‘A new way of thinking’: Jordan School District moves to boost teacher pay — again

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lily Larsen gets some help for drama teacher Kristie Wallace, at Elk Ridge Middle School in South Jordan, Thursday, April 26, 2018. Tasia Maes

Jordan School District is once again planning to raise teachers’ salaries — the second phase to an already substantial pay increase announced in 2017 that kicked off a “salary war” among some of Utah’s largest districts.

Under the pay proposal, all Jordan teachers will received a flat $2,500 pay raise for the 2018-19 school year in addition to regularly scheduled cost-of-living adjustments, school board members announced Thursday.

The plans, subject to approval by the district’s teachers’ union, would also raise starting salaries for new teachers from $40,000 to $42,800, while creating additional pay opportunities by setting aside $3 million for grants and letting teachers apply for up to another $3,000 each based on exemplary work.

“This is a new way of thinking,” board member Matthew Young said. “Ultimately, our goal is to reward high quality instruction.”

The district’s announcement Thursday brings a second consecutive annual pay raise to educators in what is Utah’s fourth largest school district, with 59 schools and 2,762 teachers. Jordan officials budgeted an additional $10 million in 2017 to raise the teacher starting salary from $34,500 to $40,000, which triggered comparable salary increases in other districts including Canyons, Salt Lake City, Park City and Granite.

The pay trend comes as school districts across Utah are struggling to hire and retain teachers. Officials in Jordan said they had been considering the salary hikes for several years, and board member Bryce Dunford said Thursday’s announcement was well timed.

Teachers in the neighboring states of Arizona and Colorado this week joined in a series of statewide walkouts across the country over a lack of educational funding.

“We’re just happy we started talking about this three years ago and not now,” board member Matthew Young echoed.

Other changes include more money for teachers who mentor their peers, paying elementary teachers for parking lot duty, and no increases in health insurance premiums. And, educators agreeing to teach a seventh period in the school day would receive an additional pay bump.

Board members estimated the price tag on this year’s sweetening of teachers’ salary packages at $19 million, which Dunford says is being paid for from four sources — a built-in budgetary surplus in Jordan’s annual operations; several districtwide budget cuts; healthy budget reserves; and a recent statewide increase to per-pupil spending.

On that last note, Dunford said the Jordan school board was attempting to send a message to Utah’s Capitol Hill.

“What we’re saying to the Legislature is, ‘If you increase the WPU, if you increase the amount of money you give our district, we’re going to put it where it makes a difference,’ ” Dunford said.

And as for reserve funds, board members said those had grown enough over the years to continue funding the improved salary package for another four to five years — or longer, should state funding rise further or if the district finds other ways to save money.

Barring those developments, Dunford said, the district may eventually have to raise property taxes to make up the difference.

While some teachers applauded the package, others who identified themselves as veteran educators said the flat-rate increases meant that teachers with less experience received higher on a percentage basis.

They also were unhappy with the board’s plan to add one professional development day to the school calendar, during which all teachers will be compensated a flat $300.

Those concerns raised Thursday echoed complaints over the 2017 pay raises, which involved streamlining pay categories tied to teachers’ education levels and years on the job. The new pay schedule put all of the educators on a similar same path for salary advancement, but also allowed the district to lift salary caps for veteran educators.

Board members hinted Thursday that conversations around teacher pay in the district are not over, with more possible changes on the horizon.

“We’re not going to get this right the first time around,” Young said.