Salt Lake City teachers, who threatened to strike, will get raises under tentative deal

(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.

Two months after salary negotiations stalled and hundreds of teachers threatened to strike if they didn’t get a raise, Salt Lake City School District struck a tentative agreement that would increase the annual pay for its starting educators to $46,845.

That bump — at 4.1% — is lower than teachers had asked for, lower than the increases at surrounding districts in the county and lower than what the Salt Lake district had approved just two years ago when it was among the highest paying in the state.

“I don’t know that either side is real happy with it," said James Tobler, president of the local teachers union. "But it’s a way to move forward.”

The district had to bring in a federal mediator this summer in an attempt to help broker a deal with the union. And the announcement — reached a month ago but kept secret — comes out now, less than two weeks before school starts.

It’s not final just yet. Members of the Salt Lake Education Association will have a chance to vote on the proposal later this month, Tobler said. If they turn it down, the process starts over.

If they accept it, their first paycheck with the salary increase will arrive Sept. 15.

“It took hard work and compromise from all sides to reach this deal," said district Superintendent Lexi Cunningham in an email statement. "I sincerely hope all of our teachers recognize how much the board of education values them and the enormous efforts that went into reaching this agreement.”

The tense negotiations in the Salt Lake City School District come amid statewide difficulties in hiring and retaining teachers — and pay has become the bargaining chip for districts to attract the best in the field. A round of “salary wars” kicked off in April, when Canyons School District announced it would raise its annual salary for starting teachers to $50,000.

Murray School District matched that. Jordan School District settled on $48,000 but promised additional teacher bonuses. Granite School District ended at $43,500 while boasting no tax hikes and a new health care center where teachers are treated for free. Park City School District didn’t have an increase this year, though it remains the highest in Utah at $50,700.

This is the third consecutive year that Utah districts have attempted to outbid one another. Salt Lake City had been the last to come to a deal and now falls near the bottom of the pack for pay among the big districts.

“We’ve pretty much exhausted the negotiation process,” Tobler said.

The deal will raise all teacher salaries by at least $1,845 annually. As part of it, the union also requested more personal days, which were doubled from two to four (in exchange for sick days). And they asked for some extra compensation if educators used their prep time to fill in as a substitute for another teacher; that was also granted as part of the agreement.

Their requests, though, for class size caps and paid parental leave were not.

Initially, the district’s school board members had suggested a 3% raise. The stalemate started when the education association refused to accept that.

Teachers held their first protest in June, walking out of a board meeting on the night before the last day of school with signs that said “6%” — indicating the raise they wanted. They rallied again a few weeks later outside a district meeting, chanting: “Cut our funding, and we’ll go job hunting.”

Before the now proposed raise, starting educators in the district made $45,000. With the 3% bump the district suggested, they would have been at $46,350. With the 6% bump the teachers supported, they’d be at $47,700.

The compromise was a 4.1% increase, and it is contingent upon the district’s education board approving it at its meeting Sept. 3.

The board had suggested other plans, too — including moving starting teachers to $50,100 — but it would have meant a new salary schedule that would have hurt the earnings of veteran educators in the long run to make up the difference. Getting to a higher pay range would have taken more time and, overall, the individual hikes would have been smaller.

“We teach math,” said one teacher at the second demonstration. “You think we can’t calculate our current lifetime earnings with those under a new system?”

Another held a sign that said: “3%? That’s an insult, not a raise.”

Cunningham, the superintendent, had responded that there were restrictions in “what we can do due to limited funding.” The protests were rare in Utah, though, which has never seen a large-scale teacher strike like those in neighboring states.

More teachers are leaving classrooms here than ever before, and one of the biggest reasons they cite is low pay, according to a recent survey by Envision Utah. The state now has a shortage of 1,600 educators with the imbalance expected to grow worse as student population expands.

Salt Lake City School District employs roughly 1,300 educators.

The Utah Education Association, the largest teacher union in the state, has encouraged districts to raise salaries to “stop the bleeding” of talented educators leaving the profession. President Heidi Matthews has said: “It’s the critical first step that we need to be taking.”