The first, complicated steps to a career ladder

Getting a teacher career ladder through the Legislature was the quick job.

It will take years to figure out exactly how to implement the new pay plan. Across Idaho, school administrators are scrambling to get started.

Rob Winslow
Rob Winslow of the Idaho Association of School Administrators fields questions about the teacher career ladder Monday.

Superintendents and district managers, in Boise for an annual conference on education law, spent part of Monday afternoon discussing the details of the new teacher ladder and hearing three districts outline their plans. The Idaho Association of School Administrators headed up the discussion, and at one point, executive director Rob Winslow stated what may well be obvious: “It’s going to be real interesting to implement this.”

The districts’ job became interesting in a hurry. After legislators and education groups spent most of the 2015 session massaging over the language, Gov. Butch Otter signed a consensus career ladder bill into law on April 2. Districts need to have teacher contracts in place by July 1. Not surprisingly, IASA and State Department of Education officials have fielded plenty of phone calls from districts seeking direction.

But based on what he’s hearing from district officials now, Winslow senses a change. “I think they’re refining more than scrambling.”

Most districts seem prepared to jump in and start with the career ladder this summer. But that’s strictly a local decision. The career ladder provides an additional $33.5 million for teacher pay — a down payment on a five-year plan expected to cost $125.5 million. Districts can decide how to implement the career ladder — if they even choose to. Districts can keep their existing pay structure in place, and negotiate pay raises, and this appears to be a popular option with many districts.

But plans vary widely.

In Orofino, for example, Superintendent Bob Vian is looking at granting 3 percent pay raises across the board. For more experienced teachers, who can’t move on the district’s salary schedule, this should translate to a $1,300 stipend.

Emmett Superintendent Wayne Rush says he will award teachers a lump sum raise — and the district will give out additional raises based on educational experience, as the law outlines. Teachers with 24 credits above a bachelor’s degree will qualify for a $400 increase; teachers with a master’s degree will receive an additional $700.

In the West Side district, near the Idaho-Utah border, superintendent Spencer Barzee is handing out contracts based on a framework drawn up by the Idaho Association of School Business Officials. Raises will vary; teachers at the bottom end of the salary schedule will see a 4.6 percent increase, other raises will top out at 5.6 percent but teachers at the top of the salary scale will receive only a 1.3 percent raise.

The career ladder — like the old teacher pay formula it replaces — merely sets parameters for pay. For example, it boosts beginning teacher pay to $32,700 next year, up from $31,750. After five years, teacher pay will max out at $50,000. But districts will be free to supplement the state’s pay, and many already do.

For these districts, implementing the career ladder poses unique challenges. For one thing, districts may have to figure out how to find money to retain their more experienced teachers — since the bulk of the money in the career ladder goes into the lower rungs of the pay scale.

The Boise School District is paying its most experienced teachers $64,242 this year. On his blog, Superintendent Don Coberly said the first year of career ladder implementation will set the tone for years to come.

“Teacher recruitment is critically important to Idaho districts; so too is retention of veteran teachers, and consideration of those who wish to make teaching in Idaho a career,” he wrote.

In Emmett, Rush is already taking the long view. The district already pays above the state’s salary schedule, in order to compete with neighboring districts. That takes up about $470,000 of supplemental property tax money. If Emmett can use career ladder dollars to narrow this gap to $100,000 or $200,000, tax levy dollars could be used to cover other district costs.

Many districts are one failed supplemental levy away from a salary crisis, says Tim Hill, the State Department of Education’s longtime school finance expert. Career ladder funding could help reduce districts’ dependence on one- or two-year levies.

“That’s the logical answer,” he said. “To shrink that gap.”

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