11 Call for Action Investigation: El Paso County teacher salaries lower than state average
El Paso County teachers are paid at a rate lower than the state average, even though the county is paying millions in superintendent salaries.
11 News obtained thousands of pages of school district records, digging into where the money for our local schools is really going. With 15 school districts in El Paso County, we've found more than 100 school district executives -- not teachers or principals -- bring in six-figure salaries. 11 News also learned teacher pay is falling well below the state average.
Investigative reporter Katie Pelton asked the head of the teachers union for El Paso, Fremont and Teller counties if he thought teachers are underpaid in our community.
"Absolutely teachers are underpaid," said Tim Cross, the UniServ director for the Pikes Peak Education Association, in response to Katie's question. "They are underpaid around the nation, but I would tell you especially in Colorado because of the tax condition."
Cross says it's hard for some teachers to get by.
"Their [teachers] salaries are sliding so far back that many of them can't live in communities where the cost has outpaced their ability to pay for things," Cross added. "Pay is harder for teachers; I would tell you specifically in El Paso County is a challenge."
11 News has collected the facts to back up Cross' statement. The average pay for teachers in Colorado is $52,728 per year. But combing through data from the Colorado Department of Education, 11 news found El Paso County teachers come in at just $43,000 a year. That's a difference of nearly $10,000.
To the north, Douglas County teachers make $53,000. To the south, Pueblo City and County teachers are paid on average more than $48,000. Teachers in both neighboring counties are making more than teachers in El Paso County.
However, when it comes to high-level executives, El Paso County is spending way more.
Fifteen superintendents are earning a combined $2.4 million, plus more than $13 million for other high-level execs, not including principals. These are people like the deputy superintendent of personnel support services, chief education officers and chief financial officers.
"What's the value of an educator who sits in an office and has very little contact with the students on a daily basis versus the value of an educator who stands in front of them all day long, on their feet, helping the kids actually learn?" Cross asked.
Theresa Null is a District 11 board member who says streamlining districts in the county could free up more money for teacher pay.
"We could cut some of the administration, give it to teachers, give it to education support personnel," Null explained.
But combining the school districts in El Paso County is no easy task.
11 News obtained a report from 2002 from the state Department of Education. It says starting in the 1950s, the state underwent a massive reorganization, taking Colorado from nearly a thousand school districts to 181. But the study says more than anywhere else in Colorado, El Paso County resisted school district reorganization.
The chief financial officer for District 11 tells 11 News voters here like it this way.
"I think it's what our customers want," said Deputy Superintendent/CFO Glenn Bustafon, who works for District 11. "Then you get into some very distinct socioeconomic disparities. Two very close districts are Cheyenne Mountain and Harrison. Well, do we really think that Cheyenne Mountain, which includes the Broadmoor, would want to merge into Harrison School District, where the average free and reduced lunch is almost 80 percent? That's a totally different instructional strategy teaching kids that are achieving at a very high level versus teaching kids of poverty."
Katie Pelton asked Cross if he ever sees our school districts merging.
"The only districts I could see that would take the plunge would be lead by courageous personalities who understand education is before title, compensation, or self-interest. It's a hard leap to make and I think superintendents would say I'm looking out for the unique interest in my community," Cross said.
In 2015, the state of Colorado ranked nearly last for average teacher pay across the country. Colorado came in 49th place according to the National Education Association. Over the last two years, Colorado has ranked 46th.