How much should Utah teachers be paid? A new report has a suggestion — but it would cost $530 million.

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

A group of prominent Utah educators and politicians believe that they’ve determined the exact starting salary that would keep teachers in the classroom and entice more to join them.

The magic number: $60,000 a year. The next problem: how to fund it.

That salary recommendation — which came Wednesday from an Envision Utah committee focused on the issue — is $10,000 more than even the highest-paying Utah school district is offering. It’s nearly double the lowest paying. And to move all teachers up, it would cost roughly $530 million in extra funding annually.

“That’s what it would really take,” said Robert Grow, CEO of the organization. “Now we just have to decide if it’s worth it.”

The first-of-its-kind report is meant to address the severe teacher shortage in a state where more educators are leaving the field while the number of students in classrooms continues to grow, creating an outsized gap that Gov. Gary Herbert last year called “dire.” It has only gotten worse since then.

So the nonprofit organization formed a 25-member task force in April to study the issue and recommend how to solve it, with increasing pay as the necessary first step.

“It’s not even a livable wage in so many of our communities,” said Aaryn Birchell, an English teacher at Uintah High School in Vernal who was named Utah’s 2018 Teacher of the Year and served on the Envision Utah committee. “We’re not asking to be paid as much as civil engineers, but we’re asking to be paid enough to not have a second job. It’s exhausting.”

Birchell said the final recommendation of $60,000 for those starting in the career — as well as a pay scale that would allow veteran educators to earn up to $110,000 — was not “just a number that’s been randomly thrown out there.”

The salary determination was based on surveys with college students considering going into teaching and those who have left the field early; it was the lowest salary most respondents said they would consider. It’s also only $6 more than the living wage in Utah for a family of five, which is $59,994.

About six years ago, Birchell said, she considered leaving teaching due to stress and burnout. She wondered if she could continue for the next 20 years without more compensation.

She’s happy that she decided to push through. But she’s seen others make a different decision, and she doesn’t blame them. In just her team of three sophomore English teachers at Uintah High, an educator has left and a new one has switched in every year since Birchell started there 11 years ago.

Birchell believes increasing pay can “start making the profession one that’s desirable and able to attract the best and the brightest” while stemming the flow of those leaving.

Currently, there is a shortage of roughly 1,600 teachers in the state. And each year, as the student population grows, another 500 educators are needed here, Envision Utah found.

Amid statewide difficulties in hiring and retaining teachers, pay has become the bargaining chip for districts. 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 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.

Increasing all starting teachers to $60,000 salaries would stop some of that uneven competition, so that not only the wealthy districts can afford to have more educators, said Jason Brown, spokesman for Envision Utah. And, he hopes, it would attract more new educators to the classroom overall so there’s enough to go around.

“We’ve got to stabilize our teaching profession,” he said. “We’ve got to get people in the door and keep them there. Right now, we’re bleeding teachers.”

The group’s plan would also incorporate various retirements plans into the pay scale. It’s essential in addressing the shortage, said Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews.

Currently, there are 31,000 teachers in the state. As part of the annual education budget, $3.2 billion is spent on instruction, most going to their salaries, according to a statewide breakdown of spending by the State Auditor’s Office. The Envision Utah plan, though, would require at least an additional $500 million to cover the raises. That’s the hitch.

It’s not likely that the state Legislature would cover that. And it’s unclear how the money would be raised otherwise.

“One of the things that’s definitely absent in the report is how we’re going to pay for it,” Matthews said.

An effort to infuse more dollars into education by increasing the gas tax failed on the ballot last year. And Utah has long ranked last in the nation for per-pupil spending.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who worked on the report and sits on the Senate Education Committee, said he appreciates the work teachers do. But, he added, “most years, we do not have that kind of increase in the state budget.”

He doesn’t think the Legislature would allocate the necessary dollars. Individual school districts can raise property taxes to cover it, but those increases would likely be significant for residents.

“There are a lot of ways of moving to that point, but I don’t think it’s a one-time, quick fix,” Stevenson said. “It’s a tough deal.”

Grow, the CEO of Envision Utah, acknowledged the funding solution is “very complex,” and he’s not sure how the dream would become a reality just yet. Matthews added that she hopes an answer might come as the Legislature debates a new tax structure that could change how public education is funded. So far, that also doesn’t look good.

In the last legislative hearing on tax reform, one representative said it’s time to come clean to constituents about the state’s desire to eliminate the earmark that all income tax revenue be spent on education, allowing lawmakers to divert some of it to other areas.

“We have a mass exodus of teachers that’s pretty concerning,” Matthews said. “Salary really rises to the forefront of what’s essential to do right now.”

In addition to the pay raises, the Envision Utah report also recommends creating more scholarships for those who want to study teaching in college and providing more support for teachers once they’re in the classroom. It suggests, too, decreasing class sizes, which have long been a problem in Utah.

None of those proposals will matter, though, the group argues, if teachers aren’t paid enough to begin with.