chairperson of the Hastings Math Department and lead negotiator for HTA contract discussions, “at the last possible minute before the start of the new school year,” the Superintendent reached out in hopes to find a compromise that would allow the BOE — the governing body that approves contracts — and the HTA to come to an agreement. (For contracts to be ratified, a majority of both the HTA and BOE have to vote in favor of it.) Among its many aspects, this new contract outlined teacher’s raises at 1.5% per year for the next three years, with no changes to their working conditions. At the time, Dr. Stephens expressed to his colleagues that although he believed the raise was “too low an amount,” it was “the best offer that” that teachers would get from the district, something that the BOE had expressed in “no uncertain terms.” 

It thus came as a great surprise to teachers that soon after these negotiations, eight non-represented personnel within the central office and central administration were given raises of 4%, including the assistant superintendent, treasurer, buildings manager, and clerical staff. Moreover, the previous year some of these same people had received additional raises that were quite substantial. While these prior increases may have been a product of wage transfers — an increase in a position’s salary — rather than a percent raise, the jump is still notable. And this was all after the BOE and central administrators expressly said that “there was no other money” left for teachers. 

To encourage understanding, Dr. Stephens explained that one reason raises might be different is that all the unions negotiate individually, and “while usually the district tries to keep the terms similar,” that isn’t always the case. He also said that administrators have recently “worked very hard to renormalize their salary tables,” so that their compensation would be determined by factors like years of experience and educational level. Once central administrators began this process, they realized that the pay scales for these positions no longer aligned with Westchester, and therefore, the 4% raises would help make their salaries internally consistent in the school and reasonable for the region. 

Yet Dr. Stephens was clear to emphasize that these reasons don’t offer appropriate explanations nor make-up for the raise discrepancies between teachers and administration. With the consumer price index and cost-of-living adjustment soaring at 7.7% and 8.7%, respectively, he expressed, “it feels like a slap in the face to say, ‘I understand that all these costs have gone up, but I’m only willing to increase your compensation by 1.5%.’” 

And the situation was only exacerbated by the administrative raises: “when it turned out that the Board and the Superintendent had negotiated individual contracts with non-union members increasing their pay by 4% or more,” said Dr. Stepehens, “it became clear to us what the Board has been saying all along — but which we did not believe — which is the Board no longer believes that the quality and educational power of this district comes from its teachers.” He added that the whole situation was wrought with irony, since “all of the people who paid themselves more were in the negotiations that said that teachers cannot possibly be paid more.” This refers to the school’s superintendent, assistant superintendent of curriculum, and treasurer, who are all present during BOE meetings and HTA contract negotiations.

Amazingly, on November 21, while writing this article, the proverbial cake was re-iced with insult when teachers became aware that the BOE would be adding a 3% raise to the Superintendent’s current salary, as well as a $3,420 contribution to his tax-sheltered annuity, an untaxed retirement account for public school officials. 


“A Very Bitter Pill to Swallow”

Unsurprisingly, these actions by the BOE and central administrators haven’t been well-received by teachers, and many have expressed that the current circumstances have marked the low-point of their otherwise fantastic time in Hastings. 

In talking with members of various departments in the school, they’ve characterized the recent decisions as “frustrating,” “hurtful,” “enraging,” “disappointing,” “disrespectful,” “insane,” “devaluing,” and “insulting,” vehemently highlighting the extent to which these actions have disturbed teachers. As to their own treatment, the word that was broached every time was “underappreciated,” a testament to how minimally valued many teachers in Hastings currently feel. One teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, said of the BOE and certain administrators: “they have no respect for us at all, no appreciation and no respect.” Similarly, Mr. Smith said, “I feel like I’m being sent a message that [central administrators] are more valuable than the teachers.” 

Yet the point of contention hasn’t merely been the low raises. Instead, an amalgamation of many factors on top of the already minimal compensation has resulted in this widespread unhappiness. To begin with, the raises to central administrators and central office staff at 4% added “insult to injury” according to many teachers. Mr. Jeff Conwisar, who teaches history in the high school, said that the HTA contract was “accepted in good faith” since the BOE assured teachers that they “couldn’t do any better than 1.5%.” After hearing about the raises elsewhere, he and others felt “stabbed in the back” and shocked by the lack of transparency. Mr. Blum added that the news became all that more upsetting and aggravating when teachers learned that the people who made these decisions were “themselves getting significant pay raises.”

