Schoolteachers may not be the highest paid people around, but many who work in St. Paul do better than most of their peers in Minnesota.

More than half of all teachers in St. Paul earn more than $75,000 a year, wages not seen by most teachers across the state. Teachers in St. Paul will soon see even higher wages with the just-approved contract between the union and the school district that will boost salaries by 4 percent by July.

St. Paul shows up at the top of the payroll on a Star Tribune analysis of salary data for the 2014-15 school year, provided by the Minnesota Department of Education. By comparison, fewer than 15 percent of other teachers in the state earn more than $75,000 a year.

The Star Tribune analysis focused on the earnings of teachers whose work is primarily classroom instruction, not administration.

Even in Minneapolis, a comparable urban district, only a third of teachers earn more than $75,000 a year.

The difference lies in the fact that more St. Paul teachers have reached the experience and education levels that bring the higher pay, according to administrators and union officials.

"Kudos to St. Paul for negotiating a contract that's keeping their teachers satisfied and in their classrooms," said Denise Specht, president of the state's teachers union, Education Minnesota.

Specht and other education officials say many teachers across the state are not earning enough to keep them in the classroom.

"We are finding statewide that we have far too many people leaving the profession, especially early, and compensation is part of that," Specht said.

More experience, education

Most Minnesota school districts compensate teachers based on their education and years of experience. Teachers enter a "lane" based on their highest level of education and progress in the salary schedule through "steps" determined by years of experience.

More than half of teachers in the state have an advanced degree, but only 24 percent of them earn more than $75,000. The majority of teachers, regardless of their education, earn from $35,000 to $65,000.

In St. Paul, nearly two-thirds of the district's 2,500 teachers included in the Star Tribune analysis have master's degrees or higher, and of those, nearly 75 percent earn more than $75,000.

"We negotiate a contract that attracts and retains a diverse, high-quality teaching force," said Denise Rodriguez, St. Paul's teachers union president. She declined to comment further.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are similar districts in size and demographics, but very different in teacher pay. Teachers can start out getting paid more in Minneapolis than in St. Paul, but that reverses the longer they stay.

Initially, a Minneapolis teacher with a master's degree and five years of classroom experience will earn $53,095, according to the district's newly approved contract. In St. Paul, the same teacher will earn $48,878.

But once that teacher gains more experience, the salary in St. Paul can be nearly $10,000 more a year.

A teacher with 20 years of experience and a master's degree will earn $80,798 in St. Paul compared to $71,405. in Minneapolis.

"We look for teachers that do have experience before coming to us," said Kenyatta Carter, an assistant director in the St. Paul district's human resources department. "We are also hiring candidates that come to us with a master's."

Fewer than 16 percent of teachers in St. Paul have taught for under five years, compared to 29 percent in Minneapolis.

Lynn Nordgren, the president of Minneapolis' teachers union, said Minneapolis' higher pay at the beginning helps the district in recruiting. She said some teachers do leave to go to St. Paul, but most who stay with Minneapolis for five years tend to "get dedicated to the system and stay." Those who do leave often leave the profession entirely.

She also noted that the new Minneapolis contract will give teachers a 4.5 percent raise by July 1.

"I think it's great if there are school districts that are moving their salary schedules along," Nordgren said.

St. Paul's Carter said the district continually looks at salaries in neighboring districts to ensure they are competitive.

'A big bump in pay'

Janet Delmore retired with a full pension from St. Paul this school year. As a teacher and literacy coach, her base salary was nearly $90,000 last school year. Sometimes she also worked lunch duty and taught after school, which paid more.

Delmore said she never knew that St. Paul's salaries were higher than other Minnesota districts. She said she never considered leaving because she loved her work in St. Paul.

"I never compared myself to teachers in other districts," Delmore said. "I just did my job diligently every day."

When she first started teaching more than 30 years ago, Delmore said she had to work part-time jobs, often in retail. But between year seven and 10 of teaching, Delmore said, she "got a big bump in pay."

"I had also gotten my first master's degree at the time, that's when I saw this huge increase in pay," she said.

Delmore didn't stop at a master's degree. She went on to get a doctorate. Delmore said the compensation that came with more education was a "great part" in deciding to go back to school. The pay has allowed her to buy a townhouse and to put some money away.

But for many teachers across the state, that may not be the case. In rural Minnesota, health insurance costs can eat up almost half a teacher's salary, Specht and others said.

A recent report from Education Minnesota argues the state is experiencing a critical teacher shortage, with a growing number of teachers quitting and fewer teachers entering the profession. Positions in math, science and special education are being filled by teachers who are not fully licensed, according to the union.

Some education officials argue the current pay system of steps and lanes is extremely costly and may not help districts retain high-quality teachers.

Gary Amoroso, the director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said bargaining units should look at creative ways to attract new and high-quality teachers, not simply stick to a salary schedule.

"That's a lock-step process," Amoroso said. "If it was a process that really truly rewarded you on your talents and skills, that might be something that will draw more teachers into our profession and keep them."

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028