Paying It Forward With ‘Sal-Dif’

By Robert J. Harris

Aug 17, 2017

Every year, thousands of experienced educators from school districts across the country retire from their teaching and administrative positions and are replaced with less experienced and less costly new hires. The difference between the expenditure on the salaries of the more experienced educators exiting the system and their less costly replacements is affectionately called ‘sal-dif’ (short for salary differential). In the district I work in, over the last ten years, the ‘sal-dif’ has ranged from $500k to $1M annually.

Some school superintendents build their annual school budgets with a projected amount of ‘sal-dif’ incorporated as a line-item. If they exceed this projection, then there is free-cash. If they do not, then they have a budget gap to close. For these superintendents, it is wise to be conservative when estimating annual ‘sal-dif.’ There is a second group of school superintendents who are less transparent about ‘sal-dif.’ These superintendents pretend that ‘sal-dif’ does not exist so that, at the end of the year, when the books are closed, they have additional dollars to fund operating costs, and no one in the public (including their school board members) is the wiser. Not so fast! Teachers unions also know about ‘sal-dif’ and, if it is a year in which the contract is up for re-negotiation, they will claim that the money is theirs to use for salary increases (not an unreasonable position to take if you’re a teachers’ union president).

The third, and final, group of school superintendents is clueless about ‘sal-dif.’ This small group is usually clueless about most matters of school finance and, truth-be-told, about most matters effecting the education of children as well. These superintendents wouldn’t recognize ‘sal-dif’ if it were dropped from a third-floor window of the central office in a safe and hit them directly on the head. In these school districts, although the finance manager might know about ‘sal-dif,’ damned if he or she would enlighten the superintendent (it’s always nice for the books to be ‘in-the-black’ at the end of a fiscal year).

So as not to end on a cynical note, I pose the following question – What does ‘sal-dif’ actually represent in terms of dollars, and how can these dollars be used to enhance the learning experience for the children and adults who attend and work in our schools?  In simple terms, ‘sal-dif’ represents the experience and training that a school system loses annually due to turnover. Therefore, in equity, ‘sal-dif’ should be used to replace the same. While a retiree’s years of dedicated work and contribution cannot be easily or immediately replaced, in time the training can be. On this basis, ‘sal-dif’ should be used as a funding mechanism to close the ‘experience-gap’ through professional learning as part of a school district’s succession plan. Through ‘sal-dif,’ a school system has the opportunity, and perhaps the obligation, to ‘pay-forward’ to its next generation of teachers that which it received from the previous generation. And, if any individual superintendent mentioned in the three groups above has a vision for the future, he or she can feel free to dedicate 20% of the school district’s annual ‘sal-dif’ to fund innovative solutions to problems of educational practice.

Robert J. Harris (@edudexterity) is the Founder of Edudexterity.


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