Eagle County school board approves raises for all teachers, staff
The salary increases will appear in staff paychecks in January, and be applied retroactively
The Eagle County Schools Board of Education approved compensation increases for all teachers and staff at Wednesday’s school board meeting. The raises are expected to go into effect in January and be applied retroactively to the beginning of the school year.
The increases come as hiring struggles continue to create challenges across the district. While the district has had some success in hiring for certain positions since the start of the school year, 60 positions remain vacant across the organization.
“We’ve heard from (Eagle County Education) Association reps the desire to get to a livable wage for our teachers, and we certainly agree with that and want to figure out how to accomplish that,” said Superintendent Philip Qualman at Wednesday’s meeting. “Our hiring market, right now, is the worst I’ve ever seen in my career. We’re losing people to other sectors. We’re just losing people who basically want to make a career change at this point in their life. And we need to find ways to honor them in their work and to remain competitive.”
Karen Kolibaba, a fifth grade teacher at Red Hill Elementary School and president of the Eagle County Education Association, named several of the challenges teachers are facing this year during a phone interview on Thursday.
“Not only were we not able to fill all our positions that we had from last year, but we’ve also had multiple educators that left during the school year,” she said, adding that the substitute shortage, while improving, is “still an ongoing problem, and teachers are giving up their planning time in order to cover for colleagues.”
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In addition, Kolibaba noted that teachers are also seeing an increase in the social-emotional needs of students, adding to workloads for teachers and staff.
“Student’s social-emotional needs have to be met before we can help them make academic progress,” she said.
The negotiations team met on Nov. 9 to address these challenges and better retain the staff the district does have ,settling on a midyear compensation adjustment as a good first step. The negotiations team is composed of district administrators, school principals and several members of the Eagle County Education Association.
Already this year, the negotiations team has reached multiple agreements in an effort to better support teachers and staff, as well as to address hiring challenges. In September, the group reached an agreement to give back time to teachers. And, in October, the team also negotiated and approved a salary increase for school nurses as the district faced significant challenges in hiring for these positions. Both agreements were voted on and approved by both the school board and the teacher’s union.
Mid-year compensation hike
This most recent agreement, from the Nov. 9 meeting, proposed an increase to the annual base salary on the Certified Employee Salary Schedule from $43,110 to $45,000 — a 4.38% increase to base salary. Incremental increases will be applied across the salary schedule based on the existing steps and rates. This certified employee salary schedule dictates salaries based on years of service and education.
“I am hopeful that this compensation increase will help address the staffing shortages in buildings specifically that we might be able to fill some of those positions,” Kolibaba said. “I do know that some of our colleagues who have left the profession, this year and before this year, found that they couldn’t continue working to the pace that we’ve been working at for so long with their current compensation.”
The negotiations team is only authorized to approve changes for certified staff, which outside of teachers includes special service providers such as counselors, occupational therapists and more.
However, at Wednesday’s meeting, Qualman also presented, and the board approved, a comparable increase to all other noncertified staff salaries. This includes positions such as paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, district administrators, principals and more.
“It has been a practice of our organization for many years and whenever a salary adjustment is made to that category of employee, we apply that same or comparable raise to everybody in the organization,” Qualman said.
Some of the employees that fall within this noncertified bracket — including bus drivers, pre-K paraprofessionals, health assistants and more — have already received market adjustments to their salaries this year. With these increases, Qualman noted that the market adjustments will still be applied, and that the Human Resource department is still working to see where other such adjustments are necessary.
Qualman said at the school board meeting that the district is able to make these salary adjustments thanks to additional revenue this year, generated from a number of sources. This includes a statewide mill levy adjustment and changes to the School Finance formula, which both generated additional revenue, as well as money in the budget left over from unfilled staff positions.
“With that money, we would like to recognize and compensate our existing staff as much as we possibly can,” he said.
The salary increases will be reflected in all staff’s Jan. 14, 2022 paycheck, Qualman said, adding that staff will also receive a lump sum payment for the retroactive payment no later than Jan. 31, 2022, for their work from the start of the school year in August through Jan. 14.
