Stein column: Roaring Fork Schools aspire to pay fair, competitive, living wages to all employees
The voters of the Roaring Fork Schools generously approved a Mill Levy Override in November 2021 to be used for teacher and staff retention and recruitment efforts. The majority of the funds will be used to increase wages for all employees, except senior leadership, while a small percentage — approximately 12% — are set aside for other retention and recruitment efforts.
Through ongoing conversations and listening sessions with all employee groups, and research about equitable compensation practices, we are developing a blueprint for providing fair, competitive and living wages in the Roaring Fork Schools.
We learned that there is no global definition of a fair wage; fairness is largely determined by agreement between employers and employees. Through conversations with employees, we zeroed in on four principles to ensure fairness:
1. Increase wages for our lowest paid employees by raising our minimum wage to $18/hour and have it increase as funding increases thereafter.
Hourly wages for the lowest paid employees in the Roaring Fork Schools in 2021 were just under $14. When annualized, that comes out at approximately the federal poverty threshold for a family of four ($27,750). We’re also exploring how to lift up our lowest paid teachers. The Colorado Education Association, the state teacher’s union, has advocated a minimum annual salary for teachers of $50,000; I am hoping we can make this happen. In spite of Colorado’s low school funding levels, this new funding should allow us to lift our lowest paid employees above the poverty level, and to pay all teachers a professional wage.
2. Allocate a fair share for teachers.
We have historically allocated more than 60% of new dollars toward certified employees (teachers, special service providers, and principals), making sure that a steady majority of dollars continues to go to classroom teaching. As our budget increases, the share that goes to teachers increases proportionately. We plan to continue this practice.
3. Wages should be proportional to avoid pay discrepancies within the organization.
School pay structures tend to be more egalitarian than in the corporate or even nonprofit sector. Whereas corporate CEO’s commonly earn dozens or hundreds of times more than starting wages in a company, school district employees strenuously object when pay discrepancies go beyond a certain point. Therefore, we are looking at a two-to-one ratio in setting the starting and maximum hourly rate for any job classification, and a five-to-one ratio made famous by Ben and Jerry’s in the 1990s, meaning that the highest-paid employee should receive a daily wage that was no more than five times greater than the lowest paid employee.
4. Value experience and contributions to the district.
We have traditionally valued experience through pay schedules that increase pay as employees gain more experience. Our revised pay structure would put additional value on longevity in the organization by allowing more employees to carry years of experience as they move laterally within the organization, allowing employees to take on new roles without financial penalty.
We set a long-term goal of paying our teachers and staff members a competitive wage. For teachers, we used a traditional list of 10 similar school districts to define our market. For employee groups such as food services, facilities and transportation, who are working in a local market, we did extensive local market research and adjusted accordingly.
Paying a fair and competitive salary isn’t enough. We also strive to provide a total compensation package that provides a living wage — compensation that is adequate to maintain a decent standard of living, including healthcare, retirement savings, housing, and educational opportunities.
The Roaring Fork Schools provides full health benefits to all full-time employees, and we are constantly looking for ways to increase access to healthcare for families and dependents of our employees. We also, along with all school districts in Colorado, offer an employee retirement program through the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA), contributing 21% to PERA on top of every dollar we pay in salary. These two benefits, combined, add an additional $10 to the hourly compensation of an employee earning our new minimum wage of $18.
The school district made a significant investment in employee housing thanks to the generosity of voters in 2015; we now offer 66 rental units to teachers and staff members at sub-market rates. Still, housing remains the key challenge to affordability in our communities. Therefore, we are exploring an expansion of our housing program with a portion of the 12% of MLO dollars not allocated for salaries, and would like to dedicate a minimum of $1 million this year in order to break ground on at least 30 units next year.
As an educational institution, we pride ourselves in our commitment to education. Therefore, we are looking to establish an employee education fund to provide a path toward advancement for our lower paid employees and to develop an internal pipeline to fill hard-to-fill positions in our organization.
Of course, nobody goes into education for the material rewards. We heard from employees about the intangible benefits of working in our schools and communities and about ways we could do more. We heard an overwhelming sense of gratitude to our voters for giving us this opportunity to invest in the teachers and staff members that make our schools so strong.
Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork School District schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
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