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What happens to Utah schools when the district next door can pay its teachers more?

First Published      Last Updated Jul 02 2017 10:10 am


In the race to entice teachers with higher pay, schools in Logan, Ogden and Provo face heightened competition from surrounding districts.

Logan City School Superintendent Frank Schofield is sweating, and not because of the summer heat.

His district's board recently approved a $2,000 increase in salary for first-year teachers — boosting it to $37,643 — and a corresponding 4.2 percent raise for veteran educators.

But Logan is surrounded on all sides by the Cache County School District, which adopted a salary schedule that pays a beginning teacher more than $40,000.

"We're perspiring," Schofield said. "We're not drenched, but we've got some extra deodorant in the office just in case."

School districts throughout the state have recently announced and approved significant pay hikes in an effort to hire and hold onto classroom faculty.




Statewide, more than half of all new teachers abandon the profession in their first five years, and the pool of college and university graduates to replace them is ever-shrinking as fewer adults opt for education careers.

The shortage creates a staffing competition, which is keenly felt by so-called "doughnut hole" districts — usually serving a single city — that are surrounded by county districts.

In those areas — Logan and Provo, in particular — a larger paycheck can be obtained by driving a few miles in any direction.

Schofield said he's not worried about Logan's veteran teachers being lured away en masse. It's hard to abandon your comfort zone, he said — and the salary differences for veteran teachers aren't as cut-and-dried between districts.

But he added that a couple of thousand dollars' difference each year is significant for a recent graduate who is looking to launch his or her career and potentially buy a home, start a family and pay off student debt.

"We're concerned about that," he said. "We're concerned that it affects our ability to recruit the number of candidates and the quality of candidates that we want."

'We're going to start seeing shortages' • In Provo City School District, new teachers will earn $35,143 next year. That pay level is roughly $3,000 less than Provo's southern neighbor, Nebo School District, and between $6,000 and $10,000 less than its northern neighbor, Alpine School District.

Christy Giblon, president of the Provo Education Association, said her union was one of the first in the state to complete its negotiations with school district representatives. Union leaders received the bulk of their requests, she said, and were confident the district had prioritized teacher pay.

"We left the negotiation table feeling good about our package," he said. "The district gave us everything."

Those feelings soured somewhat, she said, as more Utah school districts announced minimum pay levels of $40,000 — or $50,000 in the case of Park City School District — and double-digit percentage raises.

"Our teachers were very disappointed," Giblon said. "And understandably so."

Giblon maintains that Provo's administrators did as well as could be expected to pay teachers with the state and district resources available. But she added that without immediate steps to remain competitive, Provo City School District could see a talent drain to its neighbors in the county and throughout the state.

"They may survive this one year if they can make some corrections," she said. "If we try to continue on this path, I do believe we're going to start seeing shortages in Provo."

Giblon said her district is "landlocked," without the growing population and development dollars seen in other areas of Utah County. Logan City School District business administrator Jeff Barben used the same word to describe population trends in his city — where short-term rentals dominate the housing market.

Statewide enrollment in Utah's public education system grows between 1 percent and 2 percent annually. But Logan City School District shrank by 238 students — 4 percent — last year, Barben said.

And because state education funds are distributed on a per-student basis, the decline in Logan enrollment translates to lost funding, Barben said.

"Overall, it was about a million dollars," Barben said. "It has a significant impact."

'We just do what we can every year' • Doughnut-hole districts aren't always at a pay disadvantage to the county districts that surround them. In Ogden, new teachers will earn $40,719 next year, $2,000 more than the entry-level pay of teachers in surrounding Weber School District.

Zane Woolstenhulme, business administrator for Ogden School District, said administrators felt some pressure to follow the trend and push a major raise this year but ultimately committed to a comparatively small 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment for teachers.

"A lot of what the other districts have done this year, we did about three years ago without any fanfare," he said. "It's going to be more of a challenge to stay ahead of it, but we just do what we can every year with the resources we have."

In addition to being doughnut-hole districts, Logan, Ogden and Provo are home to universities that provide a consistent — albeit shallowing — stream of education graduates each year. That higher education presence shields those areas from the brunt of Utah's teacher shortage, as schools host student-teachers who are then inclined to remain in familiar territory rather than chase higher paychecks.

"Our district has always been safe that way," Giblon said. "They've banked on the knowledge that they're always going to have a steady supply of teachers."

Although city districts may feel landlocked, Weber School District Assistant Superintendent Kevin Sederholm said they benefit from the tax revenue of urban centers.

"We're a tax-poor district," he said. "We don't have the businesses that many do."

And with population growth, he said, comes the burden of constructing new schools and hiring faculty to serve an increasing number of students.

"The faster you grow, the more you do have to worry" about overhead costs, he said. "That all plays into it as you're doing the budget."

'Increased competition for a scarce resource' • Nebo School District will offer new teachers a $500 signing bonus next year, on top of a 10 percent increase in the district's starting salary. Spokeswoman Lana Hiskey said the district boosted pay to attract good educators to replace a large number of retiring teachers.

"We actually didn't know what the other districts were doing," she said. "We knew that we needed to do something to attract those teachers."

During the 2016-2017 school year, Park City was the only school district in the state with a starting salary higher than $40,000. In the past month, 10 Utah school districts have approved budgets that cross the $40,000 threshold, while Park City surged ahead by $7,000 to offer entry-level pay of $50,700.

Educator shortages have been increasing for several years, but teacher raises reached critical mass this year because the Legislature gave more money than usual to education, according to Curtis Benjamin, director of Northern Utah UniServ, which coordinates teacher unions in Box Elder, Rich and Cache counties.

"Everybody is on the same page as far as attracting and retaining teachers," Benjamin said, "and that's very encouraging."

But Logan's Schofield was skeptical that the wave of pay raises throughout Utah would mitigate school staffing problems.

The relatively higher salaries won't entice more people to become educators, Schofield said, but could exacerbate the disparities between school districts that can afford to offer competitive pay and those that cannot.

That means the pay gaps and staffing competition between doughnut-hole districts and their county neighbors are likely to get worse, he said.

"What you'll see is an increased competition for a scarce resource," Schofield said. "The districts that are not able to match that starting wage are going to have a harder and harder time filling positions."

Benjamin agreed, saying the next step to improve staffing conditions is for state leaders to address the barriers that keep people from pursuing education careers, and to tap state funding to create budget equity throughout Utah.

"More needs to happen," he said. "We don't want to create a system where some districts struggle more than others."

bwood@sltrib.com

Twitter: @bjaminwood

 

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