Getting to a $60K Minimum Teacher Salary in Tolleson Union High School District, Arizona
Our schools are facing a workforce crisis. Nationally, there are 36,500 teacher vacancies, with another 163,500 unqualified individuals filling teaching positions (Nguyen, 2022). Teacher preparation program enrollment is down by one-third between 2010 and 2018 (Partelow, 2019). Sadly, 62% of parents do not want their children to become teachers, up from 30% in 2009 and the worst level ever since these data were first collected in 1969; the top reason for turning their backs to teaching is low salaries (PDK, 2022). Below we outline how one school district, Tolleson Union High School District, is turning this around through $60,000 minimum teacher salaries.
Tolleson Union High School District’s $60,000 Minimum Teacher Salary Policy
Tolleson Union High School District is a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. The district is home to seven high schools and one online high school, which together serve 12,000 high school students and employ 550 teachers. The student population is 79% Latino/a, 9% African American, 6% White, and 6% other; the poverty rate is 15%. Eighty-three percent of students graduate high school within 4 years and one of the district’s high schools is consistently ranked among the top 20 for student performance nationwide.
In 2014, local educator and activist (and recently appointed State Representative) Devin Del Palacio ran for a seat on the Tolleson Union High School District Governing Board. At the time, teacher retention was low and there was no recognized teachers’ association. One of Del Palacio’s first goals was to make Tolleson Unified High School District the #1 best paying district for teachers in the region. When colleagues called the teacher salary goal “crazy,” Del Palacio replied, “Well, let’s see what we can manage over time.”
Del Palacio drafted and then helped pass a Meet & Confer Policy, which shifted district decision-making to a much more inclusive activity. The intention was to provide everyone - certified staff, classified staff, and administrative staff - a meaningful and direct voice in district decision-making. Teachers could directly bring their salary recommendations to the district governing board…and they did, each year. For each of the last 8 years, teachers brought a salary recommendation to the table and the board unanimously voted to approve it. In 2023, the district reached a $60,000 minimum (an increase from a $52,172 minimum the prior year).
Del Palacio explained that they also understood that, “while teacher pay was the main thing, it was not everything.” They paid attention to providing competitive, professional benefits, sick time, PTO, benefits, and a strong working environment. These investments were supported financially by local bonds and overrides (alongside careful financial planning).
The teachers’ recommendations regarding livable, competitive salaries were not at odds with the district’s goal of ensuring all staff were compensated for their expertise and contributions, and at levels that would improve teacher retention. However, hearing directly from their teachers about how salaries impact their ability to stay in the profession and give their best to their students cemented the case.
Enabling Conditions and Challenges
Del Palacio emphasized just how important it was to have teachers’ voices at the table via the Meet & Confer policy for achieving progressive teacher raises for eight years, leading to a minimum of $60,000. The other key to the district’s teacher salary success was their ability to pass bonds and overrides. The district did this several times, with each initiative passing with more than 60% of the community’s vote. This funding allowed them to provide teacher raises and still maintain $60-$70 million in reserves. Despite losing funds to declining enrollment and new voucher programs, meeting the $60,000 minimum teacher salary was well within their budget given careful planning and the community bonds/overrides.
How did the district manage to pass the bonds and overrides? Del Palacio cites a supportive community and extreme transparency about how money will be spent (and how it is being and has been spent). The community has every reason to trust the district with its finances; after all, the district maintains a Triple A credit rating, has had zero financial scandals, and is hyper-transparent. Whether raising funds for a gym renovation, 1:1 laptops, or recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, the district leadership goes out of their way to show the community that they did what they said they would do with their funds.
At the time of the elections, the district doubled down on providing clear messaging to the community about the rationale for bonds or overrides. For example, messaging included:
- “High-quality teachers will help students reach their full potential.”
- “The district is prioritizing attracting and retaining high-quality teachers and an important component of that is salary.”
- “Excellent teachers will also improve the local economy as businesses come to the community.”
- “Home values will increase and public safety will improve.”
The district also engaged in participatory budgeting, which involves inviting community members to prioritize whether resources are directed toward teachers or to a range of other priorities. Seeing the community support for investing in teachers made it even easier for district leadership to commit to doing so.
The road was not without some bumps. The “Red for Ed” teacher strikes in Arizona and school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic did create some friction in community relationships and trust, but the district was able to overcome these challenges with strong messaging. An example message during these more challenging times was that “Teachers are here for the children; but while they are not working with the goal of driving a Lamborghini one day, we want them to show up to school whole and be able to be their best selves, which requires that they be compensated fairly.”
Impact and Advice for Other Leaders
During eight years of progressive teacher salary increases, teacher retention has steadily climbed and is now at a remarkable 94%. Del Palacio would advise other districts looking to similarly initiate significant teacher salary increases to begin with a Meet & Confer policy. Ensuring teachers (and everybody) had a seat at the table was key, and was a value shared by all leadership - the district superintendent, the governing board, and others. Cementing the Meet & Confer in policy is important for ensuring that, should different leadership take over with less interest in listening to teachers directly, their presence at the table will remain. Next, according to Del Palacio, take a careful look at the district budget, reserves, and staffing schedules, and raise new funds as needed via bonds and overrides, coupled with thoughtful messaging and financial transparency.
While parallel conversations about teacher salaries at the state and federal level may help, ultimately so much decision-making comes down to the local level where too often the teacher salary policy conversations are simply absent. “People want to see teachers paid,” concluded Del Pelacio. “It’s just a case of getting decision-makers to move.”