teachers stay on the street

Teachers marched at the State Capitol Wednesday chanting, "No budget, no school."

Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

The State Legislature early today passed the bill giving teachers and school districts money, moving Arizona one step closer to the resumption of classes as Gov. Doug Ducey signed the measure.

The bill passed on a straight party line vote in the State House while four Democrats in the Senate - including state Sen. Sean Bowie of Ahwatukee - voted with Republicans to approve the measure in that chamber. Mesa state Sen. David Farnsworth was not in attendance throughout the all-night session in which hundreds of teachers maintained a vigil as legislators debated the bill.

Virtually all school districts in the East Valley - including Kyrene and Tempe Union - will reopen for regular classes Friday, May 4.

Republican lawmakers pushed through their $10.4 billion spending plan after rejecting multiple attempts by Democrats to add more money to the budget for public education.

The key part of the package provides for a 9 percent pay increase for teachers this coming year, at least on average. And there is a commitment for future 5 percent raises in each of the next two years.

But the Republicans who control both the House and Senate spurned proposals to enact several other demands by striking teachers, including giving raises to support staff, shrinking class size and adding money for more school counselors.

Even the presence of several hundred teachers in the galleries -- and more outside, some having a candlelight vigil while singing "America the Beautiful'' and "Amazing Grace'' -- appeared to have no effect on getting additional dollars for public schools out of lawmakers.

"The people down here, a lot of them, don't listen to our voices,'' said Noah Karvelis. He is one of the organizers of Arizona Educators United, the group that crafted the #RedForEd movement that, along with the Arizona Education Association, organized the strike that began last Thursday.

"They don't respond,'' Karvelis continued. "If they did, we'd have $1.1 billion for education in this budget.''

But with the budget now approved and nothing more to be gained, teachers are expected to start returning to the classroom Friday, ending the state's first-ever teacher walkout that affected the majority of the 1.1 million public school students.

The lesson of all this for educators, Karvelis said, is to remain politically organized.

"We have an incredible infrastructure and movement built,'' he said.

"Now we've got to sustain it and bring answers,'' Karvelis said. "And one of the ways we do that is through the ballot now.''

The strike produced no concessions. But the Arizona #RedForEd movement, formed in the wake of the strike of West Virginia teachers that got them a 5 percent pay hike, does have some things to show for itself.

Most significant is that 19 percent pay hike by the 2020-2021 school year.

The session started with Gov. Doug Ducey offering teachers just a 1 percent salary increase, insisting that's all the state could afford. But massive demonstrations and some Republican lawmakers crafting their own plans led to Ducey jumping out front last month, saying he found sufficient funds, largely from future economic growth, to finance the pay hike.

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, pointed out to teachers in the gallery that Republicans were the only one voting for the bill with that 19 percent pay hike, with Democrats opposed.

"So I want the Arizona voters to know and to remember who defended the teachers in November,'' Kern said.

That drew derision from Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, who said the package does not restore the more than $1 billion the Republican-controlled Legislature cut from K-12 education in the past decade.

"You can't set a house on fire, call 911 and claim to be a hero,'' he said.

But House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, chided Democrats for complaining now that a 19 percent increase it too little even as they pushed last year, albeit unsuccessfully, for a 4 percent hike.

Even with the complaints that the state should have done more, four Senate Democrats joined with the 16 Republicans present to support the pay plan; all 25 House Democrats were solid in their opposition.

Salary aside, there are the things that Democrats sought to add to the spending plan and Republicans voted to reject.

Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma sought to expand the definition of "teachers'' -- those eligible for the pay hike -- to include counselors, social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists and librarians, all people excluded from getting a share of the earmarked raises.

Republicans were opposed to that, as well as to requiring one counselor for every 250 students.

There also was no GOP support for the proposal by Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, to limit class size to no more than 25 students.

"Research shows that students in smaller classes perform better in all subjects and on all assessments,'' Butler said. She also said it provides teachers with the time for more one-on-one time with students.

"They get to spot academic problems, see if someone is being bullied or depressed.''

But Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who sits on a school board, said these decisions should be left to local school boards.

On the revenue side of the equation, Republicans spurned several proposals to raise more money to ensure that there will not only be the dollars for future promised teacher pay raises but to finance some of the other priorities and restore per-student funding back to at least 2008 levels. That included phasing out some tax exemptions and eliminating the ability of individuals and corporations to divert some of what they owe in state income taxes to help children attend private and parochial schools.

