As union president, Sally Topping is taking the St. Louis Public Schools to court.
The St. Louis Public Schools teachers’ union is taking the school district to trial on March 5 over what it says are troubling salary disparities.
Sally Topping, president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 420, provided the RFT with a table detailing pay disparities within its workforce. Even though a salary schedule within the district’s union contract is supposed to provide a rigid outline for how much money an employee should make based on years of service and education level, the table shows big differences. Since 2011, it shows, some employees have received as much as $21,000 less than others holding the same position.
The lack of a salary schedule, Topping notes, has provided inequitable benefits for those close to the administration. “It seemed like fraternity brothers or sorority sisters or family connected people were making more money than other people,” Topping says.
Not all of the cases are related to favoritism though and Topping assumes other discrepancies are random. “You got there on a good day,” she says.
In one of the most jarring details, Topping and her staff even noticed discrepancies that occurred with employees of similar stature hired on the same day.
For example, Topping points to two teachers, one a middle school math teacher and the other a secondary math teacher. Both teachers were hired on August 6, 2012. Both had logged six years of service and had a bachelor of arts. Despite their similarities, the middle school teacher was given $1,000 more than the secondary math teacher. The table features hundreds of similar disparities, regardless of years of service or education level.
Topping is proposing that all teachers have their salary raised to match the highest amount in their field. But she’s also criticizing her predecessors for failing to flag the situation earlier.
“Salary schedules haven’t been used in years. The moment they stopped being used, it should have been a grievance,” Topping says.
Local 420 represents 2,000 workers in the St. Louis Public School District, or SLPS. After becoming aware of the discrepancies upon her election as union president in 2017, Topping filed a grievance against the SLPS and its Special Administrative Board, a three-person group who oversees the school district. After an arbitrator ruled in the union’s favor, the union earned the right to make its case at the upcoming trial.
Topping says that the district has argued the union should have noticed the problems earlier. According to Topping, the SLPS has also argued that they can determine salaries as they please.
The district’s spokeswoman did not respond to multiple calls for comment.
Pay disparities, says Topping, are just one of the many problems the teachers’ union has with the school district right now. There is also the rise in for-profit charter schools. There are teachers dashing to county schools for a $10,000 raise. There are the mandatory daily lesson plans that teachers take hours every week to develop in fear of random classroom inspections.
While only the pay discrepancies will appear in trial, teachers across the city are antsy for change, Topping says.
“I’ve been going out to three or four schools a week for the past eighteen months and I have never heard more teachers wanting to strike,” Topping says. “We are so angry about this. Under the law we can’t strike, but who knows.”
For now, Topping is focused on the trial. The trial for credentialed workers (which includes teachers and counselors) will begin March 5 and the trial for uncredentialed workers (including security officers and in-school suspension monitors) will follow shortly after.
Topping feels confident about a victory.
“What [the SLPS is] doing is so wrong,” she says. “They are literally cheating people. That’s horrible. I don’t think anybody who is fair-minded will stand for this. We have people who are working two and three jobs in order to make enough to support their families. The amount of these disparities are second and third jobs for these people. That they would let this go on [while] knowing …. they ought to be ashamed of themselves.”