Summit School District teachers press education board to boost salaries ahead of possible increase in state education funding |

Summit School District teachers press education board to boost salaries ahead of possible increase in state education funding

Colorado lawmakers are calling for roughly $900 in additional per-pupil spending for public schools next year — meaning millions more for the Summit School District. But officials say expenditures will continue to exceed revenue, making decisions around salaries uncertain.

The Summit School District Administration Building in Frisco is pictured on Nov. 12, 2020.
Liz Copan/Summit Daily News archive

As the Summit School Board of Education begins to shape its budget for the 2023-24 school year, district teachers are calling on board members to raise salaries before a possible influx of state funding arrives.

Several educators spoke before board members during a meeting on Wednesday, April 26, calling attention to a revolving door of faculty and staff that they said can only be remedied through increased pay to combat the local high cost of living. 

“We lose educators to better-paying jobs every year,” said Joe Kassay, a history and outdoor education teacher at Summit High School. 

Kassay said that while he values the board’s visions for the district — which includes increasing equity in education and students’ career readiness — he said those goals are “all at the mercy of a consistent staff.”

According to a 2021 report from the nonprofit group Keystone Policy Center, the district’s average teacher salary was $67,000 yet only 6% of the county’s housing stock was considered to be affordable at that income level. Some teachers who spoke during the meeting noted that the district’s starting teacher pay is well below that median. The most recent contract has teacher salaries starting at $50,000.

Colorado lawmakers are racing to adopt a new state budget by July 1, which could boost funding for public schools by $900 per pupil. That, along with designated state funds for rural districts, could bring in close to an additional $4 million for the Summit School District next school year.

Kassay said the additional funding is an “opportunity to invest in the people who make the vision happen” and called for pay increases for teachers across the board. 

Bethann Huston, an English teacher at Summit Middle School who said she’s been with the district for 25 years, said raising salaries will not just benefit teachers but also the entire district community. 

Allison Lloyd, a fifth-grade teacher at Frisco Elementary School, echoed those sentiments. When teachers leave, Lloyd said it impacts students and parents as well. 

“For families, this leads to inconsistency, lack of trust and uncertainty about their children’s futures,” she said. “For students, this leads to fewer services, less consistency and adults who are less able to be fully present.” 

Educators said that for some in the district, the need is dire. Amid record-high home costs, teachers have said they’ve been forced to live in cars or vans and district officials are honing in on a plan to build their own income-based housing for staff — though that’s likely to be years down the line. 

But as teachers seek more immediate relief in the form of a raise, board members expressed uncertainty about the prospect. 

Financial forecasts are bleaker than they may initially look, officials said, with the district spending above its revenues — a trend that is projected to continue for the coming years. And salaries and benefits already make up the vast majority of the district’s annual budget. Of the more than $44 million the district spent last school year, over $30 million went to salaries and more than $9 million to benefits. 

Chief Financial Officer Kara Drake said that revenue increases are generally tied to inflation and that, while revenues may be going up, so is inflationary spending. With the district’s expenses eating into more than $2 million of its ending fund balance year-over-year, Drake estimates that balance could be negative by the 2026-27 school year. 

For the district to be sustainable in the long-term, “we’re going to have to make sure that we start to build a budget that we don’t spend all the revenue that we receive,” Drake said. 

But that calls for tough spending decisions to be made.

For example, district officials are contemplating further subsidizing family health insurance plans to drive down premiums for staff. But doing so may come at the expense of salary increases, meaning the benefits of each approach will need to be weighed by the whole district, board members said. 

“I want to make sure we’re getting the biggest return on investment as we can,” said board member Johanna Kugler. 

Superintendent Tony Byrd said, “It needs to be a holistic picture. Nobody can make a decision in isolation of all the other moving parts.”

With state funding that is constantly in flux (Colorado consistently ranks near the bottom when it comes to education funding) and a reliance on temporary solutions such as grants and bond measures, public school districts like Summit can struggle to be wage competitive, officials said. 

Drake said decisions will have to be made as officials hammer out the details of a proposed $52 million budget for 2023-24, adding, “There’s a lot of holes that are not included yet. Particularly salary increases and market increases and changes to health benefits.”

As the district continues to spend towards a deficit, some board members, including Julie Shapiro, said they want to explore ways the district can buck that trend starting now. 

“We need to see an alternative budget,” Shapiro said. 

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