Tiny School District Raises Salaries to $80k and You'll Never Guess What Happened

Montezuma Creek, Utah, is a small town — pop. 500, alt. 4423 ft — just inside the northern boundary of the Navajo Nation’s reservation, just west of Four Corners, on the banks of the San Juan River. If you grew up in the High Desert, it’s a pretty little place, with high bluffs, the river running in a deep arroyo that — if you squint just right — you can see as a sapling growing into the Grand Canyon. The air is clean and dry, the skies are clear, and at night the sky can seem a light year across.

Or, if you’re not a desert rat with a romantic streak, it’s a dusty little dump that looks like a soundstage for a Road Runner cartoon.

It’s a tough environment for school teachers because the kids in class aren’t just dealing with learning to read and write. In a story in the Deseret News, the local paper for the area, they put it this way:

While on the job, teachers at Montezuma Creek Elementary School face working conditions to which most public school teachers in Utah would be completely unaccustomed.

The school, near Four Corners, is remote and in an area that struggles with extreme poverty, high rates of absenteeism, homelessness, substance use disorders and frequent turnover of teachers.

In San Juan County’s communities to the north — Blanding, Monticello and La Sal — about half of the district’s teachers have been in the classroom 14-plus years, said Ron Nielson, elementary supervisor for the San Juan School District.

“Down south at Montezuma Creek, Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary and at Bluff, the average at those three schools is 7 percent of our teachers have been in the classroom 14-plus years,” Nielson said.

“It didn’t take a lot of real deep analysis to realize we had a retention problem and even to some degree attracting the right talent.”

So, the school district came up with a very creative solution: they offered more money. They got a grant to start a special program to bring in expert teachers, paying as much as $80,000 a year. The extra money is nice, but what’s possibly more important is that since your retirement is based on your last few years’ salary, it can increase your retirement substantially.

These senior teachers don’t just teach the students — they mentor younger teachers as well.

“If you have a very veteran member of the team, it’s very helpful when a new teacher has questions, when they need help and support, they can turn to someone,” Nielson said. “But if all four teachers in your professional learning community or both of you in the same grade level are first-year teachers and you’re struggling, it’s pretty hard to lean on the other person when you know they’re struggling just as much as you are.”

The result:

After the first year, Montezuma Creek, by the state accountability system, went from an F to a C. We were really pleased with the data. We were really pleased with the growth scores, even just the morale,” Nielson said.

The program was launched with a grant, and administrators now seek to expand the effort to other schools, hoping higher salaries will entice seasoned educators to become lead teachers at schools in the southern portion of the 8,000-square-mile school district.

The goal is to hire lead teachers in both elementary and secondary schools using a combination of school- and district-level funds.

It doesn’t seem like a very surprising result: you pay a higher salary to attract better teachers, your results improve. But compare that with, for example, the New York City schools, where the budgets are dramatically higher — but the additional funds go to pay for administrators and “non-teaching professionals.” The Montezuma Creek schools have taken a different approach: they are concentrating on hiring expert teachers and paying them enough to make the job — in a difficult district on a Road Runner set — an attractive one.

Maybe they’re on to something.