Schools split over the way they pay teachers

Idaho school leaders are split fairly evenly in their philosophy of how they pay their employees.

An Idaho Education News analysis of disclosure and compliance reports found 55 school districts and charters use the new career ladder model to pay staff while 41 continue to use the old grid-like system called the salary schedule.

The Legislature adopted the career ladder in 2015 as a way to calculate how the state sends money to districts and charters. The old salary grid calculated pay based on a teacher’s educational attainment and years of service. The new, compressed career ladder pays educators based on meeting performance benchmarks.

Districts and charters don’t have to adopt the career ladder. The law allows local negotiations to dictate salaries. But more have transitioned to using the career ladder because it makes the process smoother.

“It is really important that how we pay our teachers in our district is tied in some way to how it is funded,” said Carrie Smith, the HR and finance director in the Idaho Falls School District. “If we don’t do that, over time we can end up with big discrepancies.”

Since the old salary model rewards teachers for continuing their education more than the new career ladder does, Smith is leery of incentivizing something the state doesn’t pay for.

The Idaho Education Association favors the old model, which it says is more predictable and fair.

“We appreciate the career ladder, it’s a step in the right direction,” IEA President Kari Overall said. “But we feel it doesn’t go far enough for our veteran teachers.”

The IEA says beginning salaries in some districts have raised as much as 11 percent through the career ladder, while salaries for experienced teachers remained flat or moved just 1 percent. 

Overall said districts are dipping into their discretionary funding dollars or supplemental levies if they want to pay veteran teachers more. “The career ladder has done great things to recruit and bring in great teachers, but it does a disservice to veteran teachers who are left out and haven’t received the level of raises beginning teachers have.”

Idaho Falls adopted the career ladder after a committee of 16 teachers spent a year studying the system.

“It’s a huge change in the way that funding was sent to districts,” Smith said. “The process we went though is we wanted to be thoughtful and we wanted to include teachers in the committee looking at different options.”

After a year of meetings, Idaho Falls launched what Smith described as a “career ladder system” that includes transitional steps so the move is made gradually.

The idea was for every teacher to be able to earn a raise, and then to remove some of the transition steps after each school year.

Smith reported salary negotiations in her district have gone smoothly.

“Of course it would be nice to be able to pay more,” Smith said. “But it’s been really positive to have the Legislature be so supportive of education these last few years. I know in my position as finance director, I appreciate that.”

Two years ago, the Teton School District in East Idaho moved to a hybrid career ladder model. Spanish teacher Lisie Smith said she and the Teton Education Association worked with the district’s business manager to craft a plan that would “grandfather” in some aspects of the salary schedule to help provide equitable raises to the staff.

Even though they tried to come up with a fair system, Lisie Smith said she misses the old salary schedule. The new model confuses teachers and the state does not reward educators for continuing their education, she said. Now, a teacher’s ability to earn a raise is tied to their performance on their annual evaluation and student achievement.

“It’s a complicated issue, but I really miss the old salary schedule, where if you worked really hard with your education you had control over your pay,” Lisie Smith said. “I like how you could move to the different lanes, and it was under your own control how much of raise you earned by how much education you had.”

Idaho Education News data and policy analyst Randy Schrader contributed research to this report.

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