“I would say certainly one of the biggest things we’ve heard as we’ve gotten out to visit all the schools at staff meetings in the last few months was how difficult it’s been to make do here in our community with the cost of living as it is and salaries the way that they are,” said Michelle Stecher, the newly elected president of the Eagle County Schools’ Board of Education. “And while I know this is not where we want to be, it’s a step forward with the resources we have available. I’m really glad we’re able to make this available retroactively as well really shows teachers and other support staff that we value them.”
The increases to teacher salaries — and all staff positions that fall within the certified staff salary schedule — still face a vote from the Eagle County Education Association before they are officially approved. The teacher’s union is currently voting on these changes, with final votes due by Sunday. The approved increases to noncertified staff only required a vote of the school board.
However, negotiations for the year are far from over. Qualman noted that in order to be effective in recruiting and retaining staff members, the district and Eagle County Education Association will continue to work together to find ways to be competitive with hiring and to support its staff.
“We need to do everything we can to try to keep our positions competitive and to honor our current employees for their hard work,” Qualman said, later adding that the district will “need to continue to do better and we’ll work on that in our negotiations process in the spring.”
Kolibaba echoed this sentiment.
“This increase is a step forward in the correct direction to help address this need, and it also recognizes the hard work that all of our educators have been putting in over the past months,” she said. “So, while we aren’t there yet, I do hope that this step will help us continue to work collaboratively to meet the needs of our staff.”
However, she also added that the union is hopeful that further negotiations will increase the base salary even further.
“Summit County will be at $50K by the end of this year and we would really like at ECEA to get there as well,” Kolibaba said. “We think that in order for us to be competitive, we need to really be competitive in our salaries, in order for our teachers to choose to work in Eagle County versus Summit County.”
Salaries across the state
In these continued negotiations and conversations, Qualman addressed the need for the district to evaluate “levers” outside of compensation to remain competitive. Historically, some of these levers have included benefits, working schedules and working conditions.
In doing so, Qualman shared some preliminary research at the meeting regarding where Eagle County sits within the state with regard to base salaries, max salaries, contract days and more.
“There’s only eight districts above us who have a starting salary higher than $45,000,” Qualman said, showing the board a spreadsheet of base teacher salaries at districts across the state. Among these districts is Westminster at the top as well as neighboring Summit County school district, Denver Public Schools and more.
According to data from the Colorado Department of Education, in terms of average teacher salary, Eagle County Schools ranks 33 out of 195 districts with an average salary of $54,990 for the 2020-2021 school year.
The spreadsheet from Qualman also identified max salaries, at which Eagle County Schools has one set at $106,282 for certified staff that have taught for 25 years and have a bachelor’s degree, plus 96 credits. Qualman said that “we’re actually doing a little better,” in this regard as this max salary is “much more accessible” to reach the max salary than other districts, many of which require master’s degrees or doctorates.
Plus, the max salary itself is also higher than that of the districts with higher base salaries, including both Summit and Denver school districts.
“The factors that I think we need to consider in this negotiations process with the Association are the different levers that we have the ability to move to be competitive,” he said.
In an email following the board meeting, Qualman noted that this research is “incomplete and ongoing,” adding that the negotiations team will continue to research other districts and levers as they go through the negotiations process this spring.
Part of this spring’s negotiations will also include a review of the collective bargaining agreement, a document which highlights the working conditions for certified staff.
“What I hope to accomplish in the negotiations process with teachers is to recognize who’s got systems that are more efficient than we are, that are finding ways to compensate employees better,” Qualman said, adding that this increase in compensation may come with a cost.
“Do we need to work more days in our contract? Do we need to adjust the number of steps that we have in our salary schedule? Do we need to consider what our district contribution is to benefits?” he posed. “They’re all levers, they’re all things that we can adjust and modify.”
The negotiation team’s next meeting is currently scheduled for Jan. 12.