'We’re done being disrespected’: Salt Lake City teachers walk out of meeting about salary increases

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teachers walk out of the public comment period at the Salt Lake City School District meeting regarding salary negotiations, June 4, 2019. More teachers are leaving Utah classrooms 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.

Some of their signs were made from used manila folders. A few were written in pencil on pieces of lined paper. One was laminated. Another was covered in gold star stickers.

But nearly all of them had the same message: “6%.”

That’s the raise roughly 200 teachers asked for Tuesday night as they filled every seat in front of the Salt Lake City board of education. They weren’t allowed to speak at the public meeting. So with their signs, they made their opinions known as best they could.

“Teachers are doing more than ever before,” Chelsie Acosta, a teacher at Glendale Middle School, said afterward. “And we’re done. We’re done being disrespected as far as finances go. This is our silent protest."

The room was crammed full with many educators standing in the back and along the sides. They all wore red T-shirts to show solidarity as a teacher union. And when it was time for the comment period — where “complaints concerning bidding or contracts” cannot, by Salt Lake City School District policy, be openly discussed until salary negotiations have finished — they all walked out.

“Now there’s nobody in that room. It’s empty,” said Mike Harman, vice president of the Salt Lake Education Association, which has been trying to broker salaries with the district for two months and is now threatening a possible strike. “We want to show them that the whole system is dependent on teachers.”

The walkout comes as other districts across the state have announced big hikes to teacher pay — including $50,000 for an annual salary for starting educators in neighboring Canyons and Murray school district — in the so-called “bidding wars” to attract the best. Salt Lake City is one of the few that hasn’t yet made a deal.

Initially, school board members suggested a 3% raise. The local education association that represents teachers refused to accept. It’s largely been at a stalemate since.

Starting teachers in the district make $45,000. With the 6% bump, they’d be at $47,700 — still behind most others in Salt Lake County.

Brett Markum, a resource language arts teacher at East High School, carried a sign that said, “3%? That’s an insult not a raise.” He’s been with the district for 18 years and said it’s frustrating not to see a match so educators are paid comparable to their colleagues across the Salt Lake Valley.

“We’d like more,” he said. “We feel like we deserve better.”

The continuation of the 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.

Salt Lake City School District employs roughly 1,300 educators. The district and the board declined to comment, saying they keeps salary negotiations confidential until they are agreed upon. During the public meeting, board President Tiffany Sandberg said only that the comment period couldn’t be used to talk about contracts.

“Unless the speaker’s topic is on the agenda tonight, we will not be hearing about it,” she said. What was included as 3% increases for other district employees, including administrators and transportation workers.

As teachers left 30 minutes in, Sandberg added, “We’ll wait until the room clears out.”

A few of the educators who came held hands with their children or rocked babies to sleep. It was the night before the last day of school for the 2018-2019 year.

Jon Olschewski cradled his 1-year-old daughter while wearing a red T-shirt for his school East High; she had on a onesie with a red apple. Olschewski has taught auto shop there for three years and noted how most teachers leave the profession in the first five.

“I could be one of them,” he said. “I’ve got a young family. And I need more money. We’re looking at houses in Weber County right now; that’s a long drive to get here.”

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.

Harman, who is also the district’s homeless education liaison, wrote “6%” on the back of last year’s salary agreement when Salt Lake City School District was among the top in the state. At that point, he said, they were able to recruit and retain the best in the field. Now, he’s not sure what will happen. Acosta is particularly worried about losing talented teachers of color.

James Tobler, president of the education association, said the union is asking for between a 5% and 6% raise from the board — which he expects can be done without requiring a property tax increase. But he’s also considering a wager with the school board to match Canyons School District’s $50,000 starting salary.

As part of the negotiation, the education association is additionally requesting more personal days for teachers, caps on class sizes and paid parental leave.

“Those haven’t got a lot of traction,” said Tobler, who teaches at Highland High School. “But the sticking point has been salary increases. We want our teachers putting their energy into their classes and helping their students instead of worrying about that next mortgage payment.”

A few at the meeting Tuesday said a 3% increase isn’t enough to keep up with inflation or rising housing costs. Some of the signs said “3% is NOT enough to live.”

Kellie May, who is currently Utah’s teacher of the year and works for Salt Lake City School District, said: “Us showing up says it’s important and we want to be seen.”

“We do it because we love kids,” added O’Lynn Elliott, an educator at Open Classroom, a charter in the district, “but it doesn’t mean we don’t want to be paid fairly.”

Many teachers, she said, stay late after school to help students and often grade papers from home. A lot of teachers also spend their own money on classroom supplies. She made her “6%” sign on a piece of red construction paper that she had to buy.