In fact, the idea of central administration being the group deserving of such significant raises was confounding in itself to a lot of teachers since this would imply that administrators are the heart and backbone of the district. Many were quick to point out that despite the constant “revolving door” of administrators — specifically superintendents — Hastings has done an amazing job preparing students for the real world, and as Mr. Smith said, “I’d like to think we had a large part in that.” 

But the raise disparities seemed to insinuate otherwise, which has irked many teachers. Having served the district for around 30 years, Mr. Conwisar has sat across from more than 10 superintendents, “and to reward that level of the district,” he stated, “to put money there and not the teachers is everything there is to say about being offensive.”

Dr. Stephens also expressed his personal views on the matter, which represented his beliefs only and not those of the entire HTA. Throughout the “constant change” of superintendents and administrators, he believes the teaching staff has “managed to keep producing excellent classes and fantastic graduates.” “From my point of view, that means the part that’s been constant — most of the teachers — are the ones carrying the weight of schooling.” Dr. Stephens then added: “I think of school almost as a crucible through which citizenship and maturity happen, and it ain’t because of the admin that are here today and gone tomorrow.” 

Additionally, despite the embarrassingly small raises, teachers have still been expected to perform as if they’re being paid at the top tier. Mr. Josh Blum, chairperson of the high school English Department, said it best: “I don’t think that the compensation is commensurate with the level of expectation.” He then added, “I think it’s unreasonable for people outside of the school to say, ‘we’re going to give you every indication that you are less valued than you’d like to be, but we expect you to continue to be completely invested in your work and go above and beyond the expectations of a contract.’” 

Blum further explained that for teachers who have been in Hastings the longest and displayed the greatest loyalty, the raises were essentially a “payloss.” Teacher’s wages in Hastings also increase with each year they’ve worked in the district — something known as “steps” —  but this ends after 18 years. As a result, once you’ve accounted for factors like cost of living, meager 1.5% raises “are a pretty significant pay cut” for the most experienced teachers, which is inherently wrong and problematic. Concluding his thoughts, Blum remarked, “it’s very hard to stomach when you’re asked to be emotionally invested like partners but [] not compensated like partners.” 

The difference in role between teachers and central administrators in Hastings during the Covid-19 pandemic was also something teachers harped on in their ire. As mentioned by another educator who asked for anonymity, while teachers were risking their lives on the frontlines, central administrators were safely nestled in their offices. Mr. Blum added to this, saying, “I think the community is pretty aware of how hard school in the pandemic was on kids. I don’t think they seem to understand the challenges that teachers faced.” Teachers “reinvented this job on the fly,” he explained. “There was no blueprint, no one had ever taught this way before,” and although it certainly wasn’t perfect, “people’s investment and their willingness to experiment” and “work incredibly hard” ensured that learning could still be achieved. For teachers to be held responsible for educational set-backs following this display of dedication and resolve, and then have money directed elsewhere, is “a very bitter pill to swallow,” he said. 


A Changing Board of Ed

At the center of these raise inconsistencies is the Board of Education (BOE), since they are the panel by which salaries and contracts are approved. Many teachers are infuriated with the BOE’s recent decisions, feeling they have been disrespected and undervalued. But interestingly, most teachers mentioned they weren’t surprised at all. One teacher said, “we don’t think this is a positive board that is supporting teachers, and I don’t think we have thought that in a few years,” while another stated, “other things have happened that have made us feel not valued by the Board and not valued by the central administration.” Crucially, most teachers made it clear they were talking specifically about central administration, further articulating that they felt “very supported” by building-level administrators, which include principals and vice principals. One example of this waning value is that the BOE often sends a representative to HTA contract negotiations to be part of the superintendent’s team; this year, they opted not to do that. Mr. Smith acknowledged that while friction will always exist between management and workers, he had always thought historically “there was a degree of professionalism between the two, and that teachers were greatly valued by the Board.”

