Jordan School District announced Wednesday that it plans to increase its annual salary for starting educators to $48,000 — which comes as the latest countermove in a race to raise teacher pay.

That initial hike still leaves it behind nearby Canyons School District. But the package would include a $4.5 million grant pool that teachers could apply to for bonuses, said Bryce Dunford, president of Jordan’s board of education.

“Our framework is different than anyone else’s,” he said. “We’re rewarding excellence. We’re rewarding innovation. We’re rewarding those who go above and beyond.”

The teachers who win the grant money get to keep it; it’s not intended to be used on their students. But there was serious pushback to the idea when it was presented to educators Wednesday.

“It seems like you’re just having teachers jump through more hoops,” said Cindy McDowell, a 5th grade teacher at Southland Elementary. “We’re having to prove our worth.”

Others in the audience joined in. “How much more can you push teachers to be better?” said one. “I’m already working until 8 or 9 each night," added another, to a chorus of people shouting, “Amen.”

Jordan District has already started its grant pool — with the inaugural awards last year. Then, it had $3 million that it spread among 1,000 teachers (with a cap at $3,000). This year, it will have $4.5 million and hopes to reach more (with a higher maximum at $5,000).

Overall, the district has 2,926 teachers.

“We’re trying to find a system that works,” Dunford responded to the criticism. “It’s not fully baked. We’re going to get better.”

In addition to that money, the overall pay bump will be a roughly $5,200 increase for starting teachers (up from $42,800 annually) and about $6,075 more for veteran educators. Those increases are part of a tentative agreement between the school board and the local teachers association.

They would be funded, in part, by raising property taxes — which Dunford said the district will survey residents about before it moves forward (though school districts can do so unilaterally). The increases would amount to an extra $72 per year for the average household in the district, which spans the western part of Salt Lake County mostly through Herriman and Riverton.

“We’re going to ask people how they feel about it,” he added. “But this gets us within striking distance of Canyons.”

If the school board doesn’t approve the tax hike, the district would still increase salaries by roughly $2,000.

The continuation of the so-called “salary wars” comes amid statewide challenges in hiring teachers. And it’s the third year that the biggest districts in Utah have attempted to outbid one another by offering the highest pay to attract and retain the best educators.

Jordan School District raised its teacher pay first in 2017 and started the domino effect.

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

Canyons announced last month that it would boost its starting pay for incoming teachers to $50,000, also through a property tax bump. A few days later, Granite School District proposed an annual salary of $43,500 that comes with access to a new health care center where coverage for staff is free.

With its approved increase, Murray School District will sit at $50,000. Salt Lake City’s board voted to support a bump for its paraprofessionals to $15 an hour — but remains at roughly $45,000 for regular teacher salaries. Park City, which will not approve a hike this year, still remains the highest in the state at $50,700.

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

With its proposal, Jordan School District has now edged up to fourth in Utah for educator compensation.

While the negotiations have wrapped up, the hike will have to be approved at the next board meeting and would start in the fall. The district also will have to hold a public hearing. District leaders asked teachers to support the proposal there — but with the grants, many said they’re not willing to.

One teacher said someone at his school applied for the grant but was denied. Dunford responded: “Don’t give up. Keep going.” Many in the audience of about 50 laughed.

The grants are only available for those who have been with Jordan for at least three years. The idea is to reward those who have innovative ideas for improving the classroom, Dunford said, such as adding hybrid coursework that’s online, working with other educators to complete projects or “anything that would make a teacher better and increase learning."

He added: “We’re trying to push excellent teaching. We don’t want to reward the guy who’s sitting there doing the minimum.”

But some in the crowd said new teachers need support or they will leave the field. And starting teachers in Canyons, they added, get more from the beginning.

“What’s to keep me from going over there?” one Jordan educator asked.

“You’ll learn more in this district,” Dunford responded. He was drowned out by boos and shouts of “No.”

Amber Jones Hutchings, also a teacher at Southland Elementary in Riverton, said she got one of the grants last year for $3,000. She’s been in the district for eight years and liked getting paid for the extra work she was doing — which included putting together the annual Christmas program, teaching a Chinese immersion group and directing the end-of-year play.

But the application for the grant took hours, she said, not 10 minutes as Dunford noted.

“Now I’ve burned myself out,” Jones Hutchings added. “And I’m quitting Chinese immersion."

She said she constantly works late and feels like she’s not doing enough. Jones Hutchings worries “there’s already so many expectations” — and the grant program adds more. She’s “feeling the waters” for other jobs, in part, because of it.

McDowell, her colleague, has been teaching for 26 years and called the grants “ridiculous.” She responded: “I think it’s crap.”

Two art teachers from Copper Hills High School, who asked not to be named for fear of being disciplined for their opinions, said they understand the frustration. One drives 62 miles to come to work because she loves the district. But both said the grants are asking for extra work for the pay teachers already deserve.

“I work after school all the time. That’s the only way I can get things done,” one said.

“But any raise is a good raise,” noted the other.

During the second of the two meetings with teachers Wednesday night, Dunford slightly changed his wording based on the earlier disagreement.

“This board stands behind incentive pay,” he said. “We pray that you won’t see this as hoops you have to jump through.”

According to a recent survey by Envision Utah, more teachers are leaving Utah classrooms than ever before and one of the biggest reasons they cite is low pay. The state now has a shortage of 1,600 educators with the imbalance expected to get worse.

Currently, the average annual median salary for a public school teacher is about $54,000, Envision Utah found, which includes those who have been in the classroom for years. That’s nearly $6,000 below what is considered a living wage in the state.