‘We need to value ourselves’: Marple Newtown School District and teachers union at odds over salaries

The Marple Newtown Education Association says the affluent district spends the lowest portion of its budget on wages in comparison to nearby districts in Delaware County.

A view of a sign that reads Marple Newtown High School and a building on a sunny day.

Marple Newtown High School in Newtown Square, Pa., in April 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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The Marple Newtown School District is embroiled in tense contract negotiations with its teachers.

Representing more than 320 instructors across the district’s six schools, the Marple Newtown Education Association says the district spends the lowest percentage of its budget on teachers salaries in comparison to surrounding districts in Delaware County.

“We’re in this job for kids. We want what’s best for kids. But, we also need to value ourselves as well,” said Andrew Davis, president of the teachers union and a guidance counselor at Paxon Hollow Middle School.

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More than 3,600 students attend the well-performing school district. With a student-to-teacher ratio better than the Pennsylvania average, students have the resources to perform at a high level.

While the teachers union has applauded the district for hiring more teachers in recent years, it has warned the board that if compensation issues aren’t resolved, the district could face a mass teacher exodus.

A View of Marple Newtown High School
Marple Newtown High School in Newtown Square, Pa., in April 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Davis said morale is already at an all-time low amongst teachers.

“It looks like we’re just fighting for ourselves, but we’re fighting for ourselves because we want to be in there with your kids, educating your children and your families, and making Marple Newtown a fantastic place to continue to live and grow,” Davis said.

More than 40 teachers left Marple Newtown in 2022.

“These people were going specifically to make more money at different districts and just to get out of the situation that they were in,” said Mike Snow, the head negotiator for MNEA and a math teacher at Marple Newtown High School.

Teacher wages are often determined by years of experience, also known as steps. The teachers union says the district has implemented six step freezes since 2009 that have had a permanent impact on educator salaries.

Snow said there are teachers who have been employed at the district for 15 years, who should be on step 15 — who are actually being paid on step 9. Snow said at least 115 teachers have been impacted by at least one step freeze and it has had a huge impact on career earnings.

According to Snow, some educators at Marple Newtown have lost between $40,000 to $150,00 in career earnings.

In addition, the teachers union said Marple Newtown has painfully low starting salaries for educators in comparison to neighboring districts. Starting salaries are below $50,000. Snow said all of this has occurred while Marple Newtown runs a surplus in its education budget and invests millions of dollars in capital projects.

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A large part of the negotiation is focused on the percent salary increase, or the increment. Part of the increment is used to move teachers to the next step.

Union negotiators believe a lower increment would make themselves more affordable for the district and taxpayers in the future, while always allowing for teachers to be moved to the next step.

The union has put forth a proposition which would raise teacher wages, including starting salaries, and fix the salary schedule following the step freezes. He said fixing the step freezes comes with a “large upfront cost,” but it will create a situation where money won’t be the main point of contention for future negotiations.

“Our current proposal has it to the point where we can accept below county average raises in the future and we will be happy,” Snow said.

In a written statement provided to WHYY News, Marple Newtown Board President Matthew Bilker said they stand by the offer the board has put on the table, because it “will ensure that the district’s salary schedule is competitive while maintaining our current level of benefits.”

“Our board directors are not privy to all of the details of internal contract discussions that occurred between prior negotiating teams representing the district and union. We do know that any past step freezes would have been negotiated and agreed to by both the union and the school district, and that step freezes that have occurred over the past decade do not necessarily correlate with pay freezes,” the statement read.

The school board said it is facing a different employment environment than it was pre-pandemic, on top of a nationwide teacher shortage.

“Our goals during these contract negotiations are to ensure our salaries are competitive with other peer districts in Delaware County, to promote teacher retention, to acknowledge our staff members who have been loyal to our students and community, to promote growth and adjustments within the salary scale, and to raise the starting and max salaries for teachers,” the statement read.

A view of Marple Newtown High School from across the road on a sunny day.
Marple Newtown High School in Newtown Square, Pa., in April 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In recent weeks, community members in the district have thrown their support behind the teachers. The public showed up to the March school board meeting in full force to speak directly before the board.

The current contract between Marple Newtown and the teachers union ends in June.

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