With public school teachers pondering a strike vote this week and planning to hold peaceful “walk-ins” again today, April 18, Ahwatukee students and their parents may yet see the waning school year end in chaos.
Gov. Doug Ducey on April 12 rolled out his plan to raise teacher salaries by 20 percent over the next three years – but leaders of the statewide #RedforEd movement called his response inadequate as they began polling teachers across the state on a possible strike.
Ducey rolled out his plan a day after teachers, administrators, parents and even some students – clad in the now-signature red T-shirts of the #RedforEd movement – gathered in front of most Ahwatukee public schools before class began, waving signs and chanting while passing motorists blared horns in apparent support.
More than 400 Kyrene teachers repeated that peaceful demonstration after class at the district headquarters in Tempe, eventually manning all four corners of Kyrene and Warner roads to voice their demands.
Those demands extend well beyond a 20 percent raise – which still keeps Arizona teachers’ salaries below the national average.
They include wage increases for cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other classified staff; decreased class size; the restoration of overall state funding for schools to 2008 levels; no further state tax reductions until per-pupil spending reaches the national average and other demands.
Ducey’s plan initially seemed an effort to neutralize a threat of stronger action made April 10 by Noah Karvelis of Arizona Educators United – which has been leading Red for Ed along with the Arizona Education Association.
The governor also upstaged a proposal made a few hours earlier by house Speaker J.D. Mesnard, who proposed giving teachers the 20 percent increase over five years by shifting money currently designated for other school needs, including supplies, computers, buses and other necessities.
The day before the announcement, however, teachers expressed frustration over their salaries and overall education funding in the state – although they were divided on whether they were prepared for stronger action if the walk-ins proved ineffective.
And for many, that frustration likely will be unassuaged by Ducey’s announcement – especially since the Legislature still has to approve each of the three-year salary increases he proposed for teachers.
Mesnard, who was at the governor’s side when he unveiled his proposal at a press onference, was noncommittal, saying he wanted to hear more details of Ducey’s plan – particularly where the money would come from.
“Arizona is starving our schools and our teachers. It’s time for it to end,” Sharon Johnson, a first-grade teacher at Lagos Dual Language Academy, told the enthusiastic crowd at the rally at Kyrene district headquarters – which was joined by Superintendent Jan Vesely, school board members Bernadette Coggins and Michelle Fahy and state Sen. Sean Bowie.
At Desert Vista High School, teacher Lara Bruner exhorted scores of demonstrators:
“The state Legislature must meet the needs of the young people of Desert Vista, of all children in Arizona. It is their responsibility that they have abandoned. In good times, they cut taxes. In bad times, they cut taxes. And we are left with crumbs. Our schools deserve better. Our teachers deserve better. Our students deserve better.”
Mountain Pointe High engineering teacher Mel Wendell talked of how the teacher shortage – fueled by an unattractive salary and inadequate supplies – was forcing bigger class sizes.
She and other teachers took umbrage at Ducey’s April 10 comment that the Red for Ed movement was “playing politics.”
“We’re here for the students and we’re not here to influence any election or political movement,” Wendell said.
Asked whether she and her colleagues thought stronger action by teachers might be necessary, she replied, “It’s not something we want to do. It is something I’m prepared to do.”
That likelihood of stronger action before the school year ends already has triggered concern among district officials.
Tempe Union High School Superintendent Kenneth Baca, who joined the Mountain Pointe walk-in, said his staff is preparing contingency plans in case teachers walk out before the school year ends next month.
“I think we have to be prepared for everything,” Baca said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that students are taken care of. We want to be very cognizant of the needs of our seniors and want to ensure nothing deters their ability to graduate.”
Vesely said on Monday that Kyrene schools will shut down if teachers walk – and that classes will be made up, if necessary, starting May 25 until Kyrene reaches the state-mandated 180 days of instruction.
“Any activity that forces the cancellation of class or interrupts the learning of the children with whom we are entrusted would be unacceptable,” she said, praising Ducey for his “clear message of his awareness of the value of qualified teachers in every classroom, the understanding that an engaged teacher may be the greatest indicator of student success, and the undeniable fact that those teachers, who are in service to our children every day, were being woefully underpaid.”
“We are aware of the concern and potential for walkout and will, as always, keep the families and children of Kyrene as our first concern,” Vesely also said, adding:
“We are very fortunate to have the support of the Kyrene community, who have consistently endorsed public education, adding funding through local ballot initiatives and being present in school activities – as parents, business partners and community.”
Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association said his organization is having a webinar for school officials on how to handle both walk-ins and walkouts.
Both Baca and Ogle stressed, however, that education funding may have reached the breaking point in Arizona.
Ogle said Arizona has a “crisis” in attracting and retaining teachers, while Baca made it clear that the rallies are just not about hiking teacher pay.
Teachers in the Ahwatukee walk-ins stressed that the onus for the crisis falls on the Legislature.
“We need help,” said Mountain Pointe ceramics teacher Teresa Gilchrist, holding her 2-year-old son as she joined her colleagues on the curb before class. “Our community has supported us with bond and budget overrides but we need more.”
A teacher for seven years, Gilchrist nodded to her son and added, “If I was not married, I could not support myself and him.”
Nine-year Mountain Pointe culinary and marketing teacher Marish Varley talked of how inadequate funding sometimes leaves her students incapable of using the kitchen to learn cooking skills.
“If a stove is broken, they can’t cook,” she said, adding that students are beginning to accept that status quo because they have seen it repeated so often.
“I feel like things are getting worse,” Varley said, citing increasing student performance requirements at the same time she and other teachers scramble for adequate classroom tools.
Asked if she thought stronger action will be needed, Varley replied, “We have had conversations with other people. If we are unified and make the decision to walk out, I will walk out.”
Teachers seemed split on a walkout, some echoing remarks from teachers in other nearby districts.
“When you say you are going to walk out, you have to be prepared to walk out,” said Diane Drazinski, president of the Gilbert Education Association.
Drazinski noted that teachers in West Virginia planned for three years before going on strike last month for two weeks, ultimately winning with their demand for a 5 percent pay hike.
Josh Buckley, president of the Mesa Education Association, was guarded as well. But he acknowledged the possibility of a walkout, citing a button worn by one teacher recently that read, “I don’t want to strike but I will.”
However, Johnson, the Lagos teacher who helped organize the rally at Kyrene District headquarters, said, “I’m not ready for a walkout.”
But few teachers gave any indication of anything but growing anger and frustration.
“In 1987, Arizona’s per pupil funding was at the national average. Where are we now? The bottom,” Bruner told the Desert Vista rally, accusing Ducey of short-changing public schools while supporting expanded vouchers for charter students.
“The only thing he has spearheaded is the siphoning of public funds to private vouchers,” she said. “Attempts to restore school funding have been the work of educators and community members who have sued the legislature for violating the will of the people.”
Of state representatives, she said:
“So, what is the fruit of their labor, or lack thereof? Air conditioning systems that struggle to cool rooms. Carpets that smell like dirty socks. Desks collapsing on students. Duct-taped textbooks that are older than the teenagers that use them. And some of the largest class sizes in the country.”
-Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.