Living wages

More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

What 'underfunded' means

What you need to know to follow the money debate behind the teacher walkouts

Colorado teachers wearing "Red for Ed" gather in front of the Capitol on the first of two days of protest around school funding. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Colorado teachers are marching at the Capitol this week for more school funding and better pay. Advocates for more education funding will point to the $7 billion that the state has withheld from schools since the Great Recession, while fiscal conservatives point to the billions the state has spent on schools in those same years.

Here’s what you need to know to follow the money debate behind these teacher days of action.

What does it mean when people say Colorado schools are underfunded?

Back in 2000, Colorado voters approved a constitutional amendment that said the state had to increase K-12 education funding every year based on inflation and population. It was meant to reverse years of budget cuts in the 1990s.

When the Great Recession hit and revenues declined, state budget writers didn’t think they could meet that obligation and pay for other functions of state government, so they started holding money back. This reduction is known as the budget stabilization factor or the negative factor.

The negative factor ballooned to more than a billion dollars in the early aughts as the lagging effects of the recession hit government revenue.

Impact of the negative factor on Colorado education spending

Source: Joint Budget Committee legislative staff *Does not include federal money or local mill levy overrides.

State spending on K-12 education actually declined in some years, and many school districts froze pay and cut programs. More recently, lawmakers have reduced the negative factor and increased education spending, but the state continues to hold money back.

So that’s one thing people mean when they say Colorado schools are underfunded.

Republicans dispute this characterization. The Colorado Supreme Court, in a split decision in 2015, ruled that the state’s school funding and use of the negative factor is constitutional. Schools have other sources of revenue, including federal dollars and local property tax revenue.

The National Education Association’s 2018 state rankings puts Colorado 28th in per-pupil funding, when federal, state, and local dollars are included.

There are other considerations. Analyses that look at equity – how fairly Colorado distributes money among students and districts – give the state low marks. There’s major variation in per-student spending around the state. Colorado also spends much less money on education than most states with similar levels of wealth and economic activity.

At the same time, the state is paying a larger share of K-12 costs than ever because tax provisions in the constitution have reduced local property taxes in many parts of the state.

What about local property taxes?

After state officials calculate the amount of money each school district should get, they collect that money first from the local property taxes. If that doesn’t meet the amount set by the formula, the state fills in the rest.

School districts don’t actually benefit much from increases in property values. If a school district collects more money because homes are worth more, the state holds back a corresponding amount.

This arrangement would seem to benefit the state at the expense of local districts, but in many rural communities, two conflicting provisions in the state constitution have had the effect of reducing assessed value. Because the state fills in the lost revenue, the state’s share of education spending is going up.

There are two ways local school districts can raise additional local money, but both require voter approval. Some communities, including Denver and Boulder, have passed significant tax increases to give their schools more money. Other communities in the state have never been successful in asking their voters for more local funding. Greeley’s District 6 had never passed a mill levy override until this November. District 27J in Brighton made the decision to go to a four-day week after voters turned them down for a 16th time.

How much do Colorado teachers make?

According to the Colorado Department of Education, the average teacher salary for 2017-18 is $52,708.

However, there’s considerable variation across the state and even within districts.

Teachers in the Cherry Creek and Boulder Valley districts have average salaries above $70,000. Many small rural districts have average salaries close to $30,000, an amount that’s hard to live on anywhere.

Colorado districts with the highest average teacher salaries

Source: Colorado Department of Education

Colorado districts with the lowest average teacher salaries

Source: Colorado Department of Education

The highest paid teacher in Aurora makes $102,115, and the highest paid teacher in Denver Public Schools makes $115,900. Those teachers would be veteran employees with decades in the classroom. Starting salaries in those districts are $39,757 and $41,689 respectively.

Starting salaries for new teachers and average salaries in 2017-18:

DISTRICT Starting salary Average salary
Denver $41,689 $50,757
Jeffco $38,760 $57,154
Dougco $37,160 $53,080
Cherry Creek $39,405 $71,711
Aurora $39,757 $54,742
Westminster $42,859 $58,976
Adams 14 $38,194 $57,394
Sheridan $35,029 $49,535
Deer Trail $33,660 $41,582

Teachers’ ability to get raises also varies considerably. Districts have salary schedules that provide for raises after a certain number of years of service or for getting more education, but in some districts, the range is narrow, with veteran teachers stuck close to $50,000.

