Pay remains sore spot in Quad Cities schools
Staff, administrators call situation in state ‘embarrassing’
A Prescott Mile High Middle School teacher is quite clear how she feels about the city, and Arizona, ending up on a recent USA Today list of cities and states that invest the least in their educators.
“I’m tired, pissed off and only see solutions like the #RedForEd movement, where the collective voice of the boots on the ground stakeholders (teachers) plead their case in the court of public opinion, the administrative board rooms, and the media news cycle, to gain the recognition necessary for change,” declared Wendy Tollefsen, a veteran seventh- and eighth-grade engineering technology teacher.
In a May 7 USA Today article, the Prescott area ended up No. 7 on a list of 21 cities and towns with the most underpaid teachers when adjusting salaries for regional cost-of-living differences. The Phoenix-Mesa area, Tucson and Sierra Vista areas also were on the list; Sierra Vista was listed No. 1.
For far too long, Tollefsen said, she has watched how educators are overlooked and underappreciated by the powers that be.
Until last year when teachers across the state left classrooms and paraded around the Capitol to stand up for their students, Tollefsen said there was no push to invest in public education. No one wanted to “bet on the last horse … our public school system,” she said.
The #RedForEd movement prompted a gubernatorial and legislative promise to increase teacher salaries by 20 percent over a three-year period.
To teachers and their advocates, including students, parents and grandparents, it was not just about salaries. To them, it was about igniting a conversation about the value of public education. It was about the need to prioritize the investment of tax dollars into nationally competitive resources for all children they said.
“I’m depressed at what is happening here. It really saddens me,” said Prescott Unified School District Governing Board member Deb Dillon, a retired educator from North Dakota. “We need people to understand that if we don’t support our schools our economic system will suffer … It’s to all of our benefits to improve the funding for education.”
Even with progress made over the past few years — Prescott’s Governing Board has prioritized teacher and staff salary increases for the past five years — area salaries are still about $10,000 below the national average.
“Here we are on the bottom of another list,” said a disgusted Joe Howard, superintendent for the Prescott district. “And to me, it’s embarrassing.
“When is the conversation at the Legislature going to be about getting us off the bottom?”
The time is now to rescript Arizona’s educational story, Howard said. It is time for state lawmakers to prioritize dollars so every child can have a proper 21st century education — be it computer technology or a school roof that doesn’t leak.
“This is a bad list to be on,” declared an equally frustrated Humboldt Unified School District Superintendent Dan Streeter.
It reflects a reality that Streeter wants to see changed. Yet he said it doesn’t reflect on those who against all odds remain committed to the academic and social well-being of this area’s children.
“I will put the teachers in my district up against any teacher in any district in the country,” Streeter said. “We love our teachers.”
One of the ways Humboldt, and surrounding districts, are showing the love is through other incentives. One of them is the district’s distribution of Proposition 301 sales tax revenue dollars.
Humboldt awards the bulk of the district’s $2.81 million in Proposition 301 sales tax revenues to salary increases; teachers are eligible for up to $8,000 beyond their base salary. Prescott’s allocation is $1.88 million; that translates into about $5,600 in extra, pre-tax income for eligible teachers. Chino Valley’s calculation is $1.1 million; teachers are eligible for about $700,000.
Granite Mountain math and science teacher Emma Gifford in Prescott said she appreciates all the district and local advocates have done to enhance compensation and educational opportunities. She doesn’t want to leave. She said she likes living in city with its hiking trails, historic spaces and downtown attractions.
Yet she knows she is one of the lucky ones. She knows the district this year is losing staff simply because they can’t afford to stay.
“I think each of our districts in the area have fantastic teachers doing fantastic work,” Streeter said. “But we do have to come together and show our appreciation by paying a fair wage.”
To Tollefsen, the words of Thomas Jefferson ring true: “Educate and inform the whole mass of people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of liberty.”