Salt Lake City teachers and staff rally for better pay as the district faces cuts

District employees say that covering for unfilled positions is leading them to burnout.

(Connor Sanders l The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters hold signs asking for more pay for teachers and staff during a Salt Lake City School District board meeting on May 3, 2022.

Teachers, bus drivers, custodians and nutrition workers rallied for better wages and more support staff on the steps of the Salt Lake City School District offices ahead of a board meeting Tuesday.

Dressed in red, more than 100 protesters held signs reading “Recruit and retain” and chanting “More than praise, we need a raise.” They then attended the meeting to voice their concerns to the board during the public comment session.

They told board members that custodians have donned hair nets to cover for nutrition workers and lab coats to administer COVID-19 tests. Teachers talked about losing their prep time to cover for other classes. District mechanics are driving school buses to fill in vacancies, and some students are arriving to school late because their bus driver has to cover for a second route.

The stress caused by the more than 200 unfilled positions in the district is causing employees to burn out, said James Tobler, president of the Salt Lake Education Association.

Wages have not kept up with inflation, Tobler said, and many employees struggle to pay their bills. One kitchen manager at West High School said 50% of kitchen managers in the district have taken a second job to make ends meet.

“Salt Lake City School District salaries used to be some of the best in the state,” Tobler told the crowd. “... I think we can do better.”

The Salt Lake Education Association, which organized the protest, is asking the board for a 6% increase for salaried employees for the 2022-23 school year and a 25% increase for hourly employees by 2025. The district should also convert employees who work 29.5 hours per week — and don’t qualify for benefits — into full-time staff, Tobler said.

“All of us out here are being asked to do much more than we are able to handle,” said Becky Bissegger, a kindergarten teacher who serves on the association’s board. “More and more people are leaving the profession. We need help. We need support.”

(Connor Sanders l The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters hold signs asking for more pay for teachers and staff during a Salt Lake City School District board meeting on May, 3, 2022.

Salt Lake City School District is currently in the negotiation period with the association. Negotiations should be completed before the end of June, said district spokesperson Yándary Chatwin.

Each group of employees, including teachers, nutrition staff, bus drivers, and support staff, will negotiate wages with a committee made up of district board members, the superintendent and the district business administrator before the next school year.

“More must be done to attract and retain,” Bissegger said. “We need to be shown that we are appreciated. Words of praise are nice, but they don’t pay the bills. It is common knowledge that there is available money in Salt Lake City school district. We need salaries that allow us to provide for ourselves and our families.”

At the same time, though, the district is overstaffed with educators based on enrollment. As the student population dwindles, the board was told it needed to shave the equivalent of 76.5 full-time teaching positions to stay in line with its staffing formula. The school board instead approved a plan on Feb. 1 to soften that cut to 42 positions for the 2022-23 school year to avoid laying teachers off.

The funding for raises and additional hires comes from a variety of sources, Chatwin said, depending on the school and job. But money for hiring most support staff comes separately from money used to hire and give raises to teachers, she noted.

It’s unclear if the district will be able to hire staff to alleviate concerns from teachers and staff who say they are overworked covering other shifts.

(Connor Sanders l The Salt Lake Tribune) President of the Salt Education Association James Tolber (left) and vice president Mike Harman (right) lead the crowd of protesters in a chant ahead of a Salt Lake City School District board meeting on May, 3, 2022.

This also isn’t the first time members of the Salt Lake Education Association have protested for more money and more staffing.

In 2019, teachers and other employees threatened to strike over a similar request for a 6% raise then. Negotiations stalled for months, with federal mediators eventually getting involved, until the district and association agreed on a 4.1% bump.

Salt Lake City School District used to be among the highest paying districts in the state, but in recent years — as salary wars have been waged across the state — they have slipped. The starting pay for new teachers is roughly $47,000 annually now.

On Tuesday night, the protesters echoed those from three years ago. They sang “Solidarity forever, for the union makes them strong” to the melody of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as they left the meeting.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.