Closed-door salary negotiations to begin between Summit School District teachers, leadership as June budget adoption nears

After reaching an impasse on May 11, negotiators entered mediation, which allows for closed-door discussions as both sides push for a deal

The Summit School District Administration Building in Frisco is pictured Nov. 12, 2020. Members of the district's teachers union and district leadership are set to enter closed-door negotiations over increasing teacher salaries as part of a broader budget proposal for the 2023-24 school year.
Liz Copan/Summit Daily News archive

Summit School District teachers and district leadership will soon begin closed-door negotiations over raising teacher salaries as a June 31 deadline to adopt a 2023-24 budget nears. 

Public discussions between the district’s teachers union and officials began on May 9 but reached an impasse. On May 11, negotiators decided to move to mediation, which allows for private negotiations to reach a deal. Those discussions are likely to begin early next month, according to Superintendent Tony Byrd. 

“I appreciate the teachers and the union’s leadership, and we are also hoping to get to a resolution. That’s our intention,” Byrd said. 

Liz Waddick, co-president for the union and a lead bargainer in the negotiations, said this is the first time she’s been involved in mediation in the 17 years she’s been with the district. Teacher salaries are typically negotiated publically each school year, Waddick said. 

“Coming to a common understanding among the two groups is the goal,” Waddick said. “We’re definitely confident that the district can help get us to a place where we can be competitive with our salaries.”

Waddick would not comment on the specifics of the union’s salary request or details about the ongoing negotiations, citing the privacy of the mediation process.

But she did say she believes a deal can be reached, adding, “I’m hopeful that the district has the same interest in investing in teachers.” 

Cost of living is a concern

At the heart of teachers’ ask is for the district to use an influx of state funding to boost salaries amid a high cost of living in Summit County. 

Under a state budget set to be adopted within weeks, lawmakers are poised to inject $485 million more into K-12 education funding for the 2023-24 fiscal year. The funds will translate to a roughly $900 increase in per pupil funding for public schools. 

That, along with designated state funds for rural districts, could bring in more than $4 million in new funding for Summit School District next school year. 

“With over $4.7 million new dollars, it’s an exciting time for public education in Colorado, and it’s time to capitalize on that,” Waddick said, adding that unless pay increases, the district will continue to lose teachers. 

District data shows it had a 15.3% turnover rate for teachers this school year, lower than other comparable districts including Eagle, Steamboat and Aspen, the latter of which had a 27.3% turnover rate. 

But Summit County’s high cost of living still remains a burden for teachers. A 2021 report from the nonprofit Keystone Policy Center found that at an income of $67,000 — which at the time was the average salary for a teacher in the district — only 6% of the county’s housing stock was affordable. The average pay rose to $69,000 this year, according to district data. 

Other factors, such as staff diversity, also remain a concern. With roughly 40% of the district’s students identifying as Hispanic, only 8% of teachers reflect that population, according to Chief Talent Officer Margarita Tovar.

“I think our housing issues are obvious to why teachers can’t afford to stay,” Waddick said. 

District leaders have proposed long-term solutions, such as using district-owned land to build subsidized housing for staff. But that project is likely to take years to complete. 

Still, despite what Waddick called “historic” levels of new state funding, district officials said budgeting remains a challenge. 

District budget remains tight

According to Chief Financial Officer Kara Drake, the district is continuing to spend toward a deficit, meaning its expenditures are exceeding revenue. Because of this, the district has had to dip into its fund balance, which operates as its savings account, in recent years. 

Drake projects that if the district sustains its level of current fund balance use, siphoning about $2 million from it each year, the balance could be negative by the 2026-27 school year. And much of the district’s funding already goes to salaries and benefits.

This school year, salaries and benefits made up nearly 90% of the district’s $44 million budget, according to Drake. Next year’s budget is likely to exceed $50 million — the majority of which will again go to salaries and benefits.

Further complicating matters is a state requirement that the district reserve at least 3% of its funding each year for its fund balance. A district policy also requires it to save at least 7% on top of that, meaning 10% of year-to-year funds must be reserved for the balance. 

It’s why district leadership has said tough decisions may have to be made when it comes to funding priorities. 

“I will not recommend any budget to the board that puts us below that fund balance. And that is simply the primary responsibility I have of good fiscal management,” Byrd said. 

Byrd said the district has “over 500 employees and many things to consider in the budget process.” For some staff, pay increase proposals have already been agreed to, such as a roughly $5 hourly increase for bus drivers and boosts in salaries for principals, assistant principals and support staff.

District leaders are hoping to raise principal and assistant principal pay to 75% (25% above average) of the market rate and support staff to 60% (10% above average). The market rate is determined by comparing pay to a handful of comparable districts in mountain resort regions and the Denver metro area. District officials said it will cost about $900,000 to meet these increases for the various staff. 

“Those things are still very much sacred spaces for us, and that’s what makes it complicated,” Byrd said. “You’re trying to support a range of staff members with a range of needs.”

But Byrd also said he’s determined to reach a deal with teachers that they will be receptive to. It may include compensation outside of pay, such as in benefits if those were to be talking points in negotiations, Byrd said. 

But until mediation discussions begin, Byrd said he does not know what a package will ultimately look like. 

“We know that it is very hard to live here. It is expensive for teachers and frankly, most staff,” Byrd said. “We want to make (a deal) happen. It’ll be better for everyone.”

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