FILE - The Tooele School District started the school year with 13 substitute teachers because it has been unable to fill teaching vacancies after neighboring school districts raised starting teacher pay at $40,000 and above and it could not compete.
Adobe Stock

SALT LAKE CITY — The Tooele School District started the school year with 13 substitute teachers because it has been unable to fill teaching vacancies after neighboring school districts raised starting teacher pay to $40,000 a year and above.

Some 15 percent of Tooele District teachers have alternative forms of teacher certification because the school district, which dug into its reserves to raise starting teacher pay by $4,000 to $37,000 a year, could not compete for teachers who have been lured to higher-paying school districts.

Forty-two educators left for better pay elsewhere, and four left midyear while under contract, Tooele School District Superintendent Scott Rogers told the Utah Legislature's Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday.

"It sounds and feels a lot to me like a form of cannibalism. We're so competitive with salaries trying to get there, and we can't get to the $40,000 rate, but we're having other districts actually email our staff, our whole staff list, and saying, 'We pay better than your district. Why don't you come to our district?'" Rogers said.

As soon as Jordan School District announced it had raised its starting salary to $40,000, he said, "we started losing teachers, not just to the Jordan District. That started as early as April of that school year."

After Jordan announced early that its starting salaries would crack the $40,000 mark, others dug into "couch cushions" to pay that and more, said Matthew Young, a member the Jordan School District Board of Education.

Most school districts along the Wasatch Front offered at least $40,000 to starting teachers, with the highest starting salary offered by Park City School District at $50,000 a year.

While the Utah Legislature in 2017 appropriated a 4 percent increase to the value of the weighted pupil unit, the basic building block of state education funding primarily used for salaries and benefits, Tooele School District's local tax base is lacking, Rogers said.

Its assessed valuation per student is well below the state average and among the lowest in the state, he said.

Yet, its proximity to the Wasatch Front means it is vulnerable to school districts with the ability to generate more local revenue to recruit its veteran educators.

Rogers understands why teachers would seek better circumstances but said he is troubled that teachers under contract would break their commitments. He has referred a handful of such cases to state licensing authorities because he believes it constitutes an ethical breach to violate the terms of their contracts.

Worse yet, he said, teachers he has informed will face financial penalties for breach of contract have told him that their new employers will pay the fines on their behalf. Rogers said he has not confirmed whether that has happened.

"What a contract means in Utah for teachers, I really have a question because they don't seem to be honored," he said.

In the past, there was a "gentlemen's agreement" that school districts would not attempt to recruit another district's teachers after Aug. 1.

"That's been happening quite a bit," he said.

Darin Clark, business administrator of the Juab School District, said the small, rural district struggles as a middle child — it is too small to benefit from the economies of scale large districts enjoy, yet it is too large to qualify for funding formulas that assist very small school districts.

"We are kind of the Jan Brady of the school districts. We are the middle child," Clark said.

While the increase in state funding helped greatly, the difference maker was the "significant increase" in assessed valuation that benefitted the school district.

Between the two, the school districts awarded all teachers — regardless of where they were on the salary schedule — a $3,100 salary adjustment funded by local property tax. Even then, the district is in the middle of the pack in terms of salary.

"It's assumed that it will be ongoing, but it will be subject to the availability of funds," Clark said.

Budgeting in Juab County can be difficult because there is a significant amount of centrally assessed property in the county, which means landowners' properties straddle county lines, he said.

For some lawmakers, the disparity of the school districts' salary war experience speaks to the need for the state to further refine school funding equalization between school districts that benefit from robust tax bases and those left lacking because large portions of land are controlled by the federal government and struggle due to other factors such as land use or lack of industry.

For example, Jordan School District started the school year with only a handful of vacant teaching positions.

"This just screams for correction," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

His sentiments were echoed by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City.

"We have to equalize this. There is no other reasonable or appropriate solution," Thatcher said.

Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said state lawmakers' "constitutional obligation is not to ensure that the kids in one district win over another school district. That's not our obligation.

"My problem fundamentally with some of the things we are learning today about cannibalism, whatever it might be, funding shortages, etc., is our constitutional obligation has still not changed. The other thing that hasn't changed is we are still failing. When we allow local lobbying or concern to get in the way of doing what we can in the way of equity, it is a problem," McCay said.