Are Utah teachers getting ‘poached’ by wealthier school districts?

Amid statewide educator shortage, Tooele school superintendent says his district is a victim of teacher “shopping” by administrators from other Wasatch Front areas.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) As Utah's shortage of teachers worsens, some school officials report a rising trend of intra-district competition to hire and retain educators.

Scott Rogers says at first that he’d prefer not to elaborate on stories of teachers leaving Tooele School District for other jobs along the Wasatch Front — but get the superintendent talking and some details emerge.

He might tell you about two employees who left the district the day before classes started this fall. Or Rogers could mention the teacher who, in mid-April, bade goodbye to students on a Thursday and reported to work in a Salt Lake County classroom the following Monday.

His anecdotes reflect growing frustrations with maintaining fully-staffed schools in an atmosphere of unfair play. A traditional hands-off etiquette in place between school administrators for years, Rogers said, is giving way to the combined pressures of a worsening statewide teacher shortage and funding disparities among districts throughout Utah.

“A 7-Eleven clerk gives more notice than two days,” he said in an interview. “We’re all just trying to do the best we can to fill classrooms with qualified teachers. I appreciate that, but I don’t understand the rules any more — even if there are rules.”

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) An ACT preparation class at Granger High School with over 40 students. While forcing schools to pack classrooms in some cases, Utah's teacher shortage is also increasing competition among school districts as they try to recruit new staff.

Last month, Rogers told state lawmakers on Capitol Hill that Utah’s school districts “cannibalize” each other and that “the gloves are off” when it comes to intradistrict recruiting. He said job postings had been sent to his district’s faculty email list and — while he declined to name names — claimed that recruiters from Salt Lake County were actively reaching out to teachers in Tooele County.

His comments raised eyebrows, and Rogers says he has since received pushback from fellow administrators for being overly inflammatory.

“People seem to take offense at the fact that I used the word ‘cannibalism,’ but it sure feels like that,” Rogers said. “Everybody loses to some kind of poaching sometimes. It’s just that I’ve never seen it a day or two before school, or during school. I’ve never seen that in my career.”

“If we shop [for teachers], we should be shopping during off-season times.” — Tooele School Superintendent Scott Rogers

Administrators in other districts counter that educator mobility is a function of simple market forces, not some kind of intentional theft of employees. When a teacher learns of job openings in another district, they say, that teacher is free to pursue those opportunities.

“If they come to us, we’ll interview them and we’ll consider them,” said Stephen Dimond, human resources director for Canyons School District. “But I’m not going to go into a school and try and pull somebody out.”

The Tooele superintendent said he has no problem with teachers pursuing better opportunities or school districts recruiting with more competitive pay and benefits. But those moves should be made during the summer months, Rogers said, instead of leaving students without a teacher.

“If we shop,” Rogers said, “we should be shopping during off-season times.”

Supply and demand

Utah’s teacher shortage has been getting worse for years, with fewer entering the profession as student enrollment in the state continues to rise. Roughly half of all public-school teachers now leave for other industries within five years.

Experts variously cite low pay and a growing set of professional burdens such as excessive testing and legal mandates in the classroom — along with the fact that Utah ranks last in the nation for state spending per student.

Today, the key to adequate school staffing is holding on to teachers already on the payroll, according to Logan Hall, education evaluation supervisor for the Salt Lake City School District. That means competitive salaries and benefits, he said, and opportunities for career advancement.

“With regard to recruiting,” Hall said, “the most important thing we do is try to treat our current teachers right.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Students in a reading comprehension class at Lincoln Elementary in Salt Lake City. Administrators report an increasing trend of teachers being lured away by higher pay and better benefits.

Last summer saw a rush of Utah school boards approving significant teacher pay raises, in what came to be known as the “salary wars.” Salt Lake City School District bumped its starting pay to more than $43,000, while first-year teachers in Canyons School District will now earn more than $40,000.

Meanwhile Tooele School District, a short drive from Salt Lake County, strained to offer $37,000 to its first-year educators, Rogers said.

“We want to go to 40 [thousand dollars],” Roger said. “We just don’t have the property tax valuation to bring that kind of revenue in.”

Some districts are planning to raise taxes in the near future to sustain salary increases, while others were able to dip into cash reserves. Rogers said Tooele’s reserves are comparably small and raiding that account could jeopardize the district’s credit standing.

“You want to keep your bond rating high,” Rogers said, “and one of the components of a bond rating is whether you have enough reserves.”

Rogers said he’s glad to see salaries increasing around the state for educators. They deserve it, he said, and he wishes his district were able to offer more.

