Hurst-Euless-Bedford school trustees confidently walked out of a board meeting in 2006 with bragging rights for setting the area's top starting teacher salary.
It didn't last. Hours later, neighboring Birdville school leaders secured the No. 1 spot by topping H-E-B's figure with a $5 increase in starting teacher salary.
The tit-for-tat competition to offer the highest starting salary, which helped make the area one of the most competitive salary markets in the state, cooled in recent years as districts struggled with tight budgets due to state funding cuts and were reluctant to grant pay raises.
But competition among Metroplex school districts to offer good teacher pay is slowly reheating.
School district officials say they realize that they can't hold off giving pay raises forever -- even in hard times -- noting that neighboring districts are raising pay for teachers and other employees. Some fear that they will see talented veteran teachers lured away or that they won't have their pick of the best applicants.
"Our salaries have not kept up with those in neighboring districts, and we have felt the impact," Grapevine-Colleyville Superintendent Robin Ryan said last week as he introduced a multiyear plan to bring salaries to a competitive level. "We have had talented and experienced people at all levels of our district leave for higher pay."
Teachers in Arlington, Keller, Grapevine, H-E-B and Mansfield are expected to receive raises up to 3 percent. Fort Worth and Birdville districts are awarding one-time bonuses.
School officials say it is time to reward its educators for the hard work they've been doing. "There was always that race to the top in beginning salaries. Hurst-Euless-Bedford, Northwest, Irving, prided themselves on being able to offer the highest salary," said Steven Poole, executive director of Fort Worth-based United Educators Association. "With the last few years with the budget cuts, we haven't been seeing it as much. With the economy recovering, school districts are able to do salary increases for their employees. So we're going to see that competitive nature return."
Grapevine-Colleyville trustees recently adopted 1 percent pay raises, plus one-time bonuses of 1 percent to all employees, and administrators announced a plan last week for more raises funded by a windfall of federal flood-control money they received.
For teachers, the extra money is welcome, but they say the message that even a small raise brings with it is more important.
"It's a big boost in that it validates us, and in this country the way people are shown that they're valued is through a paycheck," said Karen Moxley, a teacher at Cross Timbers Middle School in Grapevine and president of her district's Texas State Teachers Association chapter.
Many teachers who left the Grapevine-Colleyville district have recently sought positions closer to home, Moxley said, because of the rise in gasoline prices.
Times have been tough on everyone including teachers. The cost of living has jumped nearly 5 percent since 2008, according to the consumer price index from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, Texas school districts have been dealing with decreased funding from the state since the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from the public education budget. So cash-strapped school districts have been reluctant to increase pay.
"Every single year is a real task to figure out how we can do pay increases just to ensure that our people are gaining ground and not losing ground," said Hank Johnson, Fort Worth deputy superintendent of finance, business and operations. "We've got increases in healthcare costs, gasoline prices. Our people need that money to cover their daily living."
In an April poll by the Texas Association of School Boards, 64 percent of 489 Texas school districts responding said they expected to give pay raises this year. But of those, 44 percent planned raises of 1.1 to 2 percent.
"The tide is changing," said Cindy Clegg, the school board association's director of human resource services. "Some districts have the means and some don't. It's a mixed bag now and school districts have to try to remain competitive. In some districts, teachers haven't gotten a pay raise for several years. They've increased their class sizes and they've got to do something for them."
Extra raises from Grapevine-Colleyville's flood control money will range from less than 1 percent to 12 percent, depending on where employees rank compared with similar groups in 20 other North Texas districts.
In H-E-B, where the salary for beginning teachers is $50,225, trustees approved a 2 percent raise for teachers in May. Mansfield school administrators expect to propose 2 percent. The Keller schools' budget, to be voted on next month, includes a 3 percent midpoint pay increase. And in Arlington, teacher pay is going up for the first time since the 2010-11 school year, by 2 percent. Birdville schools are handing out supplements of $450 to full-time employees and $225 to part-time employees. Fort Worth is giving permanent employees a one-time payment of 1 percent of base salary.
Some school districts have not completed their budgets and teacher pay schedules. For 2011-12, the average salary for a Texas teacher was $48,666, about the same as the previous year, according to the school board association. And starting teacher pay decreased for the first time in three decades, to $35,794.
Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, an Austin group that advocates lower taxes and less spending, sees the raises as a positive trend that puts the emphasis on the classroom, not on administration.
Veteran teachers should be the priority, Sullivan said.
"I don't want to be dismissive of first-year teachers, but very little can compete with that excellent classroom educator that has been at it for five, 10 years," he said. "We don't do a very good job at retaining teachers. Merely offering $50,000 to a first-year teacher without addressing the concerns that cause people to leave the profession is not going to help."
This report includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657
Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326