Salt Lake City teachers vote to accept salary increase

(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.

After a tense summer of salary negotiations, members of the Salt Lake City teachers union voted this week to accept a tentative agreement with the school district to raise annual pay for all its educators by 4.1%.

The bump was lower than what teachers had asked for and smaller than increases in surrounding districts in the county. But many saw it as a way to move forward after threats of a strike.

“People are back in school and things are moving and teachers are just ready to get back to concentrating on teaching their lessons,” said James Tobler, president of the Salt Lake Education Association, which helped broker the compromise.

After talks stalled in June, Salt Lake City School District brought in a federal mediator to help it come to an agreement with the union on pay raises. The two groups announced the deal earlier this month. Final approval is now contingent on a vote by the district’s board of education, which is scheduled for Sept. 3.

The agreement would increase the annual pay for starting educators to $46,845 while bumping all teachers up at least $1,845.

“We bargain again starting in March,” Tobler added. “We’re taking a longterm vision here and realize we have a lot of work to do.”

Jason Olsen, the district’s spokesman, added Thursday: "We are thankful to our teachers for their ratifying vote. We appreciate the essential role they play in educating the children of Salt Lake City, and we are grateful for their commitment to work together in providing excellence and equity for every student in every classroom every day.”

Teachers’ first paychecks with the salary increase will arrive Sept. 15, if approved — and it’s expected it will be.

This is the third consecutive year that Utah districts have attempted to outbid one another in the so-called teacher “salary wars.” 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. Just two years ago, it was among the highest paying in the state.

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 raise proposed now, 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 disagreement over the percentage came in the midst of continuing statewide difficulties in hiring and retaining teachers — where pay has become the bargaining chip for districts to attract the best in the field. An arms race 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.

The Salt Lake City board had suggested moving starting teachers to $50,100 at one point during the discussions. But it would have meant a new salary schedule dropping 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.

As part of the resulting agreement, the local union also requested more personal days, which were doubled from two to four (in exchange for sick days). And they asked for extra compensation if educators used their prep time to fill in as a substitute for another teacher; that was also granted.

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 teachers.