Will there be a teacher strike in Utah?

(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 on 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.

Two days after nearly 200 teachers held a silent protest at a board of education meeting and threatened to strike, Salt Lake City School District announced it has failed to come to a compromise with the union to raise salaries.

“The negotiation process has now reached an impasse, and further action is pending,” it announced in a statement Thursday. District Superintendent Lexi Cunningham added: There are restrictions in “what we can do due to limited funding.”

The stalemate comes as districts across the state — but particularly along the Wasatch Front — have engaged in a bidding war to attract the best teachers. Salt Lake City has in the past ranked among the top for pay. Without a raise, it will be at the bottom.

“We want people to come here and stay,” said James Tobler, president of the Salt Lake Education Association, which has been negotiating with the district’s school board members for more than two months over salary. “But [what the district is] proposing would really hurt teachers. It would hurt their lifetime earnings.”

The district will likely have to bring in a federal mediator to try to work out an agreement. If the two parties cannot come to one, there could be a strike. Wednesday marked the last day for traditional schools for the 2018-2019 school year; there are roughly two months before classes begin again.

Tobler added: “At this time, we’re optimistic that we can figure this out by then.” A strike, he said, is possible but talk of it is "premature.”

There has never been a large-scale teacher strike in Utah, though there have been in neighboring states.

On Tuesday, the city’s teachers had packed the room during a board meeting with many standing in the back and along the sides. They all wore red T-shirts to show solidarity as a union. And when it was time for the comment period — when “complaints concerning bidding or contracts” are not allowed to be openly discussed, by Salt Lake City School District policy, until salary negotiations have finished — they all walked out.

They had asked for a 6% raise and many waved signs with the figure.

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

The board had initially proposed a 3% bump — which the teachers association rejected. Starting educators in the district now make $45,000. With the 3% bump, they’d be at $46,350.

Even at 6%, they’d be at $47,700 — still behind most others in Salt Lake County.

Canyons and Murray school districts have both announced bumps to $50,000. Neighboring Jordan School District has agreed to $48,000.

Tobler said the association was willing to settle for 5%, but the district declined.

On Thursday, during a negotiation meeting, Salt Lake City’s board proposed moving starting teachers to $50,100 — which would have given them the highest pay in the county and second highest in the state. All other teachers would have seen at least a 6% bump, but they also would change salary schedules in a way that could mean lower pay in the future for those who have been in the classroom the longest.

Over a 30-year career, Tobler believes, that would mean a loss $125,000 in earnings.

“It’s a good deal for one year,” Tobler said. “But after that, the increments are much slower.” He did not want to see changes to the schedules.

Chelsie Acosta, who teaches at Glendale Middle School, believes the association was right to reject the offer.

“The proposed salary schedule would financially harm our teachers exponentially over time,” she said. “[The association] stands in solidarity as a collective of professionals passionately and diligently serving our communities.”

The proposed deal also included more flexibility for teachers taking sick leave — which the association had asked for. But it wasn’t enough, Tobler said. He blamed the district for failing "to provide adequate resources to ensure the recruitment and retention.”

Cunningham, the superintendent, wrote in response to the impasse: “We acknowledge the crucial role our educators make every day in the lives of our students, in our district, and in our schools. Throughout the salary negotiation process, we’ve done our best to show our teachers that we value their contributions and, as a district, we are always looking for ways to better reflect that in our salary negotiations.”

The walkout Tuesday was a rare move — and shows the seriousness of the salary issue, which is also creating challenges statewide in teacher hiring.

According to a recent survey by Envision Utah, more educators 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 teachers with the imbalance expected to get worse.

Jon Olschewski, who attended the silent protest with his 1-year-old daughter, has taught auto shop at East High School 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.”

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.”

The district employs about 1,300 educators. The association is asking them to show up for another walkout on June 18 at the next school board meeting.