Lawmakers question how Utah school districts found money ‘in the couch cushions’ for teacher salary wars

Education • Higher funded districts accused of keeping pay levels artificially low while poaching talent from neighboring schools. <br>

Jordan School District spent two years negotiating and preparing its recent overhaul of teacher salaries, school board member Matthew Young said Tuesday, and in April launched the first phase of its effort to make compensation more attractive and competitive for educators.

But when Jordan’s plans became public in March, particularly its goal to pay a $40,000 starting salary, administrators in other Utah districts rushed to approach, match or exceed the entry-level offer in the southwest Salt Lake County district. 

“It did catch me by surprise,” Young said. “I honestly believed that because our process had been a two-year process, that it would require a similar time frame for those districts.”

Equally surprised were some members of the Public Education Appropriations Committee, who, during a Tuesday hearing in Salt Lake City, expressed both praise and disdain for the market forces at play during the summer’s so-called “salary wars.” 

Committee co-chairman Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, questioned how ostensibly cash-strapped school districts suddenly found funding “under a rock” and “in the couch cushions” for substantial pay raises after the Jordan domino fell.

And Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, suggested that districts with larger coffers intentionally offer the minimum salary possible to maintain a competitive edge over their rural and lower-funded counterparts.

"Teacher salaries are being held artificially low in our state because of the vast differences in our districts and what they can afford to pay,” Fillmore said. “They have to offer a little bit more than Jordan offers, even though they‘re funded a lot more.”

Since 2016, Fillmore has sponsored legislation that would incrementally equalize the resources available to Utah school districts.

State funding for education is currently distributed on a per-student basis. But district budgets are subsidized by local property taxes, meaning areas like Park City and Salt Lake City — with high property values and comparably few school children — have more cash on hand for personnel costs and operating expenses.

Under Fillmore’s plan, one-third of new state education funding would be set aside each year as an “equity pupil unit” and distributed among the lowest-funded districts in the state.

The salary war, he said, demonstrates how statewide progress can be made when lower-funded districts are able to flex their muscles.

“Those without the buying power will be able to enter the market,” he said of his equity pupil unit plan, “which will force those with the resources to increase up.”

Teachers in Park City School District and Salt Lake City School District traditionally earn the highest salaries in the state’s public education system. The Park City and Salt Lake City school boards were among the last to announce pay raises this year, ultimately lifting starting salaries to $50,700 and $43,887, respectively.

Prior to this year’s salary war, only Park City School District offered starting pay above $40,000. Since March, 10 Utah school districts have reached or crossed that threshold for the first time.

Granite School District’s school board approved a $16 million property tax increase to fund pay raises for teachers, and Jordan’s board of education has stated that a tax increase will be necessary within five years to maintain the district’s changes.

The trend of salary hikes was also aided by a 4 percent boost in state education spending, approved by lawmakers in March.

But McCay said the relative ease with which administrators responded to the rising tide of compensation undercuts perennial requests for state spending on schools. In particular, he said, the summer months suggest ulterior motives for representatives of well-funded districts who speak in opposition to equalization efforts.

“They want the ability to go cannibalize from the minor leagues,” he said. “It is always apparent to me as I hear presentations like this that their primary interest is selfish.”

McCay borrowed the “cannibalized” term from Tooele County School District Superintendent Scott Rogers, who described to committee members the increasingly cutthroat competition for personnel as districts struggle to staff classrooms.

Rogers said there used to be a “gentleman‘s agreement” that interdistrict recruiting would cease after Aug. 1. But this year, Tooele lost two teachers on the day before the school year began, he said, to schools along the Wasatch Front.

“I’ve been told by several other districts that the gloves are off,” Rogers said. 

And Cache County School District Superintendent Steven Norton said his district was only able to offer a $40,000 starting salary thanks to prior equalization efforts, particularly 2015’s SB 97, which raised $75 million for low-funded districts through a statewide tax increase.

“For the last three years I have been able to do things in my district that have never ever been dreamed of or even thought about,” Norton said. “I know what equalized funding can do and we are not where we need to be in this state.”

McCay closed the meeting by reminding his colleagues of the need to maintain a fair and effective education system for the roughly 650,000 public school students in Utah.

“When we allow local lobbying or concern to get in the way of doing what we can for equity,” he said, “it is a problem.”