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Teacher salaries, benefits analyzed

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With the focus on teacher salaries in Colorado and a nine-day, statewide teacher strike in Oklahoma, Delta County Joint School District #50 recently conducted a salary analysis. Results, reported at a school board work session last week, indicate beginning teacher salaries are "light," but the longer teachers stay in the district, the higher their earning power by comparison.

According to an independent analysis of salary and benefits, the salary for a teacher with a bachelor's degree in Delta County ranks 36th out of 178 school districts. Salaries for first-year teachers come in at 119th out of the 178 school districts in Colorado. The 26-year "earning power" ranking puts Delta County 68th out of 178 based on the salary schedule alone. When combined with family benefits, the power ranking moves to 50th.

When compared to neighboring school districts, business manager Jim Ventrello said beginning salaries are at least $1,000 less; however, teachers in Delta County are paid for 177 days, while teachers in Mesa and Montrose are contracted for 184 and 178 days, respectively.

To round out the picture, Gibson noted that 77 percent of per-pupil funding is spent in the classroom and 23 percent goes to operations. "This shows the district's dedication to students and staff of Delta County," Gibson said.

Discussion about salaries for all 50J staff members is taking place as the 2018-19 budget is being formulated. A salary increase of 3.12 percent is proposed for certified staff members (teachers). Overall, certified staff are receiving a 6.8 percent increase over the past two years.

The school district has also worked to improve the classified salary schedules. The majority of classified staff received a 4 percent increase last year, with proposed 4 percent increases the next two years.

To make beginning teacher salaries more attractive, school board member Jan Tuin suggested a signing bonus. Gibson said the school district does offer moving assistance for teachers in high needs areas, such as math. "We have to; otherwise they won't look at us," she said.

About 70 percent of the district's total budget is allocated to salaries and benefits. The school district's contribution to PERA, the Public Employee Retirees Association, is set by the state legislature at 20.15 percent and will be raised to 21.15 percent on July 1. The employee contribution is also going up, with the goal of reaching 11 percent by Jan. 1, 2020.

With increases in PERA contributions, Gibson was reluctant to consider any increase to employee health insurance. Health insurance premiums in the school district went up 1 percent two years ago and have not been increased since, despite recommended increases from the district's broker, Jim Hermann of Willis Towers Watson.

He was at the work session April 13 to update school board members on the district's self-funded insurance policy. Due to a number of several unusually large claims in the school district, fixed costs, in the form of premiums for umbrella coverage, are going up considerably. "If you went out on your own, you'd be seeing at least a 20 percent increase," Hermann said. Medical inflation alone averages 6 percent per year.

But because the large claims fell under the district's umbrella coverage, the district was reimbursed and able to grow health insurance reserves to $3.4 million.

With those reserves, the school district can weather a rocky year. "I just worry about down the road," Ventrello said.

He and Gibson said it will be hard to increase employee premiums with a growing fund balance. If health insurance is increased by 2 or 3 percent, it would offset any increase in salary.

School board members with backgrounds in the private sector, where sizable increases are an annual occurrence, argued that maintaining insurance premiums at the current level is not realistic. "At some point we could end up in the hole," said school board member Jill Jurca.

Gibson said she would come up with several options for salaries and benefits for school board members to consider in the coming weeks.

"When you go back to the staff with a 0 percent increase in health insurance, I hope you'll point out the row increase of 2.3 percent is more like 5.3 percent," said school board president Pete Blair.

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