Lucy Squire just marked her 18th year as a teacher at Copper Mesa Elementary School in Douglas County. One of the things she has that many teachers here and around Colorado don’t is a home.
Squire looks at what Douglas County School District teachers earn and doubts she and her partner today could afford the same home. That’s even considering her current salary as a veteran educator.
“When I started interviewing and looking as a brand new teacher, all of the (school) districts were so comparable with pay,” said Squire, a third-grade teacher. "It didn’t matter where you ended up because they were so similar.”
That was in 2004. Fast forward to today, and differences in teacher pay across Denver metro school districts are often stark.
While teachers in many districts across the state say they are struggling to keep up — particularly amid rising inflation — in Douglas County, south of Denver, teachers say voters have an opportunity to help them.
Squire and others are supporting Ballot Issue 5A on the November ballot to boost pay for teachers and other district staff.
The district “is the largest employer in the county” and serves 64,000 students “yet continues to lag behind in total funding and competitiveness in salary compared to other school districts,” according to a summary of written comments in favor of the proposed property tax increase outlined on the ballot.
While proponents say narrowing the pay gap will help the district compete for and retain teachers, staff and administrators, opponents worry about property taxes amid rising real estate prices. Douglas County real estate is expected to be “reappraised” upward in 2023, so property tax bills are expected to rise even if voters kill Issue 5A, according to the comments against the proposal in Douglas County’s voter information booklet.
The Douglas County opponents’ views in the voter guide also speculate that: “More money spent on education does not buy better education outcomes.”
Shannon Doering — an English teacher at Castle View High School who can’t afford to buy a house with her partner in the region — says if a district isn’t paying teachers well, it can’t expect to keep them, and that affects the quality of education.
“There are certainly worse-paying districts in the state, but in regards to the area, I’d definitely say Douglas County is known as one of the worst-paying districts,” Doering said. “That’s not a secret.”
Addressing a gap
Despite the political divisiveness on Douglas County’s school board, its members unanimously supported asking voters for the proposed tax increase.
Christa Gilstrap, a Highlands Ranch parent, helped organize support for the proposal.
“We’ve got people who support the new board and people who don’t support the new board coming together to get this done,” said Gilstrap, adding that the issue has brought some Republicans and Democrats in the community together.
Gilstrap, a lifelong registered Republican, drives around with paint on her minivan’s back window noting she’s a conservative who backs the proposal.
“The need in Douglas County School District is so great, it justifies a tax increase,” Gilstrap said.
The impact of the tax increase would be $51 per year — about $1 per week — for every $100,000 in the assessed value of a home. For example, a home worth $500,000 in assessed value would pay $5 per week, or $255 per year. (“Assessed” value is the worth of a home for property tax purposes, as determined by the county assessor’s office.)
That translates to an estimated $60 million more in annual revenue for the district. Officials say the figure starts to close the pay gap with other school districts, including Cherry Creek in Arapahoe County.
Douglas County teacher pay, on average $57,900, is lower than nearby districts. Cherry Creek paid about $76,100; Littleton Public Schools $68,700; Jefferson County Public Schools $62,600; and Boulder Valley School District $82,200.
The Douglas County district’s tax proposal comes close on the heels of a boost in pay for Jefferson County teachers. The Jeffco agreement in August raises the minimum salary to $50,000 and increases in salaries for various other pay grades and gives every educator a minimum of $3,000 more.
Pay problem a broader issue
Pay isn’t just contentious among the Denver-area school districts. It’s a statewide issue, according to the nonprofit Colorado School Finance Project.
“We’re one of, if not the, lowest in competitive teacher salaries compared to every other state,” said Tracie Rainey, the project’s executive director.
Research zeroes in on what’s known as a “wage penalty.” It tracks how much less public-school teachers earn in weekly wages relative to their college-educated peers who didn’t become teachers.
Data from the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Economic Policy Institute indicate that Colorado has the largest such gap in the nation. Teachers here earn, on average, 35.9% less than their college-educated, non-teacher peers.
Add to the equation that some school districts in Colorado collect more in taxes than others and it means some struggle to be competitive in terms of pay, according to Rainey.
Douglas County hasn’t been as successful as other districts at passing funding proposals in elections, so “they don’t have the additional local revenue and therefore will be on the lower side of pay,” Rainey said.
Not ‘just complaining’
Doering, the Castle View High educator, is in her fifth year of teaching. She said she doesn’t want “to be a millionaire.”
“I didn’t get into teaching to make (a lot) of money,” Doering said. “I want to be able to leave work and not have to think, ‘Hmm, am I going to have to get a second job in order to pay my rent, in order to buy a house, in order to start a family?’”
She doesn’t want to leave the district. If she does, it would be because of the relatively low pay. Doering makes less than $50,000 per year.
“I love the kids I teach. It would really break my heart if I had to leave because of money,” Doering said.
The average teacher in the Douglas County School District is expected to get a 9% bump in pay if the tax proposal passes.
Squire, the third-grade teacher at Copper Mesa, said she took the year off when her first child was born but could not do so when she had a second child because of income needs.
“A lot of my teacher colleagues tutor on the side as a way to make money,” Squire said.
Squire makes roughly $70,000 a year. She hasn’t talked in specifics about how her pay compares with that of her friends in education in other Denver-area districts, but they’re aware of the sense there’s a gap.
“I have friends in Jeffco, Cherry Creek and Littleton … we just know that the joke is I work in Douglas County. It’s just become laughable,” Squire said.
Doering has felt defensive about pay at times. She wants people to know that teachers aren’t “just complaining” about pay.
“This isn’t like some issue over curriculum. This isn’t an issue over admin or a decision a teacher made. This is my living,” Doering said.
“When you can’t afford to live someplace, something’s got to give,” she said.