Aspen teachers want higher starting pay beginning at $50k per year
Though teachers at the Aspen School District received salary raises last year, starting pay is similar to other mountain communities but lower than what some are making on the Front Range.
It’s an issue that has flared up during campaign season with two Board of Education seats on the line, but Aspen school teachers have been airing their concerns about compensation for years. At the same time, Colorado first-year teachers averaged $33,483 for 2017-18, sixth lowest in the U.S., according to the National Education Association.
In Monday’s Aspen Times, the six candidates in the race for the two open seats on the Aspen board give their views on teacher pay and housing.
At a Sept. 23, board meeting, Mark Munger, speaking on behalf of the Aspen Education Association, made a plea for teachers’ entry-level salary to be raised from $43,000 to $50,000 to stay competitive with the state’s top performing school districts. A similar request is being made at Eagle County Schools, where its teachers union also wants starting salaries raised to $50,000 a year.
Aspen and Eagle teachers use Westminster schools as the standard for starting teacher pay. The Denver suburb pays the highest of all Colorado districts — $50,497 for an entry-level teacher with a bachelor’s degree.
“These districts do not have resources we do,” Munger said. Munger urged the board to make teacher pay part of the strategic plan it began work on earlier this year.
“Our goal is to continue moving our salaries to a $50,000 salary in order to attract and retain the quality staff that our community demands,” Munger read from a statement. “The strategic planning work that has begun to create a more effective school district must take into consideration the compensation of ASD employees.”
The district risks losing faculty members to other districts that have a lower cost of living but pay a higher wage, Munger said, noting that district has a 14% teacher-turnover rate. The state teacher-turnover average was 16.4% in 2018-19, according to the CDE.
Middle school teacher Dana Berro also told board members that the compensation doesn’t reflect the extra work teachers do, such as the Outdoor Ed trips they take.
“We feel that it’s long overdue that people are compensated for spending their weekends” on Outdoor Ed, she said, noting teachers just get six hours of planning time for the trips, and they also need specific skills as supervisors.
For Stephanie Nixon, who has been teaching visual arts at Aspen High School for 12 years, the demands of the job have grown because of student interest in the class. Sixty students are taking International Baccalaureate visual arts, a figure she said is the highest in the state, if not the country.
“It’s becoming increasingly harder for me to do it myself,” Nixon told the board at last month’s meeting, “so I’ve been trying to attract and retain teachers who have the content skills and knowledge to teach International Baccalaureate, and I’ve gone through two art teachers in the last five years, for various reasons but mostly because they had to take pay cuts from wherever they came from, or I can’t attract teachers with skill.”
When it comes to mountain-town communities, Aspen schools offer similar starting pay. In Telluride and Summit, first-year teachers earn $43,500; that figure is $42,000 in Eagle County; Roaring Fork Schools is $39,932, according to the CDE.
But that’s not good enough, many have argued, because of Aspen’s exorbitant cost of living, where it’s impossible for a person living on strictly a teacher’s salary to afford free-market housing. Real estate stats bear that out; through August of this year, the average price for a single-family home was $7.4 million and the average price for a condo was $2.15 million, according to the Aspen Board of Realtors.
The Aspen School District owns 50 employee-housing units. For this school year, 24 teachers occupy those units, while other staff members take up the remaining space.
The 127 full-time teachers at Aspen’s elementary, middle and high schools earned an average annual salary of $64,061 in 2018-19, according to the Colorado Department of Education. That same year, Aspen teachers saw a salary increase of about 5%.
Teachers at Cherry Creek, which the Aspen district often uses as a comparison because of its high academic rankings and tax base, earned an average pay of $74,626 last school year.
The 16.6 teachers at the Aspen Community School, which is part of the district, averaged $46,895 in pay for 2018-19.
The average Colorado teacher earns $54,950 annually, according to Colorado Department of Education data.
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After relaxing the lease restrictions at the city-owned Marolt Ranch affordable housing complex, the units are all spoken for this winter.