And a just released SmartAsset study ranked the Kingsport-Bristol Combined Statistical Area No. 4 in the nation among the best places for teachers to work, based on, among other things, a lower housing cost and increase in pay over the past two years.
Teachers and other educators interviewed agreed the region is a great place to teach, but teachers said housing costs no less than $600 a month for them, the average for the area.
The study found the average teacher pay was $50,167, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers for 2017, and the average housing cost was $594, the lowest of the study’s more than 130 areas, although some local teachers said their monthly mortgage payments exceeded that by hundreds of dollars.
HOW MUCH DO TEACHERS MAKE?
According to the Tennessee Education Association website, from 2017-18 teacher pay in the five Tennessee school systems covered in the local CSA ranges from a low of $35,303 in Sullivan County for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree to a high of $72,236 in Bristol for teachers with a doctorate and 31 or more years of experience.
In Kingsport for 2017-18, the TEA said teacher pay ranged from $47,000 to $74,000 on a 91-step salary scale that is a single lane unlike others in the region. In Sullivan County, teacher pay ranges from $35,303 to $59,299 across 31 steps and five education levels, which means the salary scale has 155 different pay levels. In Bristol, Tenn., pay ranges from $42,012 to $72,236 on a 31-step salary scale with five education levels.
Hawkins County pays from $36,448 to $60,510 over 32 steps in six education levels. Rogersville City ranges from $39,068 to $66,446 across 31 steps and five education levels.
However, Kingsport Superintendent for Administration Andy True said the Kingsport scale, which remains the same for 2018-19, beyond the more than 90 steps has three automatic increases the first three years for beginning teachers, going from $44,000 to $45,500 to $47,000 for a bachelor’s and $43,500 to $49,000 to $51,500 for a master’s.
In addition, Kingsport provides teachers with one step increase for making an evaluation score of 3, two steps for a 4 and three steps for a 5, meaning that teachers whose evaluation scores on the 1-5 scale are at least a 3 get a pay increase without a cost-of-living increase.
Sullivan County Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said the county’s 2018-19 pay scale for teacher ranges from $37,029 to $60,485.
Johnson City is not in the CSA, but for a comparison, the TEA says it has 2017-18 teacher pay ranging from $40,914 to $76,262 over 31 steps.
The website www1.salary.com lists the following average teacher salaries as of September 2018: Bristol, Tenn., $48,641; Kingsport, $48,929; Blountville, $48,850; Rogersville, $50,827; Church Hill, $48,929 and Surgoinsville $48,748.
According to information from the Virginia Department of Education, the 2016-17 average teacher pay there was 30th in the nation at $50,834, compared to Tennessee at 39th with $48,217.
For 2017, the VDOE reported an average of $45,599 with a budgeted $46,069 for 2018, while Washington County was $49,314 for 2017 and budgeted for $51,416 in 2018, and Bristol, Va., was 46,844 in 2017 and budgeted for $48,413 in 2018.
WHAT DO TEACHERS AND EDUCATION OFFICIALS SAY?
Jeff Moorhouse, Kingsport superintendent, said more than just pay and cost of living make the area a good place to teach.
“While the SmartAsset ranking primarily focuses on a ratio of teacher salaries to cost of living, teachers in our region also benefit from our communities’ strong support for public education, reflected in the commitment to innovation and professional development.
“The positive collaboration around education of all stakeholders across the region makes this a particularly attractive place to serve as an educator.”
Quinn Kersey, a Rogersville Middle School seventh grade math teacher, said she and her husband, also a teacher, have a mortgage higher than $700 but pay below the average. She has taught for 12 years and is president of the Hawkins County Education Association.
“I would think that we are as far as the number goes we are definitely underneath that” average, Kersey said of many Hawkins teachers. However, she said the school system has put state money toward the salary scale and given cost-of-living raises when it had the funding.
Juanita Mitchell, an art teacher at Dobyns-Bennett High School and former president of the Kingsport Education Association, said teachers see “so many studies” that they don’t often pay attention to any particular one, although she said that Kingsport City Schools has made an effort to increase teacher pay to attract better teachers.
“(Former Superintendent) Dr.(Lyle) Ailshie made it a priority to get teacher wages up and get better teachers for our system,” Mitchell said.
She said the study apparently didn’t factor in that Virginia has an income tax and a lower sales tax or that some systems pay more health insurance costs for employees and their families than other systems do.
Mitchell said she and her husband have a mortgage in Hawkins County that is higher than the average housing cost cited in the study. (Part of Kingsport is in Hawkins County, but the property is just outside Kingsport.)
Evelyn Rafalowski, Sullivan County director of schools, said the study reflects the region’s historically low housing cost compared to other areas of the country and its multiple good school systems.
“Why do you think all the retirees are moving here?” Rafalowski asked. “This area is attractive for a lot of reasons. I think it’s more than just the cost of housing.”
For instance, she said the natural beauty, strong school systems, community and government support for education are part of a package making this a good area for teachers and others to live and work.
Jeremy McLaughlin, a physics teacher at Sullivan Central High School, sees both sides of the state line in education since he lives in Abingdon and teaches in Sullivan County, while his wife teaches in Washington County, Va., and is president of the teachers’ association there.
“To the point of the article, I love being a teacher here 100 percent,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said that while he agrees with the premise of the study that this is a great area to live and teach, he questioned the average housing cost of less than $700 a month. An informal lunchtime survey of fellow science teachers Thursday he made found all had mortgages higher than $800.
“I don’t agree with his (housing cost) numbers,” McLaughlin said.
As a “child of the great recession” of 2008, the 33-year-old McLaughlin, a native of northern Virginia, said he and his wife are five years into a 30-year mortgage in Abingdon higher than the average.
“If you are a bachelor’s level teacher in Sullivan County, you will never make $50,000” on the 2017-18 scale that tops out at $46,764 at the 31st year, although a master’s degree at that level would pay $50,880. He’s planning to seek his doctorate, which would boost his pay.