One of the newest school districts in the state announced Tuesday that it plans to raise its annual salary for starting teachers to $50,000 — a substantial increase that’s expected to touch off another round of competitive “salary wars” among Utah’s biggest districts.

Canyons School District proposed the latest bump, an agreement between its school board and local teachers association, which includes boosting pay for all of its teachers by $7,665. It comes amid statewide difficulties in hiring and retaining teachers, and is largely an effort to recruit the best.

Unless other districts try to match it, Canyons will have the second highest starting teacher salary in the state after Park City School District at $50,700.

“[This is] making it possible for teachers to pursue their passion and do what they’re good at while also earning a living wage,” said Canyons School Board President Nancy Tingey.

The increase would be funded by raising property taxes, amounting to an extra $140 per year for the average household in the district, which spans the southern part of Salt Lake County mostly through Sandy and Draper. While the negotiations for Canyons have wrapped up, the hike will have to be approved at the next board meeting and would start in the fall. The district will also have to hold a public hearing for residents to weigh in.

If the “salary wars” start again, it would be the third year in a row that Utah school districts have attempted to outbid one another by offering the highest salaries to attract the best teachers. Currently, the school boards for Salt Lake City, Granite and Jordan districts are still brokering potential hikes.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“When salaries go up in one district, it benefits education all the way around,” said Jordan spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf.

Jordan School District raised its teacher pay first in 2017 and started the domino effect. The starting salary there is now $42,800. At Salt Lake City School District, it’s $45,000.

“We have been on the higher end for starting salaries and that has been really helpful in retaining teachers,” said spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin, who added that the district has other incentives, including a new teacher mentoring program and stipends for teachers who get board certified.

There is little doubt that those benefits help retain educators and give them a chance for salary advancement. But Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews would be happy to see another round of increasing salaries. She believes offering pay hikes — including for veteran educators — is one of the biggest, easiest and quickest things to do that will keep more teachers from leaving the field.

“It is the most important area that we can focus on right now to stop the bleeding,” Matthews said. “We hope to see that spread like wildfire throughout our state.”

While the number of students in Utah continues to rise, more educators are leaving the profession each year. That’s significant when there are slightly more than 26,000 public school teachers in Utah and roughly 650,000 kids enrolled in K-12.

One of the top reasons, according to a recent study by Envision Utah, was the poor pay.

All told, Utah has a shortage of more than 1,600 teachers, the regional planning agency found. And it’s an imbalance that is expected to only get worse.

Currently, the average annual median salary for a public school teacher in Utah is about $54,000, Envision Utah said, which includes those who have been in the classroom for years. That’s nearly $6,000 below what is considered a living wage in Utah. And it’s $20,000 to $32,000 below comparable careers in the state, such as accountants and urban planners.

Tingey, the board president for Canyons, said part of the purpose of the district’s increase is to put teacher salaries in line with the pay for similar jobs and to encourage more students to get a teaching degree.

“We see this investment as a positive step toward inspiring college students to regard teaching as a viable career," she added, “and reinforce the belief that teaching is a destination profession.”

The Envision Utah study found, too, that fewer college students are choosing careers in education, also out of fear of the low salaries.

Jessica Beus, who was named Canyons’ “Teacher of the Year” on Tuesday night, said she originally picked the profession out of passion. But, as she’s stayed in the field, she’s become more worried about making enough to get by and support her family.

“It started to become a little more of a trick to make the balance,” she said.

Beus, who has been an educator for five years and teaches third grade at Midvale Elementary, added that she’s excited about the pay raise in her district. “It’s great to see that made a priority. My hope is that it will draw other teachers to the profession.”

Not all districts hike taxes to fund a pay raise. Some use the annual statewide increase to per-pupil spending, which lawmakers chose to largely expand this year, though the state still ranks last in the nation for the metric.

Still, others don’t plan to raise salaries at all. Park City School District, which will likely remain the highest in the state for teacher pay, signed a three-year contract with its local teachers association in 2017. That won’t end until after the 2019-2020 school year.

“I don’t anticipate any adjustments,” said Todd Hauber, the district’s business administrator.

Park City, Hauber added, has “never really responded” to the salary wars occurring in the Salt Lake Valley. The northern Utah district faces other economic concerns. It sits in an affluent area and wants to have high enough pay that its teachers can afford to live in the community.

Still, Hauber suggests it’s not impossible that as the district finishes budget discussions next month, Canyons’ increase is brought up.

“I’m sure it’s going to start a whole new level of conversations statewide,” he noted.

Steve Dimond, Canyons’ human resource director, laughed at the idea of a challenge or an arms race: “I would hope that throughout Utah that all districts would help elevate the profession of teaching.”