Column: Building teacher pay

Less than a year ago, Arizona witnessed arguably the most hotly contested debate over education policy in years as 50,000 teachers marched at the State Capitol to fight for an increase in teacher pay. It was hard to go far without seeing #RedforEd messages on signs in business windows and t-shirt racks.

Polls showed unprecedented levels of support by voters as teachers rightfully earned and deserved a major pay increase. Arizona proudly continues its decade-long reign as one of the fastest academically improving states nationally. In April of 2018, the Arizona Legislature responded with a teacher pay raise of 20 percent. The first 10 percent is already in paychecks and the next 10 percent is in the state budget for next school year. This amount becomes part of base funding with annual inflation increases. No state had ever mandated a local teacher raise to that degree before, but Arizona teachers had earned it, and the public was adamant that they have it. This was the kind of next step needed at a time when our schools shared about their priorities around recruiting and retaining the best teachers.

Significant as this $650 million state investment is, we cannot lose sight of the fact that local decisions impact pay too. As we strive to further improve teacher salaries, we should carefully watch two things:

First, as state funds are allocated to district and charter central offices, the result should be that teacher pay grows at the school level too. Thanks to a new school level transparency law championed by Senator Paul Boyer in 2017, and taking effect next year for district and charter schools, parents and taxpayers alike can monitor progress.

Next, we must ensure that all education resources are maximized for the classroom.

One area of particular risk for diversion of classroom dollars is the upkeep and maintenance of empty or under capacity buildings. For example, a 2012 Arizona Auditor General report found that the Scottsdale Unified School District could pay teachers $3.8 million more if they made better use of their school facilities.

New research shows Arizona currently has at least 1.4 million square feet of school building space that is going unused. And this is only the space we know about. Poorly utilized school space is expensive and restricts the ability to focus resources on students and teachers.

Between fiscal years 2004 and 2017, Arizona school districts added 22.6 million square feet of building space – a 19 percent increase – despite a student enrollment increase of only 6 percent during this same period. If these empty or partially  or partially-utilized buildings were utilized in a way that created resources for their host districts -similar to what we’ve seen in Georgia, California, and New York- the savings for school districts could reach $21 million to $38 million per year.

Fortunately, there is a solution in play to maximize use of this publicly built space to expand opportunities for families to attend high demand district and charter programs, while allowing more resources to be directed into classrooms.

A bill moving in the state legislature, Senate Bill 1161, gives school districts additional tools to manage empty and partially used buildings and to support voluntary and innovative school partnerships to use this space. Some partnerships already in the pipeline are with other district partners, a military base, or public charter schools. If we want to relieve budgetary pressures, secure facility cost savings, and free up resources for teachers and other educational resources, we must empower districts with the authority to manage these expensive assets.

To continue our groundbreaking academic gains, we must look at all policy barriers – including empty facilities – to drive available dollars to teacher pay and provide more families with access to an exceptional education.

Emily Anne Gullickson

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