The benchmark that started it all came in 1987, when then-Gov. Thomas Kean signed into law New Jersey’s first minimum teachers salary at $18,500.
A decade later, the law by then a moot point, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) pressed all districts to hit a starting salary of least $30,000. At the turn of the century, it was $40,000, in a campaign entitled, “$40K Right Away.”
As the first districts reached the $50,000 line, the NJEA’s starting salary campaign grew to “$50K the first day.” A recession later, even with overall salary settlements slowing down, more than 140 districts now start at at least $50,000 for first-year teachers with a B.A., according to the teachers union's latest list of minimum salaries.
That’s an additional 50 districts from just a year before, and it’s a matter of time before $60,000 is the next target. Westfield schools next year will start at $58,000, the highest rookie pay in the state.
“Individual districts will do what they do,” said Steve Baker, a spokesman for the NJEA. “Certainly we had the first districts hitting $50,000 before everyone else had hit $40,000.”
The NJEA reported that the median starting pay last year for someone with a B.A. was $46,413, a 3 percent increase from the year before. The median salary overall was $61,700.
And from both sides of the negotiating table, districts continued to put money into starting pay – even if hiring is light and overall settlements are the lowest in years.
“These are extraordinary times, perhaps even unique times, but it is also important to keep a long-term perspective,” Baker said. “You still need to plan and think in your long-term best interest.”
Yet the starting pay figures also show the wide disparities among districts and even counties. Union County districts, including Westfield, were the first to breach the $50,000 line three years ago, and now more than half of its districts start at $50,000 or more.
Hackettstown is one of only two districts of 24 districts in Warren County with starting pay at least $50,000, with an opening salary this year of $53,240.
Superintendent Robert Gratz credits that decision as much to his neighboring districts in Morris and Sussex counties, with whom it competes for not just new teachers but retaining experienced ones.
Still, teacher candidates are also savvier in what they are looking for in these uncertain economic times, he said, with starting pay just one factor. Gratz said he talks with education majors at his alma mater of Moravian College in Pennsylvania.
“When I share that figure, some are impressed and means something to them,” he said. “But they ask other questions. They ask about professional development, the support of the community, the goals and initiatives. They want to know if a community supports education.”