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Education: Charter school tries to make salaries competitive

Coastal Montessori opened its new facility in 2016.

Education: Charter school tries to make salaries competitive

Emily Topper
Coastal Observer

Coastal Montessori Charter School is looking for ways to balance competitive teacher salaries with the cost of a new facility. But the school has few options as it relies on state per-pupil funding to cover both its operating and capital costs.

The school began paying the mortgage on its $6 million building in November, a year after it opened. About 11.5 percent of the school’s $2.3 million budget goes to pay for the facility, Nathalie Hunt, the school director, said.

Charter schools receive public funding, but are exempt from some regulations. Coastal Montessori is sponsored by the Georgetown County School District.

In the district, the average salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $40,338. Coastal Montessori’s starting salary for lead teachers is $32,500. Teaching assistants start at $20,000.

When Hunt took over as director in 2012, the starting salary for lead teachers was $26,000. Teaching assistants earned $14,000. The school district uses a step schedule for teachers, while the charter school uses an employee agreement with school director discretion.

“We know that they are worth their weight in gold,” Hunt said. “When I was hired, I told the founding board when I looked at the salary schedule presented that we have to put money behind these people.”

Hunt said the school has faced a challenge recruiting new college graduates because the starting salaries are not competitive with the district.

“For those teachers that came in under the first director, I’ve been boosting them to get them to that even playing field of those coming in,” she said. “Sixty-five percent of our budget, we know that’s the safe zone for our corporation, to keep that sustainable.”

While starting salaries are higher in the district and in Horry and Charleston counties, Hunt said the charter school has other benefits, such as small class sizes, two teachers per classroom and training.

“By no means were the teachers bamboozled when they started,” she said. “They knew that there were limitations when they signed up for a charter, but they also knew the benefits. It’s a small school, and there’s a lot of support and autonomy.”

As the school increases enrollment toward the cap of 264 students in its charter, its revenue has grown. It expects to end the current fiscal year with a reserve of $518,000.

Georgetown County School District included $1.2 million in its recent bond issue for the charter school and bought the property on Highway 17 adjacent to the charter campus.

The district also funded a school resource officer for the Coastal Montessori following school shootings around the country. It was the only public school in the county without an officer and some parents had asked the charter board to provide one.

“The officer has taken a liking to us. We follow the same way the other elementary schools rotate, four-hour schedules either in the morning or the afternoon,” Hunt said.

The issue of competitive pay is also one that the district has struggled with as it sees staff leave for neighboring counties. Coastal Montessori board took up the issue after teachers pointed to inequalities in the school’s salaries.

“I looked at the salary schedule and had no idea how those got to where they are at,” charter board member Ryan Fabbri said. “I’m sure a lot of it has to do with years of experience, with the grade level that they teach. I have no clue how those were determined, and to have insight, I think, it would be nice to know that.”

Hunt plans to hold a board workshop to explain the salary process.

“We can’t have a successful school without knowledgeable, creative, dedicated, passionate teachers,” she said. “That is an essential ingredient. I believe in the method and what we are doing for our students.”

Intent-to-return forms from teachers were due back to Hunt this week. “A few wanted to change their role in the school, but all said they would be returning,” she said.