[Anastasia Hufham / Moab Sun News]

Just days before the start of the school year, an impassioned crowd of masked teachers and community members stretched out the door of the Grand County School District Building on Aug. 24.

Such spirited attendees are somewhat unusual for the Board’s regular meetings, but teachers arrived to demand that their agreed-upon salary increases be included in the fiscal year 2020-21 budget. Teachers and school staff are expected to report to schools on Aug. 26 after using the summer to prepare for the challenges presented by socially-distant learning.

After overspending and an unbalanced 2019-20 budget, some Grand County School District board members had suggested using funds meant for raising teacher salaries to instead just maintain current salaries.

Grand Education Association President Hank Postma worked on the Negotiations Committee, which proposed a compromise that would include a 0.5% salary increase for teachers this year, instead of the previously promised 1% raise. The GEA is a local affiliate of the Utah Education Association that advocates for teachers’ interests, such as grievance representation and bargaining and contract enforcement.

“No other district in this state is talking about cuts of freezing salaries,” Postma said. “In fact, most districts are increasing salaries in recognition of what is being expected of educators this year.”

“The budget screw-ups are not the fault of any of the teachers,” said Postma following the meeting.

“You’re asking me to do more with less time for less money,” Grand County High School math teacher Matt Provart said to the board. “If your mission really is to put each student first every day, that doesn’t mean you put your teachers last.”

Before the day was out, teachers received word that they had won their point and all staff would likely receive their expected salary increases.

Later Monday afternoon, Grand County School District Superintendent Taryn Kay and the board sent an email to GCSD staff announcing that a proposal to grant full level to all employees and two-for-one levels to certified staff had been approved unanimously.

This proposal restores the original salary schedule — more than what the Negotiations Committee compromise asked for.

“GEA can move forward and hold a meeting to vote on this proposal. If it passes, new contracts will be available in short order,” the email read.

“We will now be re-entering negotiations and finding other places in the budget to freeze to make room for these salary increases,” said school board President Melissa Byrd on Aug. 25.

Budget Proposals

On June 17, the Grand County Board of Education met to discuss adopting the proposed fiscal year 2020-21 budget, which would include additional revenue from a local levy created in 2016.

The voter-approved levy was created to raise GCSD staff salaries toward the state average of $55,211.

In consideration of overspending in previous years, board member Peggy Nissen stated her desire to keep the 2020-21 budget the same as the 2019-20 budget.

“The voted levy was to increase salary for staff, [but] now it’s needed to maintain staff salaries since the budget is not balanced,” she said.

Board members Britnie Ellis and Kathy Williams agreed with Nissen.

Board Member Jim Webster supported continuing salary increases in 2020-21, stating that he wanted to make sure the voted levy would be used for its express purpose of bolstering staff salaries.

At that June 17 meeting, the decision was deferred and the board adopted the 2020-21 budget without addressing salary increases.

The voted local levy in 2016 created for the explicit purpose of increasing staff salaries was a major win for GCSD employees. Teachers saw salary increases in the first two years of the levy, but budget overspending in the last two years has led to these levy funds being allocated to other parts of the budget.

Overspending Accountability

Members of the GEA Negotiations Committee, including Robyn Johnson, held the Board accountable for overspending on Aug. 24.

“The mistakes made in the overspending of the budget were not the mistakes from COVID-19 or of teachers,” said Johnson.

“We’re pleading with those of you who are on the fence to look at that money that’s available in our district in more ways than taking that money off teacher salaries because this is not a teacher burden.”

“It is really disheartening when I hear other districts settling 16% increases, 10% increases or cost-of-living increases,” said Sarah Henderson. Her sentiment was echoed by others at the special meeting on Aug. 24.

“We’re asking for approximately a 1% increase in total spending this year. 1%! You can’t give us 1%?” Provart continued in his comments to the Board.

Kristine Martin, a seventh-grade math teacher, emphasized the additional responsibilities teachers will be taking on in the coming year.

“We’re becoming nurses and cleaning staff and we’re losing our lunch hours, but I haven’t heard one person complain about that time being taken away because we know the value of what we do,” she said.

The board released a statement indicating that it took such statements to heart.

“The Board does support each of you and is appreciative of all you normally do as part of working at GCSD, AND appreciates you even more for all you are doing now in the face of unprecedented challenges,” the board said in an email to all Grand County School District staff.

This proposal marks a victory for teachers in the district before the 2020-21 school year begins on Sept. 8, as the entire budget re-enters negotiations with the GEA.

District scraps plans to use funds for budget