'We’re asking for respect’: Salt Lake City teachers rally — again — for a pay raise

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teachers from the Salt Lake School District hold a rally at Innovations High School, Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

Chelsie Acosta started by taking attendance.

She asked how many in the crowd taught at an elementary school. How many were brave enough to handle middle school. And who boldly chose to stand in front of the classroom in a high school.

“Now,” she said, "how many of you are on summer break?”

Nearly all of the more than 200 teachers in front of her raised their hands. “But we’re still here and present,” one woman shouted from the back. “We’re used to working overtime,” another added. Everyone around them clapped and whistled and cheered.

The group of educators met at Innovations High School on Tuesday afternoon and rallied outside to demand a pay raise. Inside, the Salt Lake City School Board held its annual year-end planning meeting with the blinds closed over the windows.

It’s the second demonstration in less than a month and comes after Salt Lake City School District announced it had failed to come to a compromise with the local teachers union to increase salaries. There are roughly two months before classes begin again. And if there’s no resolution before then, there could be a strike.

“When we’re asking for a raise, we’re asking for respect,” said Acosta, who teaches eighth grade at Glendale Middle School. “We’re here during our summer break to show Utah that education matters.”

The teachers all wore red T-shirts to show solidarity as a union. They held signs made of construction paper that said, “Cut our funding and we’ll go job hunting.” They chanted: “The new salary schedule isn’t right. This is why we have to fight.” And they aimed to show the district what a walkout might look like.

The stalemate over salary 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.

Negotiations have stalled largely over what percent of an increase to give. The board had initially proposed a 3% bump, which the teachers association rejected. Starting educators in the district now make $45,000. With that hike, they’d be at $46,350.

The association proposed 6%. Even still, they’d be at $47,700 — 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.)

The board then suggested 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% hike, but they also would have significantly different salary schedules that could mean lower pay in the future for those who have been in the classroom the longest.

“Over time, we estimate that teachers would lose $125,000 to $200,000,” said James Tobler, president of the Salt Lake Education Association.

The district will have to bring in a federal mediator to try to work out an agreement. That’s currently scheduled for July 10.

“We wish that we could meet everybody’s demands,” said district spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin after the rally. “It’s a matter of finding the right balance.”

Chatwin added that the last offer from the district included moving funds around to free up $1.4 million to pay for wage increases. But teachers would switch from having seven salary lanes and 13 steps to having one lane and an unlimited number of steps.

That means getting to a higher pay range would take more time and, overall, the hikes would be smaller.

“We teach math,” said Meadowlark Elementary teacher John Arthur. “You think we can’t calculate our current lifetime earnings with those under a new system?”

Kristy Johnson, who teaches at both Bonneville Elementary and Newman Elementary, said she did her homework. Had the district been on that pay scale when she started there 10 years ago, she would have made $78,326 less over that time.

“It’s punitive,” she said. “Don’t hurt our profession. Strengthen it.”

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.

The district employs about 1,300 educators.

“We’re not looking for a minimal raise,” Arthur said. “We’re looking for a meaningful raise.”

Alysia Paradise, who works at Bryant Middle School, has to get a summer job to stay afloat financially. Others noted that they love the profession and don’t want to leave — they just want to be paid fairly.

The district has stated there are restrictions in what it can do with “limited funding.”

Elise Maxwell said when she goes shopping before the school year starts, she fills her grocery cart with 30 of everything: notebooks and binders, packs of Crayola markers, pencils, erasers and, for when those don’t work, bottles of white correction fluid. As she walks through the store with her towering haul, a kid or a parent stops her every time and says, “Thank you.”

“I don’t understand,” said Maxwell, who teaches third grade at Bonneville Elementary. “We’re loved by the individuals but not by the institutions.”

Most of that money spent on supplies, she added, is coming out of her own pocket. Several educators in the crowd nodded and shouted, “Yes, yes!” They asked for state lawmakers to designate more money or for the district to levy a property tax hike to make up the difference.

“Feeling fulfilled in your job doesn’t pay the bills,” Maxwell suggested. “And we’re at an impasse because we had the audacity to ask to be treated like professionals.”

Earlier this month, the city’s teachers had also packed the room during a school board meeting. When it was time for the public 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 in protest.

As part of the brokering, they’re also requesting more personal days for teachers, caps on class sizes and paid parental leave. And, until an agreement is reached, they anticipate holding more rallies — and taking roll call there instead of in the classroom.