Much of the teacher dismay with the BOE has also been because several board members have been outspoken in public saying they have absolutely no intentions of paying teachers more. Dr. Stephens mentioned that there are some BOE members “who feel very strongly that the real power and intelligence in the district comes from the administrators in charge.” One way to demonstrate this is to make compensation generous for administrators but lamentable for teachers. Similarly, the BOE is achieving this by increasing the number of administrative positions and placing more power in the hands of administrators. “We’ve always been a small district with a real sense of distributed leadership,” Dr. Stephens remarked, “but the Board is changing that.” For example, Hastings’ schools now have three special education administrators, something he mentioned was unusual for Westchester, much less for a district of 1,500 students. 

But it was the BOE’s own vote on the HTA contract that astonished teachers most. Although they had reworked many of its contested sections, the BOE did not vote unanimously in favor of the contract they proposed, meaning at least one board member refused to abide by the terms of the contract they had sent. Dr. Stephens described this as “crazy ” and “a power move to show that they don’t even think we deserved the contract that they offered.” Other teachers echoed this same sentiment and were horrified by the level of opposition some members of the BOE displayed in providing a contract that supported the teaching staff. 

Ironically, one of the dissenting board members, Mr. Jeremy Galland, is a teacher who not only did his student teaching in the Hastings district but also works in Yonkers Public Schools, where he receives a higher wage than similarly ranked teachers in Hastings. Before his time working in schools, Galland succeeded in finance, causing at least one teacher to say that Galland is “trying to impose a business mentality on what is largely a human-mediated cultural event — school — and that he doesn’t feel beholden in the same way to the success of our graduates, because he’s more interested in the business aspects of minimizing costs.” This assessment appears to be fairly accurate, as it’s mostly supported by claims Galland has made on his own blog (jeremygalland4schoolboard2020.wordpress.com), such as the fact that “the board has many priorities that will force it to confront the natural instinct of the [teacher’s] union to protect salaries and jobs.”

Understandably, the actions and beliefs of the BOE have left a sour taste in the mouths of many teachers, and this has sadly resulted in a shift of their views on Hastings. One teacher expressed that they no longer believed the community respected teachers since the BOE is being supported and voted-in by the community. Mr. Smith also said his views of Hastings have changed for the worse, which has saddened him. Having gone through three Hastings schools himself, raising his children here, and still living here, Dr. Stephens expressed the same perspective, adding, “I understand how important cost cutting is and keeping costs carefully in-line with need, but I think what I’m actually seeing is a realignment of priority.” This has involved a shift in focus from teachers to administrators. 

Yet, at least one teacher remained slightly more hopeful. They said that their views of Hastings are still positive because they believe that the community doesn’t truly know what’s occurring. “I don’t think our community would appreciate this,” they remarked, reiterating the notion that since the community respects teachers, they couldn’t possibly approve of this. 


Complex Decisions

Mrs. Maureen Carballo is officially the district’s treasurer per the high school’s website, though she described her role in Hastings as a business manager who also oversees human resources, the cafeteria, buildings and grounds, transportation, and information technology. In this position, she also sits in on BOE meetings and is among central office staff who received 4% raises recently, making her an ideal candidate to discuss the recent raise disparities. 

Caraballo began by explaining that she believes teachers are the “heart of the district,” “the ones who really are there for our students.” She believes that her role — and the role of other administrators and central office staff — is to support the teachers, who “are what make the district such a wonderful place,” she said. In fact, Caraballo stated, “I think our teachers do deserve [higher raises]…They should get paid commensurate, they work very hard, they’re good at what they do, they’re really excellent teachers.” Of course, this then begs the question: why are teachers receiving paltry raises if they’re “excellent” and deserve more?

According to Caraballo, many factors come into play when dealing with raises and a contract. Primarily, she explained that raises aren’t randomly chosen by the BOE, but rather they’re influenced by a regional index, which shows the trends for similar positions in nearby areas. “Our jobs are not compared to teachers, it’s compared to the region and how each job is looked at,” she said, adding that “people aren’t given raises to be given them, they are given based upon what is the trend in the region for those different jobs.” Elaborating further, Caraballo noted that if administrators in the region were given 5% raises and teachers 1%, a similar pattern would be noted in Hastings. And indeed it was. 

