Some teachers in Township High School District 113, including Highland Park High School, took home six-figure salaries.

An extraordinary number of public school teachers in the Chicago region earned $100,000 or more in 2009, straining school budgets and taxpayer wallets and fueling the debate over what teachers are worth and how they get raises.

In the affluent enclaves of Highland Park and Deerfield, almost half the teachers in Township High School District 113 took home six-figure salaries — the highest percentage in the state.

In Park Ridge and Hinsdale, about 43 percent of high school district teachers earned $100,000 or more, according to a Chicago Tribune salary analysis.

Six-figure teacher salaries of that magnitude are rare elsewhere in Illinois and in most parts of the country.

The highest-paying districts note that they are top performers that get accolades and national rankings, and they need to be competitive to attract top teachers as parents expect.

But the six-figure salaries highlight disparities that have persisted between rich and less wealthy communities in Illinois.

What’s more, it’s clear that some districts have over-extended themselves, and are asking teachers unions to come back to the table to help contain spending in a bad economy, with mixed success.

In the Chicago region, $100,000 salaries are most common in fields ranging from algebra, biology and U.S. history to art, instrumental music and physical education.

The Tribune examined salary information for nearly 132,000 full-time Illinois teachers who worked a traditional nine- or 10-month school year in 2008-09. Salaries provided by the Illinois State Board of Education encompass all earnings, including extra stipends for coaching and sponsoring school clubs as well as retirement perks.

Among the findings:

—About 4 percent of teachers statewide earned $100,000 or more — 5,457 teachers — but the vast majority worked in the Chicago suburbs, with heavy concentrations in north Cook, DuPage and Lake counties. In all, 32 Chicago-area districts paid at least 20 percent of their teachers six figures — five times the state average.

—Districts used taxpayer dollars to pay $100,000 salaries even as they struggled with red ink. A third of districts with unusually high concentrations of teachers making six figures — at least 10 percent of teachers — posted operating deficits in 2008-09, according to state financial data.

—Six-figure teachers were unevenly distributed, with high school teachers making up 60 percent of the group — more than double their representation in the teaching force. Affluent suburban districts had the largest concentrations of six-figure teachers. Less than 1 percent of Chicago Public School teachers earned $100,000 or more in 2009.

Educators and teacher union officials defend the six-figure earnings, saying they represent a shift in thinking about the teaching profession.

Teachers used to be considered a “cheap commodity,” said Thomas Ludovice, a biology and chemistry teacher at Hinsdale Central High School and a local teachers union vice president. Decades ago, he recalls teachers being paid close to the poverty line and scrambling to work summer jobs to make ends meet.

After more than 20 years in the profession, Ludovice earns six figures — but that came after spending endless hours in classes and on sports fields, he said.

“On average, I was working 15-hour days,” said Ludovice, remembering his life a few years ago, when he was teaching as well as coaching both football and track. He has since given up the track assignment.

“If you’re a really good educator, you involve yourself at such a level that when you come home your family pretty much gets nothing or they get leftovers,” Ludovice said. “When you come home, you slump to your couch.”

Not everyone sympathizes.

Jack Roeser, whose Family Taxpayers Foundation posts Illinois teacher and administrator salaries on a Web site, said teachers “just plain don’t work many days” and are already overpaid.

The six-figure salaries “are crazy,” he said, the result of “amateur” school board members overcome by tough teachers unions at the bargaining table.

At the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois, President Tom Johnson questioned the timing of hefty pay increases for teachers.

“Obviously, we want top-quality professionals teaching the students of future generations,” he said. But, “in these economically troubled times, how can you justify any kind of compensation adjustments going anywhere but downward?”

Elected school board members determine the appropriate pay for teachers, said Ken Swanson, president of the Illinois Education Association, and take into consideration the characteristics of the school community, including housing costs.

“In a high-wealth, high-cost-of-living district, if you want a teacher to be a resident in, or close to, the community, they’re going to need to have compensation that allows them that option,” Swanson said.

Teacher salaries are based on a pay scale that gives pay hikes for acquiring more years of experience, college credits and degrees. It’s not unusual for teachers to get double-digit raises in one year when they can combine hikes for both education and experience. It’s also common to boost pay by coaching sports teams.

A now-retired physical education teacher and longtime football coach at Addison Trail High School in DuPage County earned more than $184,000 in 2008-09 — the highest teacher salary in the Tribune’s analysis. He had 35 years of teaching experience and a master’s degree, all factors that boosted his salary.

Teacher pay is undergoing scrutiny nationwide, with the Obama administration dangling federal grants to states that tie teacher evaluations and pay in part to the achievement of students. Illinois has applied for the grant money and is studying how to implement performance-pay programs.

A 2008 Illinois law already allows districts to institute such programs, but “there has not been a pattern of embracing that particular concept,” according to Swanson, of the Illinois Education Association.

Districts locked in multiyear teacher contracts have had mixed success trying to get teachers to make wage concessions.

Maine Township High School District 207 in Cook County posted an operating deficit of more than $10 million in 2008-09 and has laid off staff and increased class sizes, said Mary Kalou, assistant superintendent for business. The district twice asked the teachers union to reopen talks on reducing salaries but got no for an answer, according to Kalou.

Likewise, Glenbard Township High School District 87 in DuPage asked its union to reopen contract talks “and they were not interested in doing it,” said Chris McClain, the assistant superintendent for business services. Glenbard is cutting staff and reducing costs as it projects declining revenues and reserves in the next five years. A third of its teachers earned $100,000 or more in 2009.

Elsewhere, teachers in Lyons Township High School District 204 recently agreed to a partial pay freeze for 2010-11, though the pay schedule still allows for double-digit pay hikes in some circumstances. About 38 percent of the district’s teachers earned salaries of $100,000 or more in 2008-09.

The district is in good financial condition, said director of business services David Sellers, and “our ability to afford what we’re paying our teachers is pretty much unquestionable.”

Lake County’s Township High School District 113 is working on a plan to reduce pay increases related to experience and education for new hires beginning in July 2011, said Barry Bolek, assistant superintendent for finance.

Though the district is in solid financial condition, it has been cutting expenses because of the economy.

In Lake County’s Community High School District 128, based in Vernon Hills, about 41 percent of teachers earned six figures in 2009, making the district competitive with other affluent and high-performing districts in the area, said Superintendent Prentiss Lea.

“If all our teachers were making $45,000, we would not be competitive in the marketplace,” he said. “Our goal is not to be in the top of the market or the bottom, but to be competitive.”

National Education Association official Bill Raabe said more teachers should be making $100,000.

“If we’re really going to attract people into the profession and do the kind of work we expect, we’re going to have to pay them,” said Raabe, the union’s director of collective bargaining and member advocacy.

Based on wage comparisons with educated and experienced professionals in other fields, Raabe said, “We think it is really appropriate that teachers should be making six figures.”

Via Chicago Tribune