Gehrke: Salt Lake City teachers deserve a better contract than the sleight-of-hand the district is offering

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

The economy is strong and the state has, over the past several years, been pumping money into schools — more than $1.1 billion in state money over four years, on top of increases in local tax revenue.

So in that sense, it’s not surprising that there’s been a little bit of a wage war among the districts in the Salt Lake Valley.

And that’s how it should be, frankly.

This is kind of a no-brainer, but the largest portion of the money spent on education goes to teachers. And teachers have been underpaid, leading to a shortage as the number of school children continues to rise.

We’ve already seen Murray and Canyons districts bump starting teacher salaries up to $50,000. Jordan has approved a $48,000 starting salary.

Now there is pressure on the Salt Lake City School District to keep up, and so far it’s not going well.

The district has put a couple of offers on the table, one a 3% pay raise for all teachers, which would raise the starting salary from $45,000 to $46,500 — leaving Salt Lake teachers behind their counterparts in those other districts.

The latest offer is raising the starting salary to $50,100, a crisp Ben Franklin more than any other district in the Wasatch Front. But to make the numbers work, future salary increases would be substantially smaller — dropping from about $1,500 a year per “step” now, to between $800 and $900 per year.

That means after about six years in the classroom, a new teacher would have been better starting at the lower salary with the larger pay raises. And for the duration of a normal career, those teachers would earn between $125,000 and $200,000 less, according to calculations by the teachers association.

It’s a pure shell game, offering a short-term gain with long-term cost. And it seems that such a pay structure would offer diminished incentives to stay put and be counterproductive when one of the biggest challenges school districts face is retaining quality teachers.

A study earlier this year by Envision Utah found about twice as many teachers are leaving the field as are getting in, leaving the state with a shortage of about 1,672 each year. That’s obviously not sustainable.

At any rate, the Salt Lake teachers are rightly having none of it. Talks are now at an impasse, frustrated teachers who have their summers free are making use of the time to protest the district’s offer. There is talk of a possible teacher strike and a federal mediator will be called in next month to try to broker a deal.

And while the dispute is mostly about the money, it’s not all about the money. The Salt Lake teachers are pressing for paid parental leave — a concept that even President Donald Trump has supported at the federal level, but family-friendly Utah has still not managed to offer to state employees or school teachers.

Think about it: Statewide, 70% of those in the education field are women. Salt Lake County has one of the highest rates of female participation in the labor market in the state. We also have a young population and, despite a downward trend, still have many kids and large families.

In that context, parental leave as a retention tool makes more sense for school districts than just about any other labor sector of the state.

The money finally flowing to the teachers is long overdue. And it won’t last forever. When the economy tanks, and you can bet it will, teachers will be some of the first asked to make sacrifices, just like they were 10 years ago.

The essence of any contract negotiation is compromise, and teachers shouldn’t be unwilling to give some ground on their demands. Likewise, the district needs to do better. If they can’t, or if they won’t, then maybe a strike, like we have seen in other states like Colorado, would prove that they are not messing around and focus the district’s attention.