The Payson school board last week unanimously approved the district’s state-mandated “performance pay” system for teacher bonuses.
Most teachers will get a $3,700 bonus for meeting three, data-driven “smart goals” goals they agree to at the start of the school year, in consultation with the school principal. The average teacher makes about $48,000 annually in the district, with about 8 percent of that coming from the performance pay bonus. Some teachers make more than the average, based on experience. A starting teacher makes about $38,000.
Teachers who meet at least 80 percent of all three goals get the full bonus. Teachers who fall below 80 percent of one goal get two-thirds of the bonus and teachers who achieve an 80 percent score on only one goal get one-third.
Voters approved extra money for a performance pay system for teachers years ago, augmenting some of the lowest teacher pay rates in the country. The voter-approved proposition says 70 percent of the teachers have to approve the guidelines for the bonuses. In Payson, 91 percent of the teachers approved this year’s version of the plan.
Principals and teachers go over the goals at the beginning of the school year to make sure they’re rigorous enough, said Director of Student Achievement Brenda Case. If teachers do not provide data on how they did by May 22, they can’t get the bonus.
“If a principal says the goals are not rigorous enough, the teachers can appeal to a committee of their peers,” said Case. “If they don’t make the deadline for submitting data, again there’s an appeals process.”
Case said the teachers who voted against the performance pay plan are mostly teaching in disciplines where it’s hard to reduce what students learn to a numerical score on a test — like music and drama and physical education.
“The folks who disagreed were predominantly special area teachers. They have to be very creative in how they write their goals,” said Case.
“So are they disadvantaged?” asked board member Shelia DeSchaaf.
“No,” said Case. “They just have to be creative in how they write goals. If you’re a PE teacher, you still teach reading — it’s in everything you do. Same thing with writing.”
“Is it a problem for the elementary school teachers?” asked board president Barbara Underwood.
Case said they integrate reading and writing into the elementary school curriculum and it’s easy to measure student progress, since the district uses detailed, grade-by-grade assessment tests centered on reading and writing. She noted that virtually all the elementary school teachers qualify for the performance pay bonus. The problem centers more on the specialized classes at the high school, like foreign languages, music, drama and physical education.
The pay boost provided by the voter approved Classroom Site Fund isn’t enough to lift Arizona out of the cellar when it comes to teacher pay. Even a state-funded 15 percent increase for most teachers over the past two years has barely made a dent in Arizona low salaries — which come on top of the largest class sizes in the country.
Payson schools devoted nearly $1 million to pay raises and benefit increases this year in adopting its $14 million 2019-20 school budget. Teachers have received roughly 15 percent raises over the past two years, with administrators and non-certificated workers getting about 5 percent. The school board this year also earmarked about $50,000 to provide a performance pay plan bonus system for administrators, but hasn’t yet set up the system to award that money.
All told, this year raises will total $354,000 for teachers, $180,000 for classified staff and $100,000 for administrators. The district will also spend an additional $260,000 to cover rising health insurance premiums.
Nonetheless, Arizona still ranks 45th nationally when it comes to teacher salaries. In Arizona, the average teacher makes about $50,000 — compared to the national average of $61,000. Last year’s pay raise moved the state from 44th to 45th nationally.
Gov. Doug Ducey has vowed to include enough money for another 5 percent teacher pay hike next year.
The Arizona school districts with the highest average salaries come close to the national average. For instance, last year the average teacher salary in the Phoenix Union, Arlington, Glendale, Alhambra and Cartwright school districts was between $58,000 and $63,000.
Payson’s comes in close to the statewide average, which is 22 percent below the national average. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics several years ago did a report on teacher salaries and concluded that if you adjust for the cost of living, Arizona elementary school teachers rank 49th and high school teachers rank 48th nationally.
Still, Payson salaries are higher than many other districts in the state. At the low end, teacher salaries average about $37,000 — with rural schools generally paying less.
Experts say the low salaries statewide have contributed to a teacher shortage, especially in subjects like music, drama, physics, art, science and math. Hundreds of teaching jobs went unfilled statewide this year, forcing districts to increase class sizes and stop offering some classes.
Payson actually faces a fresh challenge in maintaining teacher salaries and class sizes — key factors in the increasingly competitive market for teachers. In November, Payson voters will decide whether to extend for another three years the district’s budget override authorization. This brings in about $1.4 million annually, roughly 10 percent of the budget. The vote would allow Payson to exceed the state cap on property taxes and currently costs the average Payson homeowner about $87 annually.
The district has earmarked the money for teacher recruitment and retention, keeping class sizes as small as possible and programs like sports, music and drama.
If voters reject the continuation of the override levy, the school board doesn’t have to cut those specific programs — but board members say they would focus on those areas when looking for a way to balance the budget, since the district told voters it would spend the money on those programs when the override won approval two years ago.