But it wasn't just Democrats who found themselves frozen out from making adjustments to the deal that had been hammered out between the GOP leaders and Ducey.

Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, who has been a vocal opponent of the teacher walkout sought to make it illegal for teachers to "use classroom time to espouse political ideology or beliefs,'' language that could be read to preclude teachers from wearing their #RedForEd T-shirts in class. But Majority Leader John Allen, R-Scottsdale, said her proposal was not part of the official budget deal.

Allen also shot down another Townsend proposal which would impose $5,000 fines on districts that close schools on days they were supposed to be open. Permissible exceptions would include invasion, riot, epidemic, plagues of insects and acts of God -- but not strikes.

Townsend said many students and parents were not only inconvenienced by the strike and the closure of schools but may have suffered financial losses because of having to change travel plans for graduation or vacations. And she lashed out at teachers who were in the gallery -- teachers presumably on strike -- who were watching the debate.

"You should not be able to do that to the people of this state because you want funding,'' she said.

Townsend said she understands how funding decisions are made at the Legislature. And she seemed to indicate some empathy with the concerns of teachers.

"But you do not get to hurt the people of this state because I represent them as well,'' Townsend said. "And I will do everything I can to ensure that their losses are recouped.''

Not everything the Democrats tried to add to the budget was related to school funding -- or even to money.

For example, Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, sought a state law to prohibit wage discrimination based on sex and to make it illegal for companies to forbid workers from disclosing their own salaries. That was beaten back.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, had no better luck in trying to roll back Republican-crafted laws that allow judges to disqualify initiative petitions if all the documents are not in "strict compliance'' with all election laws.

And the Republican majority rebuffed a proposal by Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, to set up a system that automatically registers people to vote when they get a state driver's license.

All East Valley school districts reversed plans to reopen Thursday when it became clear teachers largely refused to return to work after it appeared like the bill would not come up for a vote before today.

Kyrene and Tempe Union announced late Wednesday they would stay closed Thursday.

"We did not want to close schools unless it was absolutely necessary, however at this time, there is not sufficient staff available to ensure the safety and security of students while on campus and therefore, schools must remain closed," Tempe Union spokeswoman Jen Liewer said. "We will notify families tomorrow as to the status of school openings the following day."

Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely made a similar announcement.

"In consultation with staff we have learned that the lack of progress on the budget approval process has resulted in the continuation of the walkout," she said. "I want to assure you that we have done everything possible to keep our schools open. Due to the absences that have been reported for tomorrow, it has become clear that we will not have adequate teachers and staff present to guarantee the safety of our students."

Mesa School District - the state's largest - changed its mind, announcing late Wednesday:

"We regret that we are unable to open schools tomorrowThursday, May 3rd. The State’s budget has not been approved by the Legislature or signed by the Governor. According to the data we received, Mesa teacher and staff respondents to a statewide survey overwhelmingly indicated they would not return to work before the budget is finalized. We remain hopeful that this situation will be resolved in the near future. Until then, we will continue to make decisions based on providing a safe learning environment for students."

Higley Unified in Gilbert also dropped plans to reopen Thursday.

While Chandler and other East Valley district principals and administrators polled teachers on their intentions, Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said at this point the decision of whether to go back to classrooms absent an approved budget is going to be made not by either his group or leaders of Arizona Educators United but instead on a teacher-by-teacher or perhaps district-by-district basis.

Thousands of teachers marched at the state Capitol, chanting, "No budget, no school."

"What we said is, 'This may go another day. You all are going to have to decide whether you're going to be in or out,' '' Thomas said.

At that point, he said, each school or district will have to decide, based on feedback from their staff, whether they think there will be enough showing up to schedule classes or open the buildings.

At that point, he said, each school or district will have to decide, based on feedback from their staff, whether they think there will be enough showing up to schedule classes or open the buildings.

Thomas said there is strong sentiment among some educators to remain out until it's absolutely clear that the package, including the $306 million for the first year of teacher pay increases, is signed into law.

"There's people that absolutely want to see this thing all the way through,'' he said. "They've got to get closure on this.''

And there's something else.

"They don't trust the Legislature,'' Thomas said. "Or maybe they do trust them - to do the wrong thing.''

