Despite generally good salaries, 85% of faculty at Ben Franklin is said to favor unionizing

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The Lens

Faculty at Ben Franklin, the city's academically most competitive public high school, are pondering whether to unionize.

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The Lens

Whether to join a teacher union is being pondered at Ben Franklin, the city's most academically acclaimed public high school.

With a public hearing scheduled Thursday on the faculty drive to unionize Benjamin Franklin High School, salaries are sure to be a salient concern — in particular discrepancies in pay among staff with seemingly similar backgrounds.

The discrepancies occur because, though Franklin publishes a pay scale, salaries are subject to one-on-one negotiation that hinges on more than degrees and seniority. All told, about 60 percent of Franklin’s faculty draw salaries that depart from the scale — some higher, some lower.

Charter schools, by law, are free from many of the rules that bind traditional public schools, including rules about hiring and compensation. While traditional schools typically adhere to a preset pay scale, Franklin’s chief executive, Timothy Rusnak, can negotiate adjusted pay packages. That lets him offer competitive bids for teachers, including personnel with specialized degrees or training in a subject area, Rusnak said.

Tweaking official pay scales is common practice among charters and private schools, according to Bryan Hassel, co-director of the North Carolina-based education policy firm Public Impact.

“Many charter schools use that flexibility to win over a recruit, or to keep someone who’s got an offer somewhere else. So it’s a very commonly used flexibility,” said Hassel, who has researched charter school hiring practices. That said, Hassel believes school leaders should tell teachers what the rules are, up-front.

While the consensus among Franklin teachers seems to be that Rusnak has the right to set salaries, some faculty members have contended that the advertised salary schedule is misleading.

About 40 percent of Franklin’s 45 teachers are paid in line with the pay scale, according to compensation and qualifications information made available to The Lens (posted below).* Of the 27 teachers whose salaries depart from the scale, 15 are paid higher than scale, while 12 get lower salaries.

In compiling a statistical overview of Franklin’s salaries, The Lens didn’t count part-time teachers or those who have administrative roles outside the classroom.

“We want equality in the way that people are paid, and to have it not be based on arbitrary decisions or favoritism,” said Greg Swanson, a 12-year English teacher.

Franklin has long been well-regarded; it’s the city’s highest performing high school and it repeatedly ranks among the best high schools in the state and nation. It’s also a magnet for veteran teachers. More than half the faculty has 10 or more years of public-school experience, according to Franklin records. Other teachers may have additional years of experience as instructors in colleges or private secondary schools.

HOW FACULTY SALARIES ARE SET

Rusnak, who made close to $172,000 this year, said he retains a pay scale because longtime public-school teachers expect one as they contemplate applying for jobs at Franklin. It’s a starting point for negotiations, he said – not something set in stone. And he makes that clear to teachers, as Hassel recommends. “You know what the score is; you know when you are coming in,” Rusnak said.

Rusnak said he sometimes asks a candidate how much he thinks he should be paid at Franklin, then counters with a lower offer, which the prospective hire can take or leave.

If anything, the scale promotes transparency, he argued.

“It can’t be arbitrary if I say, ‘Here’s where I think you should be [on the scale]; here’s where you think you should be, and let’s go from there.’”

Swanson, who has a master’s degree in education, said he arrived at Franklin with nine years of experience, but was hired at a fourth-year teacher’s salary. He said Rusnak’s explanation was that the school was short of resources that year.

“I needed a job desperately. They made the offer, and I kind of had to take it,” Swanson said. In subsequent years, he negotiated his way up to par and now makes about $52,000, scale for an eleventh-year teacher with a master’s degree.

What teachers are ultimately offered depends on a number of factors, Rusnak said. “It’s need. It’s talent. It’s budget. It’s what we project.”

In Louisiana, traditional public school teachers transferring from district to district receive full credit for their experience, as do those coming from out-of-state schools. Private school teachers receive credit after they move to traditional public school districts.

But those rules don’t apply in charter schools. In time, Rusnak tries to bring lower-cost hires up to where they should fall on the scale, he said.

SOME HIGHLY QUALIFIED TEACHERS MAKE MORE

Swanson and other teachers said conversations about their salaries began after teachers started to compare résumés. Rusnak argued that these comparisons are often “apples to oranges and oranges to apples.”

Timothy Rusnak

Timothy Rusnak

Because Franklin strives to offer a challenging curriculum, when it comes to compensation a teacher’s content knowledge may make more of a difference than years of service, Rusnak said. A physics teacher with a master’s degree in a specific subject area might be paid more than someone with a master’s degree in education.

As an example Rusnak mentioned a recent hire named Michael Masterson, a math and computer science teacher. Though Masterson is in his first year at Franklin, he’s been teaching, on and off, since the mid-1980s in private school and college. He has a master’s degree in physics and lower-level degrees in both physics and math.

As a result, Masterson came in making about $55,000 a year, a salary equivalent to what a 14-year Franklin teacher with a more general master’s might make.

“Mike’s a very specialized, niche kind of guy, and it’s what we needed at the time,” Rusnak said.

But other teachers with specialized degrees get less than scale. Science teacher Sally Spahn, for example, has a doctorate in ecology, a master’s degree in biology, and a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. Her 22 years of university and private-school experience should be worth $59,675 a year, according to the pay scale, but she makes $56,875.

Spahn declined to talk with The Lens when contacted by email. Organizers said she is not among the 85 percent of Franklin teachers who support unionization.

Until recently, teacher Stephen Pearce was paid about $16,000 lower than scale. The school has since settled a payment dispute with him and is now paying him on scale, at $64,500. Rusnak omitted Pearce in his response to The Lens’ public-records request but provided it when The Lens asked after this story was published.

Masterson, ironically, is part of that group. Yes, Rusnak can set pay as he sees fit to attract nontraditional teachers, but “that doesn’t mean that the capability should be misused,” Masterson said.

OTHER GRIPES BEHIND UNION DRIVE

Though discrepancies from the pay scale are frequent, it lets some Franklin teachers top out at salary levels higher than are available to their counterparts in traditional Orleans public schools.

Scale allows the most senior teacher at Franklin to earn $64,500, depending on her degrees. Pay for a teacher at a traditional Orleans Parish School Board teacher tops out at about $60,400. The pay scale at traditional schools run directly by the Orleans Parish School Board — Franklin is an OPSB charter — reaches its peak in 29 years of experience, but Franklin’s salaries keep climbing until the 31st year of seniority. It’s a way to attract and keep veteran teachers, Rusnak said.

Franklin teachers say salaries aren’t the only motive behind the drive to unionize. They complain that their contracts aren’t renewed until the end of the year, when it’s too late to find another job. Teachers have been let go abruptly in the past, Masterson said, and some believe those decisions have been unfair.

Franklin teachers interested in unionizing intend to do so under the aegis of United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. UTNO’s ranks were decimated by the state takeover of failing schools after Hurricane Katrina and OPSB’s decision to fire all its teachers. Like many teacher unions, UTNO had been criticized for protecting incompetent teachers from termination.

Franklin’s board of directors will vote on the unionizing issue May 15, a week after Thursday’s public hearing.

Ben Franklin teachers’ salaries

*Correction: Ben Franklin High School didn’t include one employee in its response to The Lens’ public-records request. The omitted employee was Stephen Pearce. CEO Timothy Rusnak said he didn’t include it because Pearce recently settled a payment dispute with the school. The school also provided an incorrect salary for Jane Maher. 

And the education levels of at least five teachers were incorrectly listed in the school’s records, which affected their position on the pay scale.

The story and spreadsheet have been updated and corrected. (May 8, 2014; June 6, 2014)

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