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Great Oaks Legacy charter school launches pay equity study following staff concerns over wages

A woman wearing a flowery skirt speaks to a group of four students who are seated at tables and writing.

The Great Oaks Legacy Charter School is a charter public school in Newark N.J., serving students from pre-K to 12th grade on multiple campuses across the city.

Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat

Since May, teachers and administrators at Great Oaks Legacy Charter School have been asking leadership for transparency about employee salary information following their claims of wage inequities among colleagues. 

Now the Newark-based charter school network said it has resumed a schoolwide analysis of pay equity within the organization, as well as a comparison to other local charter networks and district schools, that will help “refine its compensation philosophy.” The first phase of the study will be finalized in April by EdFuel, an independent nonprofit that has worked with schools around the country to conduct similar studies, the charter school said. 

According to an email from the charter school’s public relations firm, Goldin Solutions, the charter school “originally planned to launch the study earlier this year but had to put it on hold due to leadership changes in the HR team.” 

“Great Oaks Legacy Charter School believes that equity is essential. We were proud this year to provide raises and additional stipends to all of our valued colleagues,” John Eddy from Goldin Solutions and spokesperson for Great Oaks Legacy said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We always encourage our teachers, students, and families to share concerns about the things that matter to them. We gladly welcome feedback and view it as critical to our shared success, and we are actively addressing all of the issues that were presented at the board meeting both with individual teachers and with all of our colleagues.”

At the beginning of the school year, several members of the charter school community packed a third-floor classroom at Downtown Elementary School to unleash frustrations regarding pay, personnel issues, and other concerns that some said had been building for years. Some administrators such as Lisa Powell, chief academic officer for elementary schools, said they had been emailing the board about inequity issues over the last five years. 

Others like Dr. Juli-Anne Benjamin, Great Oaks director of curriculum instruction for K-8 grade, raised concerns over pay inequity with her salary when compared to her predecessors and others serving in her role. Staff that spoke out about wages asked board members to release a pay scale and salary information for certified and uncertified teachers but the charter school has yet to do so.

In addition to the newly launched pay study, the charter school completed a multi-year analysis of salaries for a group of “network academic leaders” in July, according to Great Oaks Legacy. The study “did not find any gaps in pay based on total years of experience and there were no indicators of racial inequities,” according to the charter school.

Great Oaks Legacy did not provide details on who participated in the survey or pay data collected from the study. 

New Jersey maintains the highest average starting teacher salary among the 50 states, according to the National Education Association, Nine of every 10 New Jersey school districts pay a starting salary of at least $50,000. The national average starting teacher salary for the 2020-21 school year was $41,770 and in the Garden State, the average bumped up to $54,053. Those with master’s degrees in the state started off at $57,845 for the same year. 

At the charter school’s October board of trustees meeting, teachers continued to raise concerns about wages for certified and uncertified teachers and compensation for additional work. Brittany Gregory, managing director of curriculum and instruction and an instructional leader, was hired this year and said she didn’t feel she was fairly compensated after being asked to fill in for a colleague who resigned in August without additional pay. As an educator with multiple years of experience and a master’s degree, she felt she deserved more. 

“As a school administrator who has earned both the standard teacher certification as well as the standard supervisor certification, I’m not being paid at a fair market value,” said Gregory during the public comment portion of the October meeting. 

She believed her situation was an independent case, but after conversations with her supervisors and other employees about pay, she realized similar trends with other colleagues, especially Black women. 

“After attending last month’s board meeting, it became very clear to me that this is not an issue that only I’m experiencing, but rather a systemic issue throughout the entire organization, particularly impacting Black women,” said Gregory during the October meeting. “My supervisors are experiencing the exact same injustice and it’s extremely disheartening.”

This year, Great Oaks Legacy said it issued raises to all teachers and additional stipends to its employees, such as a COVID stipend of up to $3,000 that is being paid out in multiple installments, a bonus of up to $1,000 to staff who refer new employees, and up to $1,000 to Newark-based staff, according to the Great Oaks Legacy benefits and compensation package. The charter school’s benefits also include wellness benefits of up to $500 to all full-time staff, possible reimbursements for tuition or student loans, and 10 fewer working days. 

A kindergarten teacher at the downtown campus, who asked to remain anonymous, said they had received some of the new benefits promised this year by Great Oaks including a raise and a COVID stipend, but are concerned about the lack of transparency regarding pay. The educator, who has been a teacher with Great Oaks since 2017, said they wanted transparency about the charter school’s pay scale and salary levels for its employees, especially after asking for it during a May board of trustees meeting last school year. 

The kindergarten teacher said they started off at roughly $53,000 when they were hired by Great Oaks in 2017. In conversations with colleagues, they found that other teachers are starting at higher wages.  

After attending both the September and October meetings to express concerns over pay transparency, the teacher was told pay was based on the level of experience. Gregory was also told the same during a meeting with the human resources department.  

“In fact, I have been gaslit by our human resource department and told that certification is not required for this role and due to my years of experience, I am being fairly compensated,” said Gregory during the October board of trustees meeting. 

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

Clarification: Nov. 11, 2022: This story has been updated to clarify that Great Oaks Legacy Charter School will complete the first phase of its pay equity study in April.

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