Changing dynamics

Whether they’re “poached” or simply choose to work elsewhere, teachers leaving their district in the lurch are not unique to Tooele County. Hall said Salt Lake City School District sees roughly 10 educators each year who quit during their contract period to work elsewhere.

“We’ve had people leave at the last minute’s notice,” he said, “or even after the school year has started.”

And districts do actively go after job candidates, said Dimond, who added that he now takes more out-of-state recruiting trips, attends more job fairs and works with more universities than before. But those efforts, he said, are focused on finding people who are actively looking for a job.

“I think all of us are out there beating the bushes trying to recruit,” Dimond said.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Logan Hall, left, Salt Lake School Distirct Peer Assistance Review supervisor, meets with one of the program's mentor teachers Pat Draper at Bachman Elementary in Salt Lake City — part of a teacher mentoring program meant to help districts retain educators amid a statewide teacher shortage.

Dimond said online services cater to would-be and current teachers, sending them email alerts about job openings in their area. But he said neither Canyons nor any district that he is aware of actively pushes its job postings to another district’s faculty.

“Heavens no,” Dimond said. “We’re all professionals.’’

Added Hall: “Our main goal is just to treat teachers as professionals and let them be in charge of their career path. We’re dealing with highly-educated professionals who ought to be able to be in control of their professional destiny.”

That said, it’s also common for school districts to fine teachers who break their contracts, including in Salt Lake City where that penalty is $500, Hall said. Tooele School District teachers who seek greener pastures mid-year get hit with a $1,500 charge.

Canyons’ breach-of-contract fee is $750, and Dimond said the district imposes the fine three or four times a school year.

Unequal footing

Hiring tactics aside, the biggest factor fueling teacher mobility, according to Rogers, is property tax inequity among school districts.

Under the state’s system, public schools receive state funding based on a uniform per-student rate, but district budgets are supplemented by local taxes levied by individual school boards. Some districts have booming economic centers and large swaths of valuable property to tax, Rogers said, while others span small, rural communities and vast acreages of tax-exempt public lands.

“There are some definite winners in the state who have additional money to do this,” he said. “And there are districts that are property-tax poor, that don’t have market value.”

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Utah state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, said he will introduce a new plan for equalizing funding among school districts when the 2018 Utah Legislature convenes in January. Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, speaks from the Senate Chamber floor at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Monday February 6, 2017.

An attempt at equalizing finances among school districts statewide will be introduced when the Utah Legislature convenes in January, according to Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, who has sponsored equalization bills the past two years.

“Like most problems, it’s something you have to tackle a bite at a time.” — Utah Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan.

Fillmore’s latest proposal calls for adding $20 million each year to an equity program that would, in effect, creating a minimum funding level for districts that rises incrementally. Roughly another $20 million would be generated annually by freezing the state’s basic property tax rate, which currently floats down as property values increase to remain revenue-neutral.

Those and other changes, Fillmore said, would place all but one of Utah’s school districts on a level economic playing field over the span of 13 years.

“We’re never going to touch Park City [School District],” said Fillmore, referring to Utah’s wealthiest district.

The 13-year timeline is more gradual than Fillmore’s previous equalization proposals. But it also lessens the impact on the state’s overall education budget, which all districts depend on to cover inflation-related costs.

“I don’t know how to come up with $580 million tomorrow,” the lawmaker said. “Like most problems, it’s something you have to tackle a bite at a time.”

Fillmore’s plan would also establish a uniform property tax cap for all school districts, allowing several district to raise taxes if they choose, and add $25 million over five years to school transportation funding — often an urgent need in high-growth districts and those in rural areas.

Critics of equalization efforts often point to Utah’s ranking as the lowest-funded education system in the U.S. on a per-student basis, arguing that an overall increase in school funding is a higher priority than further dividing a small pool of resources.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Students and staff at lunch at Park Valley School, a small rural school in Box Elder School District. Such districts are often at a funding disadvantage compared to schools In Utah with more valuable property tax bases.

By freezing the basic rate to generate revenue, Fillmore’s new bill hints at a potential compromise with his detractors. And the lawmaker notes that districts would still need to enact their own property tax hikes in order to get the maximum benefit from equalization.

“We’re going to help them out if they choose to put their own skin in the game,” Fillmore said.

Wealthier districts might wait several years before they see gains from Fillmore’s equity bill, he said, but those same districts have long enjoyed higher tax yields and spending power relative to their counterparts.

“This isn’t question of creating winners and losers — those already exist,” Fillmore said. “It will help those that have been losers for decades.”