Some districts, like Denver, also have performance incentives or offer additional money for working in schools where students have high needs.

Many teachers experienced pay freezes during the Great Recession but are starting to get raises again. However, when adjusted for inflation, teacher’s salaries have declined in many districts.

A look at teacher salary over time:

DISTRICT 2007-08 average pay 2017-18 average pay Percent change 2007-08 wage in 2018 dollars Percent change when adjusted for inflation
Denver Public Schools $47,197 $50,757 7.54% $57,794 -12.18%
Jeffco Public Schools $52,512 $57,154 8.84% $64,310 -11.13%
Dougco $52,078 $53,080 1.92% $63,771 -16.76%
Cherry Creek $57,152 $71,711 25.47% $69,985 2.47%
Aurora Public Schools $52,755 $54,742 3.77% $64,600 -15.26%
Westminster Public Schools $54,466 $58,976 8.28% $66,695 -11.57%
Adams 14 $46,679 $57,394 22.95% $57,160 0.41%
Sheridan $45,467 $49,535 8.95% $55,676 -11.03%
Deer Trail $36,654 $41,582 13.44% $44,884 -7.36%

 How does that compare to other states?

For many years, Colorado ranked in the bottom tier for teacher salaries, but the most recent ranking from the National Education Association put Colorado at No. 31. The rise in the rankings might reflect some districts giving raises after years of pay freezes as education funding slowly increases or as voters approve new local taxes.

Colorado teacher salaries are still well below the national average of $60,483.

And a recent report ranked Colorado dead last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries. The report compared how much teachers earn compared to other people who also had college degrees. The study adjusted for number of hours worked.

That is, teachers in Colorado take the biggest hit for choosing to go into education as opposed to some other profession.

What does PERA have to do with all this?

Colorado’s public employee retirement system, in which teachers participate, has an unfunded liability of somewhere between $32 billion and $50 billion. As lawmakers try to address this, various proposals have called on both employees and employers to pay more.

Retirement benefits, like health insurance, make up a growing share of school districts’ personnel budgets, so if they have to pay more into PERA, that’s less money for other education needs, including teacher pay.

And teachers who feel like their paychecks are already too small also don’t want to pay more.

Proposed solutions also call for reducing cost-of-living increases for retirees, raising the retirement age, and putting more of taxpayers’ dollars into the system.  

Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on the right balance, and whatever they decide will have implications for district budgets and teacher paychecks.

Teachers don’t get Social Security benefits, and many of them say that solid retirement benefits are an important part of compensation. They fear that a less generous package will make it even harder to hire and keep teachers.

What about the marijuana tax money?

The bulk of marijuana tax revenue for education goes to a program that helps schools pay for buildings and construction repairs. Districts apply and compete for grant money from the program, and in most cases have to put up some portion of the project’s cost. This money can’t be used for things like teacher salaries or books.

This year there’s bipartisan legislation to dramatically increase the amount of marijuana money that goes to fund this capital construction. Currently, only the first $40 million in marijuana tax revenue goes to the program. This change would set aside the first 90 percent of marijuana tax revenue for the construction grant program, up to $100 million.

Starting this year, 12.59 percent of marijuana tax revenue is also set aside for the regular education budget. That’s about $20 million a year at current rates.

Other marijuana money is set aside for various grant programs including one that schools can get to help pay for health professionals such as counselors or nurses. As the state collects more marijuana revenue, the amounts set aside for the grant programs has increased.


We asked Colorado teachers about their salaries and classroom needs. Here’s what they said.

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Educators wearing red and holding signs rally for more education funding at the Colorado Capitol on April 26, 2018. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Thousands of Colorado teachers are protesting at the state Capitol this week, demanding more money for schools, higher pay, and protection for their retirement benefits.

Chalkbeat wanted to better understand how the contentious issue of school funding impacts teachers’ lives and the lives of their students. We asked educators around the state to fill out a survey asking about their salaries and the needs they see in their classrooms.

We’ve excerpted some of their responses below.

Tell us about how well your salary matches your cost of living. Do you work a second job? Are there things you personally do without? Or do you feel like you get by?

