The Payson School Board approved a $15,500 salary study at its last meeting, which will affect the wages, benefits and recruitment of staff.

The board decided to pay for a study to augment a recent informal salary study by outgoing superintendent Greg Wyman that compared Payson to 26 other mostly rural school districts.

The informal study found Payson had relatively high salaries and generally comparable benefits to other districts throughout Arizona.

Payson board members asked newly hired Superintendent Stan Rentz to make sure the board gets input into what districts the consultants use for comparison.

“There will be some things that may make a difference. There are quite a few school districts going to four days a week — I don’t know if that would make a difference,” said board president Barbara Underwood.

Chief finance officer Katie Manning said it shouldn’t, since the salaries are based on hourly rates and schools on a four-day schedule require the staff to work longer hours on the remaining four days.

“Our biggest competition would be districts like Blue Ridge, Pinetop and Fountain Hills. To me, we should look at rural schools of like size,” said Underwood. “So you’re not talking about schools that are just totally different, like in big metropolitan areas.”

Underwood said recent state-funded increases in teacher salaries haven’t helped Payson compete for teachers, since almost every district had boosted teacher salaries by similar amounts.

The state is suffering from a teacher shortage, with many positions unfilled at the start of the school year — and many teachers either not certified or teaching outside their area of expertise. National studies show Arizona teachers have among the lowest salaries in the nation, although on average they have some of the largest classes.

However, Payson teachers have a few more years of experience that the average statewide and as a result make a bit more than the statewide average. Payson has suffered less teacher turnover than many districts and so far has been able to recruit all the certified teachers it needs, although the district has struggled in some hard-to-fill areas like math.

The district boosted salaries and benefits this year by about $1 million, thanks to an infusion of about $500,000 in extra money from the state — much of it earmarked for teacher raises.

Nonetheless, the board approved hiring a consultant to undertake a formal salary study, which will help determine salaries and benefits for the 2020-21 school year.

The study will also help the board members decide what to do about a couple of salary-based issues they’ve debated recently.

For instance, several board members want to reduce the vacation days for administrators from the current 33 days a year to perhaps 25 days a year. The board has approved several recent contracts with the lower number.

In addition, the board has set aside $50,000 to set up an incentive pay plan for administrators. The plan would give administrators something like a 5 percent pay boost if they meet goals set at the beginning of the year. The district’s teachers currently have an incentive pay plan based on meeting certain goals, but that’s funded through a voter-approved ballot measure. Virtually all the teachers meet their goals and qualify for the bonus.

The board approved the $15,500 contract with the firm Heinfeld and Meech to complete the salary study in the next 90 days. The study will involve up to five other school districts. It will examine up to 30 support staff positions, compare the pay scale for teachers to other districts, as well as a review of the administrative job descriptions, salary schedule and benefits.

The consultants will also review benefits across the board, including retirement, health, vacations, sick days, life insurance, coverage of family members and other factors, comparing each to the five selected other districts

The report will make recommendations, but the consultants “will not assume management responsibilities on behalf of your organization. However, we will provide advice and recommendations to assist management in assuming its responsibilities,” according to the firm’s letter of intent.

The consultants will make between $106 and $267 per hour, with out-of-pocket expenses on top of the $15,500.

The existing, informal salary study compares Payson to a much larger group of schools. That study came as the district added $1 million in salaries and benefits, bringing the operations budget to about $14 million. That included a painful 15-percent increase in the district’s per-employee cost for health care coverage costing some $260,000. The pay increases included $340,000 for teachers, $180,000 for classified staff and $100,000 for administrators.

The informal study found Payson placed in the top one-third of the 26 districts in all three categories — teachers, certified and administrative — although two of the district’s four principals were on the low side.

Payson teachers make an average of about $48,000 slightly above the state average — although they also have more experience.

Rim Country Middle School Principal Jennifer White said the district does have persistent problems recruiting teachers.

“A lot of times they don’t take our contracts because it’s not comparable to what they’re making. We do lose valuable teachers — almost one every year — because they can’t come up here and live on that money.”

Manning noted, “That’s why we added Fountain Hills (to the comparison group). But if you want to include another one, we can do that.”

“Of course, the cost of housing is a whole other can of worms,” said Underwood.

“We can’t fix the housing problem,” said board member Shelia DeSchaaf, who is also the community development director for the Town of Payson, “but maybe we can address other issues.”

Board member Jolyn Schinstock observed, “Every time Kathie Manning presents something to us, we should ask — where is the money coming from? Is it from the contingency?”

Manning said it was. “There’s a lot of tweaking of contingency, it goes up and down.”

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