To further her explanation, Caraballo also mentioned cost of living and the fact that administrative wages were unaligned with the county, before commenting: “typically administrators — and this is not a defense, this is just the reality — they do get higher raises than [teachers].” She also argued that since the number of teachers greatly outweighs the number of administrators and central office staff, making a comparison between each group’s raises would be improper. Caraballo said, “I know the concern here is never about people being overpaid” — an ironically accurate statement considering the current HTA contract — but when dealing with around 180 teachers, an addition of “1% on salary is like $300,000.” She then added, the 1.5% raise “seems miniscule, but it becomes a big pot of money, and because teachers already have built-in steps, the [salary totals] are going up a million dollars a year anyway.” Many teachers felt this argument was a “false flag,” however, and was an inappropriate and inaccurate way of approaching the situation. 

While Caraballo acknowledged that the 1.5% teacher raise “sometimes looks very unfair” when compared to the other raises in the district, she said that two last factors to account for are building-level administrative raises and the failed budget. The Hastings Administrators Association, which includes principals and vice principals, got an average 5.65% raise this year, with some salaries increasing by “8 or 9%,” and she said this was “what set the tone for the rest of administrators.” Caraballo believes the budget also played a large role in the teacher contract, saying, “Let’s be honest: if the budget didn’t fail, we’d have more money for teachers.” She clarified this statement by adding that the budget failing made it more difficult to negotiate the contract in general. Yet Mr. Smith had a different approach to viewing the budget. “In years past, teachers would help lobby for that budget with the administration,” he remarked. “Last year, we didn’t help at all…because I believe we weren’t asked for help.” He attributed the dearth of teacher assistance on this matter to the “lack of respect” and “lack of seeing us as equals” that central administration has shown teachers. “If we had a good relationship with [central] administration, maybe we could’ve made a difference and got the budget passed,” he concluded. 

Despite the actions of the BOE, which strongly indicate otherwise, Caraballo doesn’t believe that these raise disparities reflect a difference in how the school values administrators versus teachers. In contrast, she thinks that “all of our Board members value our staff and are committed to giving money,” even though some have expressly stated that they are blatantly unwilling to pay teachers more. In response, Caraballo suggested this was due to the Board’s fiscally conservative nature and fear that they may overpromise money that they don’t have. Interestingly, she also believes that considering other districts have worked teachers longer and paid them less, this actually “shows that we have prioritized [teachers].”

In terms of whether she feels that the teacher’s raises are equitable, Caraballo expressed that in an ideal world she thinks people should get higher raises that match the consumer price index (CPI), but in schools today “it’s not as simple as that.” She said she completely understands the perspective of the teachers, adding, “I feel badly that anybody ever feels badly about how they’re viewed, or respected, or valued.” But she also mentioned that she thinks teachers have to know that there are other ways the district values them besides monetarily. “For most people, there’s value that’s given financially, but a lot of value for me…is a combination of how we treat people and what we say.” Compensation “is one piece of the puzzle,” she expressed. “I think it’s also how you’re treated, [and] how you view that you’re being heard,” indicating that she thinks the district has made up for low raises with excellent teacher support. Yet the problem with this assessment is that in addition to the minimal financial value being received by the HTA, many teachers also feel that their requests are “falling on deaf ears” and that their treatment has reached a new low point. 

Caraballo noted that while she sees why the BOE’s actions “feel personal” to the teachers, people have to realize that a contract is a document. “It’s not a person, it’s a business agreement that doesn’t have a person’s name written into it, it’s not individualized, it’s a document that reflects a regional trend in what the resources can support. It doesn’t have the human element in it,” she stated. That “human element” seems quite apparent when one contextualizes the raises in terms of how teachers feel valued, but Caraballo maintained her view: “I think it’s one piece of it at times, but I don’t think it’s the whole picture.” 

