Last week, the Alpine School District Board of Education voted on a property tax rate that would increase property tax revenue by 7.98%, excluding new growth. The change is expected to generate about $5.6 million for efforts including increasing teacher pay and capital projects not related to the bond.
While the additional funding for teachers should certainly be appreciated, it appears to only be a stopgap measure.
As students return to classes, Utah Valley parents, taxpayers, educators and leaders should work with counterparts across the state to ensure that there are enough qualified teachers for every classroom in the county and that these educators are receiving pay befitting of their training and experience.
Nearly a year ago, Gov. Gary Herbert shone a light on the state’s teacher shortage and called for recruiting and retaining the best and brightest instructors. He also said the state needed to find a way to pay them more.
For years, Utah has languished near the bottom of the average teacher pay rankings, but there have been signs of improvement. An April blog post from Education Week shows that Utah is ranked 42nd out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in estimated average pay for 2018-19, based on National Education Association information. That appears to be an improvement from 46th. Data further shows that pay went up 1.38% last year — although inflation appears to have wiped out any gains.
We’ve been paying below-average wages to teachers we want and expect to be above-average. It’s no wonder that many instructors opt to leave the profession or move out of the state. Almost half of Utah teachers leave the profession within their first five years, according to Envision Utah. These departures only add to the teacher shortages across the state.
Last year, voters rejected a proposal to increase the gas tax so the state could shift some general fund revenue from roads to education. The proposal wasn’t perfect, but it could’ve helped provide some additional resources to address a serious problem.
Without something substantial, things are moving incrementally. This year, the Legislature OK’d a 4% increase in per-pupil funding. We’re sure it helps, but it may not be enough to move the needle significantly.
Right now, we’re left with a tenuous status quo where school districts engage in what’s been termed “salary wars.” Districts scrape and scrounge to find ways to increase pay to help recruit and retain teachers. This is often done so districts can compete with neighboring districts.
That appears to be partly what was at stake last week in Alpine School District. Educators who supported increasing revenue noted that they didn’t want to see teachers go elsewhere. One principal noted that the applications for open positions has dwindled significantly in recent years — from 200 to eight.
For now, we hope the Alpine district’s new property tax rate — which is estimated to cost a $317,000 house about $35.04 more a year — will help encourage teachers to stay in the district. We also support calls to ensure that the money is being spent judiciously — something we would expect of any public agency using taxpayer money.
However, we know that the vast majority of a school district’s non-capital budget goes into salaries — teaching students is the biggest priority and biggest expense.
In the long run, increasing property tax revenue in individual districts is a piecemeal solution and won’t fully address the relatively low teacher compensation and high turnover. Using property taxes also puts the funding burden on landowners instead of a mor e balanced solution. It can also have the negative effect of more prosperous districts reaping more revenue than their more impoverished neighbors, putting students in poorer districts at a disadvantage.
Very few people like paying taxes or doing homework. However, we’re going to need both to help devise a solution if we want our children to succeed academically.