Utah’s tug of war for teachers leads to higher salaries and other incentives

Jun 1, 2018, 9:39 AM | Updated: 1:53 pm

MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah — Christy Fitzgerald isn’t worrying on the last day of school, she’s celebrating with her students. The elementary school principal doesn’t have a bunch of empty teacher positions to fill before fall.

“This year, we only have one teacher who’s actually leaving and that’s unheard of,” Fitzgerald said.

Students at the Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary School, on the Navajo Nation typically lose seven out of 10 of their teachers every year. That changed when the San Juan School District piloted a new program to pay teachers up to $81,000 to come to these remote schools and stay.

“This is far and away the best year I’ve seen for retention,” said San Juan Superintendent Ron Nielson. “It’s very exciting.”

The Quality Teacher Incentive Program, or QTIP, has been a game changer in San Juan School District for a crisis faced by virtually every district in Utah. They need teachers. Hundreds of them.

At a teacher contract event in the Alpine District, 35 eager recruits signed on the dotted line.

“It’s very exciting, I’m very happy to be here,” said Rachel Everitt.

She’ll join 400 others in signing contracts to teach in Alpine.  They’re still hiring 165 more to accommodate growth.

Before fall, Jordan District will hire nearly 400 teachers.  Granite will need 242. And the Canyons is getting close to reaching their needed 175 teachers.

Those kinds of numbers have sparked a salary showdown.

Nearly all the Wasatch Front districts are offering pay raises for the second year in a row.

Canyons district upped the ante with a $2,235 raise and a $500 bonus for veteran teachers.

Jordan District went higher with a $3,675 pay raise and $3,000 “rewards” for exemplary work.

All over Utah, districts like Tooele and Carbon are boosting pay by thousands of dollars, based on seniority. Other districts are giving percentage increases, up to 10 percent.

Alpine is trying something different. A four percent pay raise, six paid development days and a program to give newer teachers the support they need to succeed.

“They have mentors, they have coaches, they have assistance to help them along the way, help them improve,” said Kevin Cox, human resources director with Alpine District.

But Granite District is winning the applause of teachers by announcing a surprise benefit, the first of its kind in Utah.

“Granite District is excited to be announcing that we are opening an on-site clinic for our employees and their families,” said Donnette McNeill-Waters, with Granite’s human resources department.

When the building is complete, employees and their families will have access to free urgent care, free basic health care, and prescriptions with no co-pays.

“That’s a pretty big recruiting tool, a pretty good retention tool,” she added.

Keeping teachers is just as important as hiring new ones, because there aren’t enough in the Utah teacher shortage.

The state adds 10,000 new students every year. At the same time, the number of students graduating with teaching degrees at the University of Utah has declined 60 percent in recent years.

And of those who do enter the profession, 40 percent quit within five years.

“We believe every student deserves a quality teacher in their classroom, but we’re comfortable that we’re going to be able to staff with the raises we’ve seen this year,” said Granite District spokesman Ben Horsley.

Back on the Navajo Reservation, they have another reason to be excited. Teacher stability appears to be boosting test scores. On this year’s year-end SAGE scores, the number of 4th graders proficient in math doubled.

They still have a long way to go. But that kind of progress is also what motivates teachers like Allison Moschetti.

“When I heard of the incentives, I heard what opportunities I’d have as a veteran teacher to help other teachers. It seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” she said.

That sentiment rings true among many Utah teachers. Growing salaries are important, but schools also win over teachers by helping them do their jobs.

“It’s about teaching and it is about the community, it’s not about you,” said Moschetti. “And that makes it rewarding.”

Utah isn’t alone in its efforts to incentivize teachers. Some districts out of state offer subsidized housing, district-run child care, loan forgiveness, among other perks.

Related Story: Schools scramble to hire teachers amid shortage 

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Utah’s tug of war for teachers leads to higher salaries and other incentives