Park City • Sharon Ellsworth-Nielson said she had trouble sleeping Tuesday night, she said, because she felt "fuzzily, warmly, appreciated."
The Park City High School debate coach and English teacher had cast a ratifying vote in favor of a new salary schedule, bringing Ellsworth-Nielson and fellow educators a $7,000 raise next year.
"It's the vote of confidence," she said. "That's more important than the money."
On Wednesday, the Park City Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the changes, which includes an entry-level pay rate of $50,700 — up from $43,700 — in addition to across-the-board raises.
The vote came after weeks of budgetary jockeying among Utah's school districts, but appeared to cement Park City School District's status as the highest-paying employer of teachers in Utah.
"Park City values having one of the top salary schedules for two reasons," Superintendent Ember Conley said. "One, to attract the best teachers; but two, because of our cost of living."
Throughout Utah, administrators have tapped into increased state funding, budget reserves and, in some cases, tax hikes to boost educator pay.
The wave of pay raises, described in private as an "arms race" by several Utah educators, is intended to boost recruitment and retention of public school educators after years of staffing turnover has left schools facing a teacher shortage.
Several school districts, particularly along the Wasatch Front, had taken steps to establish $40,000 as a salary floor for public educators. The trend was triggered by Jordan School District, which also consolidated its "steps and lanes" — or scheduled pay raises — and broadened to include Canyons School District, Granite School District, Murray School District, Davis School District and Alpine School District.
"What some people view as competition between school districts, we view as competition with industry," Davis spokesman Chris Williams said. "No doubt, we have dedicated teachers in our system. And we'll continue to need people in front of students."
Washington School District, based in St. George, also announced a $40,000 starting salary last week, as well as a $2,000 "signing bonus" in an attempt to woo teachers to southern Utah.
Salt Lake City School District's updated salary schedule was briefly the highest in the state, with a starting pay rate of $43,887. But Park City's announcement Wednesday topped that figure by more than $6,000.
Conley said overtures by neighboring districts had a "tremendous" impact on Park City's salary negotiations.
"One of the best things that has happened in Utah is that there's finally a conversation happening that we have to pay our teachers and our administrators if we want to have better results," she said.
Conley said many Park City educators are forced to commute from outside the district, where the median home price is roughly $750,000. The district would like to foster a local community of educators, she said, and is looking at ways — in addition to higher pay — to encourage proximity.
"We're working with our community partners to get affordable housing," Conley said.
The pay raises in Park City will initially be funded through budget reserves and the 4 percent increase in per-student funding approved by Utah lawmakers this year. Administrators expect future state funding and property tax growth to support the higher salaries in the future.
The district is planning to bond for funding, if approved by voters in November. But funds from those bonds will be used for facility needs, not personnel costs.
Ellsworth-Nielson said it's possible the extra $7,000 would lure new teachers to, or keep current teachers in, the classroom. But she added that it's also understandable why so many educators abandon the profession, or why college graduates choose to pursue other careers.
"To do this job well is really hard," she said. "You know it's been a good day as a teacher when you experience satisfied exhaustion."
Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said it's exciting to see so many Utah school districts addressing teacher pay. But she added that raises and entry-level bonuses don't solve the pressures on Utah's public education system, which ranks last in the nation for state spending per-student.
"These settlements with higher teacher compensation are really just the first step to addressing our funding needs in Utah," she said. "The reasons people are leaving the classroom are, yes, financial. But it's far deeper than that."
She said professional burdens, including excessive testing and legislative mandates, also contribute to Utah's teacher shortage. And while many school districts have exceeded $40,000 starting salaries, she said, other areas of the state don't have the resources to offer competitive pay.
"Some districts in our state simply don't have the capacity to be able to compete in these compensation wars," she said.