In speaking of the district, Caraballo explained that “we make choices here about how we want to spend our money that limits, sometimes, the money we can give to our staff.” At its heart, this statement explains the basis of the main problem at hand: the fact that money is being directed everywhere but the teaching staff. These “choices” have been to prioritize central administrators and central office staff ahead of teachers, creating a business-like model within the school. Unsurprisingly, Caraballo’s ending remarks reiterated this idea, in which she said that school is a “business” too, and “sometimes that’s unavoidable.”


Current Effects and Future Results

As the BOE continually re-emphasizes the importance of administrators and not teachers, long-time educators in Hastings have noticed changes that are already beginning to alter the district as we know it. Dr. Stephens stated, “I think [the teachers] really feel strongly now that we are moving away from a teacher-directed curriculum discussion, from teacher led-initiatives, from teacher participation in things. I think this district is going through a sea change, in which it emphasizes administrative input and decision making over teacher decision making.” Beyond making teachers feel devalued, Dr. Stephens said that he’s seeing far fewer teachers serving on committees or taking on independent study projects. 

In this vein, he also believes that administration has begun to exert greater control over the happenings within the classroom, thus changing the essence of teaching in the district. “I think so much of what made Hastings special was that it was quirky and local,” with teachers who found cool, engaging material and “incorporated it into their classrooms,” expressed Dr. Stephens. “I worry the more we try to standardize our classes and our teachers, and the less that we care about what makes a new hire uniquely cool, the less we’re different from other school districts.” Mr. Smith agreed with this assessment, adding, although administration controls what’s taught,  the “how has always been up to us.” Now, he feels that even this autonomy is being dictated.

Moreover, the BOE and central administrators have become increasingly strict regarding the HTA contract, leading to some teachers understandably asking themselves, “why am I giving so much when I’m going to be treated this way by administration?” Smith noted this was a particularly sad trend since teachers in Hastings have never thought like this in the past. Additionally, Smith believes more teachers are voicing their discontent — including people who have never spoken up before — as well as now starting to “take care of their own mental health more so than they have in the past.” A direct result of this has been many teachers following their contract to new degrees, which includes promptly leaving at 3:15pm. Dr. Stephens commented that “the parking lot looks pretty empty at 3:20 [pm],” while another teacher said, “I don’t see anybody lingering anymore, and frankly we shouldn’t, nobody should do anything above and beyond what their job description is.”

And so, with the level of teacher dissatisfaction as high as it is right now, the most pressing question that remains is where does the Hastings teaching staff go from here? Since the Taylor Law prohibits teachers’ unions in NY public schools from going on strike, formal protest isn’t an option; nor is any coordinated movement, since that would be considered a job action, which is also illegal under NYS labor law. 

Yet many indicated that — as one anonymous teacher put it — they would like to “show [their] solidarity and disgust in a professional manner that doesn’t hurt students.” This places teachers in a bind, however, since they don’t want to undermine their love for teaching and their students in trying to affect change. “It’s hard for us to leverage anything,” said Mr. Smith, because teachers don’t want to compromise the quality of their work. Hypothetically, Smith said, teachers could stop writing college recommendations or could hand out worksheets instead of crafting engaging classes, but these options would be antithetical to the purpose of school — which is to benefit the students — and therefore, is out of the question. 


An Unintended Consequence

Although the focus here is on teachers, students and their educators are inextricably linked, and so it would be impossible not to broach the long-term effects of the BOE’s decisions on the children. School, after all, is a place to foster a love for learning, engender a sense of ownership over one’s work, and prepare students for the challenges of the real world. This cannot be achieved if the people who champion this work — our beloved, dedicated teachers — aren’t supported by the institutions that even Mrs. Caraballo said are intended to support them. Through their attempt to restructure our school like a business, rather than accept its intrinsically cultural and social nature, the BOE is working against students by choosing cost efficiency over quality when it comes to learning. The teachers are feeling the immediate impacts of this, but it’s the students who will suffer in the long run. Even through the thick of their anger, one teacher expressed, “of course, the students come first, and that doesn’t change. We love you guys.” The teachers have us in their minds, and we have them in ours. Now, it’s time for the BOE to do what’s best for both of us.