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UEA skeptical of high teacher-pay ranking

Utah teacher compensation ranks second among eight mountain states in salary and benefits, keeping the state competitive in attracting the best and brightest, the Utah Taxpayers Association reported Tuesday.

But the Utah Education Association says compensation was third among those states in 1996-97. Jim Eldredge, UEA director of government relations, says the discrepancy comes from "educated guesses" used in gathering information from surrounding states not required to report benefits information, as Utah is."There is no reliable collection of benefit data," he said. "I'm afraid there's some real errors in their methodology . . . to distort it to make it look like we're much better than we are."

The State Office of Legislative Fiscal Analyst compiled the numbers used in the report. Gary Ricks, an analyst working with public education, says Western states were surveyed for benefits figures.

"(There) may be some truth to it in that we're speaking with people in different states that have different kinds of education programs and funding in place," Ricks said. "Generally, the data can be reasonably relied on. If you want to really get in and split hairs, that's something that can be done."

But Ricks said his office is not attempting to distort reality; the survey was intended to look at a range of compensation data to paint a broad picture.

"Overall, the report attempts to show salary and compensation for the state of Utah is not way out of line with all the other Western states," he said. "I personally believe teachers really do deserve higher levels of compensation. . . . But to just be totally lambasting the Legislature, that they really haven't provided enough funding, there are some other issues that need to be considered."

The taxpayer association reports the average Utah teacher compensation for 1996-97 at $43,557, or $2,109 more than the average for neighboring states Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Arizona. Nevada was No. 1.

Average yearly benefits were estimated at $11,690, or $3,000 more than the other states' averages. Benefits represent nearly 27 percent of Utah teachers' compensation. The average teacher salary that year was $31,867.

When adjusted using the American Federation of Teachers' Cost of Living Index, compensation in Utah was $45,184, placing it in second place behind Nevada, which averaged $45,461, the report states. The adjusted number includes career ladder money not existing in all states and benefits.

But figures were adjusted inaccurately, Eldredge said. The American Federation of Teachers cost of living index comes from research by the American Chamber of Commerce, which states it is not for use as an exact measurement.

Phyllis Sorensen, president of the UEA, a 19,000-strong teachers union, said the report unfairly reduces the public education funding discussion to salaries and that the report is politically motivated.

The taxpayer association is led by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who has butted heads with the union.

Sorensen noted that Utah's per-pupil spending is rock-bottom in the nation and that teachers fork out some $600 a year for classroom supplies to make up for funding shortfalls.

Greg Fredde, vice president of the taxpayers association, notes teachers' dissatisfaction with funding and dramatic increases in health insurance premiums this year. Still, he said more than half of Utah's 40 school districts indicate they intend to provide a cost-of-living pay hike of between 1 percent and 3.2 percent.

Fredde calls the report "a celebration of taxpayers' generosity," as Utahns spend more personal income on education than nearly all other states. One-fourth of Utah's population is school-age children, however, leaving fewer taxpayers to shoulder the cost of educating them.

"The intent of this press release was to simply indicate how generous taxpayers have been to public education," Fredde said.

"If anything, this is to rebut insinuations to public education that legislators and taxpayers have not prioritized public education," he said.