Initiative 63 gathering signatures to help more
[ By Kendra Walker ]
Gunnison Watershed School District teachers can expect a noticeable pay increase starting this upcoming fiscal 2022/23 school year. The school board is expected to ratify the agreement with the teacher’s union, the Gunnison County Education Association (GCEA), on Thursday, May 26.
For the 2022/23 school year, teachers will get a 2% step on the pay scale and then a 7% raise to the base salary level. “Everyone overall gets a total of a 9% increase in compensation,” GWSD business manager Tia Mills told the school board on Monday. “This is pretty unprecedented.”
Additionally, the base teacher salary is increasing by about $3,000, from $39,265 up to $42,014. The hourly rate will go up from $13.86 to $14.83.
According to Mills, the district has a large fund balance due to the influx of COVID stimulus funding and the number of vacant positions it has had. “In an effort to bring the fund balance down, we are using fund balance resources, over time, to help support the district general fund budget, which includes this salary increase,” she said.
Mills also said that health insurance rates have been rolled back to 2021 rates. “That helps the lower-paid people because health insurance is a bigger part of their salary,” she said.
When presenting the proposed fiscal year 2022/23 budget to the board, Mills stressed that the district’s fund balance is one-time revenue. “I do want to caution that we are relying on fund balance to support this ongoing cost [compensation]. If there is no change over the next three to five years in state funding or enrollment for the district, we will have to look at ways to reduce expenses to stay within our budget and keep the general fund balance at an appropriate level. We felt that, given the stress of the past few years and the increasing cost of living in the Valley, it was important to demonstrate our financial commitment to the staff and show our great appreciation for all the hard work they have put in to keep our schools open and operational.”
Mills noted that this year’s pay negotiations were long and tough. “It was one of the more challenging negotiations. It’s just a balance of how can we do it strategically and financially soundly in a way that makes everyone feel good. But I feel we came out with a really positive result,” she said.
Last year, teachers received a 4% pay increase. In 2020/21 it was 2% and in 2019/20 it was 5.3%.
School District board treasurer Dave Taylor was also part of the negotiations and agreed that it was challenging. “We started out so far apart that my perception was that it was going to be very hard for administration and the board to satisfy what the union was asking for,” he said, noting that GCEA’s first proposal was for all salaries to go up by $20,000. “I think we stretched further than I know Tia wanted to. I still think it’s a responsible package but I think the GCEA was disappointed that we couldn’t do more.”
“We are all disappointed we can’t do more,” agreed Mills. “It’s a rough place to be because the state doesn’t fund K-12 in a way that would support those levels of increases year-over-year.”
Taylor also advocated for the district to provide the union with much more financial transparency in the future. “We have to have open conversations with our union leadership and our teachers, educating them on how much money we get from the state or don’t get from the state and how we need to spread that.”
Taylor also suggested offering financial counseling to new district hires. “I think it’s important for our new hires to clearly understand what a teacher gets paid in Colorado. Education isn’t a 10% [annual increase] type business. Those are my suggestions for hopefully making a better relationship going into negotiations and not having unrealistic expectations going into negotiations.”
The school board on Monday also agreed on a resolution in support of Initiative 63, which is currently gathering signatures to appear on the November ballot and could provide another solution for teacher compensation. If the initiative makes it to the ballot and is then passed by voters, it will provide additional funding for Colorado public schools without raising taxes or tax rates by removing funds from the TABOR limit calculation and directing a portion of already collected income tax revenue to the State Education Fund. The TABOR (Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights) Amendment limits the amount of revenue Colorado can retain and spend, and requires excess revenue to be refunded to taxpayers.
“The ballot measure would divert annually over $800 million in already collected income taxes to the State Education Fund, where it must be used to attract, retain, and compensate teachers and student support professionals,” according to a press release from the Great Schools, Thriving Communities (GSTC) Coalition.
The release also states that Colorado currently holds the distinction of the least-competitive teacher salaries in the nation, and the state’s per pupil funding has fallen to more than $2,000 per pupil behind the national average.
“Understanding how state funding and TABOR has affected the way we are able to fund our schools, and especially salaries, I am totally in support of being able to find a way to get that done,” said board member LeeAnn Mick.
“I think for years we’ve needed to do something about teacher salaries,” said board president Tyler Martineau. “It is a workaround of TABOR and that’s what we’ve got to do to support our teachers. My top concern is about the welfare of our teachers and I want to see them get better pay, so I support this.”
“I would prefer the state just manning up and dealing with TABOR, but I guess if we chomp away at the edges there won’t be any TABOR left,” said Taylor.
The initiative needs 125,000 valid Colorado voter signatures by August 8 in order to appear on the November ballot. To learn more or support the petition, visit www.greatedaction.org.