First-year with bachelor's degree // 10th-year teacher with master's degree
Hamilton County $34,995 // $47,870
Knox County $34,510 // $44,615
Nashville $40,000 // $50,270
Source: School district teacher salary schedules
Pay raises are a high priority for the teachers union as representatives undertake negotiations with Hamilton County Schools.
Public school teachers and administrators have received three raises in the last six years, lifting beginning teacher pay in Hamilton County from $31,896 in 2006-07 to just under $35,000 this year.
But with Gov. Bill Haslam eyeing an end to the state-mandated teacher salary schedule, the Hamilton County Education Association said teacher raises are as important as ever.
Haslam backed down from his proposal last spring to give districts more flexibility in how they pay teachers, but he said he may revisit the issue during the 2013 legislative session.
If that happens, HCEA President Sandy Hughes said, a raise this year could protect teachers further down the road, because state law doesn't allow for teachers' current salaries to be cut.
"It would be in the best interest of all Hamilton County [Schools] employees that are on the salary schedule to have increases in salary," Hughes said.
Hughes didn't say how much the union is seeking.
Tennessee teachers unions were stripped of their collective bargaining powers in sweeping school reform legislation passed in 2011. But teacher pay and benefits are protected here until 2014, when Hamilton County's current contract expires.
The Hamilton County Education Association successfully sued the Hamilton County Board of Education to reopen talks on the contract.
Superintendent Rick Smith said he believes teachers should be paid a fair salary. But the current budget probably won't allow for raises.
"We really don't have the finances now," Smith said.
Smith said the school system hasn't received any new money for operational expenses since 2006, though county government has passed some tax increases and funded school construction projects. A 26 cent county tax rate increase in 2008 provided no funding to the school system.
Growing enrollment and opening new schools drive up costs for the school system, Smith said. Two new schools are scheduled to open in 2013 and another in 2014.
In addition to salary increases, the union is asking the school board to consider reinstating funding for teacher health reimbursement accounts, which helped cover costs such as prescription medicines and co-pays. That provision was phased out of the current contract.
"We thought that should have been funded," Hughes said.
Union and school officials also are discussing what effect the proposed school innovation zone will have on teacher working conditions and pay.
The school district plans to reapply for a state grant to start an "i-zone," which gives districts flexibility in turning around the lowest-performing schools. In Hamilton County, that group would include Woodmore Elementary, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle, Dalewood Middle and Brainerd High.
The grant could potentially be worth millions.
With the i-zone, schools can ditch traditional school rules in favor of more creative measures, such as extending the school day or school year. But those changes would likely require increased compensation for teachers, who would work longer than the contracted school year.
Smith said he expects to work out an agreement if the system receives the i-zone grant. The i-zone could be implemented as early as next fall.