“I work part-time as a lecturer at a university in the evenings to help my family. I have a child with a neurological disorder, so I have to pick up the slack that our expensive insurance doesn’t cover. I have two other children who need things, too. We are a paycheck-to-paycheck family.”
– Virginia Stewart, kindergarten teacher, Colorado Springs School District 11, $41,000/year

“My salary definitely doesn’t match my cost of living now that my husband was laid off and took a lower-paying job. I have a second job selling essential oils. It brings in an extra $200 to 300 per month. We don’t have a lot of extras in our lives: cable TV, for example. Medical bills have caused credit card debt, and now we’re looking at a kid in college next year!”
– Sarah Hightower, 5th grade teacher, St. Vrain Valley School District, $54,000/year

“I live paycheck-to-paycheck. I have to get scholarships for my own children to attend camps, and I often waitress in the summer. I don’t buy new clothes or go on fancy trips unless my parents pay. Some months I’ve had to choose between food and gas.”
– Vicki Haber, 5th grade teacher, School District 27J, $53,000/year

What’s missing from your school or classroom that could be fixed by more money?

“My textbooks are 17 years old. I’m supposed to teach my students how to use online resources, but I can almost never get time in the computer lab. We need things that should be basic like markers, colored pencils, tissues, etc. But we don’t have any budget for that kind of stuff so what we do have is donated or paid for by me.”
– Rose Pompey, 8th grade social studies teacher, Jeffco Public Schools

“Air conditioning, no cockroaches, better chairs and tables, textbooks, dry erase boards that work, basic classroom supplies like paper, pencils, tissues, etc.”
– Marcea Copeland-Rodde, 7th grade social studies teacher, Pueblo City Schools

“The school I teach at is in a rural community, and it is a very small school. We have kindergarteners through twelfth grade all in one school.

“The school is very old and run down. We often have troubles keeping it warm in the winter time and cool in the early fall and late spring when school is still in session. I often have to teach wearing a winter coat and gloves. Teachers often keep blankets handy to give to students to keep them warm when the heat is not keeping up.

“Most of the classrooms are very small and are inadequate when trying teach larger classes. The rooms need remodeled and need new furniture.

“There is also a need for more technology in the classroom to better engage students. … I often cannot make copies or print anything due to technology that isn’t working and cannot get fixed until Thursday because that is the only day the IT person works at the school.”
– Karlee Harris, middle-level math and social studies teacher, Lone Star School in Otis

Some believe schools don’t need more money, they just need to be funded differently. How do you respond to that?

“We can’t continue to do more with less. It’s not sustainable. Our kids deserve to have what they need to learn: up-to-date materials and resources, chairs that aren’t broken, tables and desks that don’t fall apart when you set a book on them, and teachers who are paid well so that they can focus on doing this one job really well, not worrying about doing two more in addition to teaching to just get by.”
– Teresa Brown, dean of student support, Colorado Springs School District 11

“I believe that the whole education system is in a top-down approach. This is negatively impacting education. I think budget priorities need to be as such:
1. Student/classroom needs
2. Teacher pay
3. Other personnel pay (custodians, support staff, etc.)
4. Administration pay.”
– Quinn McNierney, 5th grade reading, writing, and social studies teacher, Pueblo City Schools

“I agree that if we stopped paying to test students to death, we could save a great deal.”
– Jennifer Martinez, elementary music teacher, Poudre School District

What else would you like to share?

“I won the Mary Simon Award for Exceptional Teaching, and now Colorado is losing a good teacher. I have to move out of state as the cost of living is too high, and the state is not meeting that with their teacher pay. I don’t want to leave Colorado, but for the sake of my future, I have to leave. I am going to go to Texas, where a first year teacher is paid $53,000! I am nowhere close to that pay and I am in year six. Plus, the cost of living is much lower so I’ll finally be able to live a life where it’s not month-to-month and never knowing if I’ll have money for food the last week of each month without having to add to my credit card debt.”
– Shannon Rizza, kindergarten teacher, Aurora Public Schools

“Those who are against teachers are part of the problem. A day without teachers is absolutely necessary. It should inconvenience people. Its impact should be felt. Teachers deserve better and the time is now.”
– Edwina Lucero, high school music teacher, STRIVE Prep, Denver

“The issue is funding as a whole, not just teacher pay. Some believe that’s all we want.”
– Crystal Lytle, 3rd grade teacher, Moffat County School District