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Staff File Photo By Troy Stolt / Pre-kindergarten teacher Amy Thompson hugs Aiden Massengale and tells him she's going to miss him on the last day of school in March before schools closed due to the COVID-19 virus.

Hamilton County teachers have complained for years about their salaries being too low, and for the most part they've been right.

However, the current and previous Republican governors have made investments in education — including in teacher salaries — a priority. And, locally, the Hamilton County Board of Education and Hamilton County Commission have tried to do their part to push teacher pay toward at least equality with surrounding counties.

We have been among the voices pushing for that equality, reasoning that teaching in many Hamilton County schools has more challenges than teaching in some surrounding districts.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County school board votes to stash $2.8 million in rainy day fund instead of reinstating teacher pay increases)

However, a teacher compensation study by Batiwalla Consulting for Hamilton Flourishing, a local public policy organization, indicates that average teacher salaries for Hamilton County are higher than most surrounding counties, are higher than those of Tennessee's richest county (Williamson) and are higher than those for Tennessee teachers in general.

Statistics can be misleading, especially when the exact data available for most counties is not available for all counties. But even with the data differences this study admits to having, it is clear Hamilton County teachers are well compensated on the average.

That doesn't mean, under normal conditions, state and local governments shouldn't continue to try to increase local teacher salaries. We still believe local teacher salaries should exceed those in surrounding counties both because of the difficulty of teaching in many of our local schools but also to have the greatest opportunity to annually retain the best teachers in the county.

The Batiwalla study, using 2018-2019 figures, indicates Hamilton County had a higher average teacher salary than every neighboring Tennessee county. Teachers in Bradley County, long said to have had higher salaries, made $248 less than teachers in Hamilton County.

Indeed, according to the figures, for the last four years, Hamilton County has had higher average salaries than every neighboring Tennessee except Bradley. But Bradley finally fell behind Hamilton in the 2018-2019 school year.

The average salary survey, though, does not include Georgia counties just across the border, and Georgia counties have traditionally been a place for which Tennessee teachers have left because of their higher salaries.

However, the survey does include Catoosa and Whitfield counties in Georgia in comparing teacher salaries by teaching experience and by education level.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County school board member under fire for Facebook post criticizing teachers, calling for small businesses to reopen amid COVID-19 crisis)

It shows Hamilton County trailing Bradley and Whitfield counties for first-year teachers with a bachelor's degree and behind only Whitfield County for salaries at mid-career and late-career.

The study also says Hamilton County "teachers with Bachelor's and Master's degrees receive slightly higher pay than those in surrounding districts," but the accompany graph indicates something different. It indicates teachers with bachelor's degrees make slightly less than those in Whitfield County and teachers with master's degrees clearly make less than those in Whitfield County. Further, teachers with doctoral degrees make significantly less than in both Catoosa and Whitfield counties, a fact the study admits.

The Batiwalla study also compared Hamilton County teacher salaries over the last four years with those in Williamson County and Knox County. Williamson County, a Nashville bedroom community with some 40,000 public-school students, is 88% white, 4% Asian, 3% black, and 3% Hispanic. Knox County, with some 61,000 public-school students, is 83% white, 9% black, 4% Hispanic and 2% Asian. Hamilton County, with approximately 45,000 public-school students, is 71% white, 19% black, 5% Hispanic and 2% Asian. Hamilton County has 18.2% of families with income below the poverty level, while Williamson County has 2.7% of families with income below the poverty level.

Nevertheless, Hamilton County average teacher salaries have exceeded those in Knox County for each of the last four years and in the 2018-2019 school year surpassed those of Williamson County, the state's wealthiest. They also exceed the salaries of the other two counties among first-year teachers with a bachelor's degree; in mid-career and late-career salaries; and in salaries for all teachers with bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees.

Critically, the study shows Hamilton County retains teachers at a lower rate than all neighboring Tennessee counties, and at a lower rate than Williamson County. That's no surprise to district administration officials (though the rate increased in the 2019-2020 school year), but the salary study would intimate that retention is wrapped up in more than just teacher pay.

The COVID-19 virus, and its attendant economic collapse, will offer Hamilton County its own set of challenges for the 2020-2021 school year, but the Batiwalla study proves local teacher salaries — plus what district Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg estimates is a $10,000 health and dental package — are not the stumbling block they once were for retaining quality teachers.

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