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said there were some last minute tweaks to the spending plan that has already been approved by the Appropriations Committee that he chairs.

He told Capitol Media Services most most of those have no effect on the education side of the budget. He said the only change in the language is to "clarify'' that the intent of the proposed 19 percent average pay increase for teachers by the 2020-2021 is that all the money does, in fact, go to teachers.

And House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said the process is moving as fast as it can.

"I'd tell the teachers the process takes time,'' he said. "We're moving as fast as we can.''

Mesnard said the budget is the biggest thing lawmakers do each session. In fact, it's the one thing that lawmakers are constitutionally required to do.

"We're a little bit late,'' he conceded, what with the session having been scheduled to wrap up two weeks ago. "But this is pretty much par for the course when the budget would be passed.''

But it's not just adoption of the budget that is slowing up the end of the session.

Legislative leaders scheduled votes on Wednesday on a variety of other leftover issues.

For example, the Senate approved SB 1398 that spells out that people will lose their unemployment benefits after four weeks if they don't take any job offered to them, regardless of whether it's in their field and regardless of whether it pays substantially less than the job they lost.

The House on a party-line vote pushed through SCR 1034 to ask voters to revamp the Independent Redistricting Commission to draw legislative and congressional districts amid claims by Mesnard that the process used after the last census was "clouded by allegations of commission work being conducted behind closed doors, obscured from the public's view.''

And lawmakers gave final approval to HB 2422 which will allow automated "personal delivery devices'' weighing up to 200 pounds to roam Arizona sidewalks.

The budget does not give educators most of what they wanted, including restoration of the more than $1 billion that has been taken from K-12 funding in the past decade. Also missing from the plan is bringing per-student funding in Arizona up to the national average.

What teachers are getting -- if and when the budget is adopted -- is a 9 percent pay raise for the coming school year and dollars committed for a 5 percent increase the following year and another 5 percent the year after that.

(more later)

Arizona Educators United, said the movement and the strike that began April 26 already has scored several key victories.

He said the Republican-controlled Legislature agreed last month to extend the 0.6-cent sales tax for education beyond its 2020 expiration date. That was not something that was even on Gov. Doug Ducey's agenda when the session started in January.

More significant, Ducey has agreed to an average 9 percent pay hike for teachers for the coming school year, with a 5 percent increase the following year and an identical increase the year after that. By contrast, the budget the governor presented to lawmakers included just a one-time 1 percent increase.

Noah Karvelis, one of the organizers of Arizona Educators United, said the budget still leaves the #RedForEd movement far short of its original goals.

But he said that it has now become obvious that this is the best educators will get, at least this year.

That means it's time for teachers to return to classes -- and their students -- and begin work on the rest of the agenda. That includes supporting an initiative to raise $690 million a year through a surcharge on the state's highest wage earners in dedicated dollars for education, money that lawmakers cannot take away the next time there's a recession.

What also may be on the table, Karvelis said, is working to change the makeup of the Legislature -- and perhaps even the governor's office.

"We've been so involved in just getting to the point right now that we haven't had a second to even catch our breath and think about that right now,'' he said. "But I guarantee you there are a lot of people walking around down here (at the Capitol) in red every single day, looking at themselves in the mirror and saying, 'If they can't get it done, I'll get it done.' ''

For the moment, though, this is it.

"One of the deciding factors is that the Legislature has gone not as far as they're able to go, but as far as they're willing to go,'' he said. "That realization is crystal clear to everybody here who's been in there, trying to make their voice heard.''

Most notably missing from what lawmakers are set to vote on today, at least from the perspective of the educators, is their demand that funding be restored to 2008 levels. In fact, legislative budget staffers acknowledged Tuesday that, even with all the money the governor says the plan will put into K-12 education, per-student funding on an inflation-adjusted basis will still be less by 2021 than it was in 2008.

That is significant because one of the key demands of the #RedForEd movement is to bring state aid back to where it was a decade ago.

More than pay is at issue. During hearings occurring Tuesday even as the decision to go back was being announced, a parade of teachers told lawmakers about the effects of funding shortfalls, including the lack of funds for basic supplies and schools in disrepair.

They also fault Ducey and Republicans for the plan not providing dollars for support staff. Ducey said the $100 million he is restoring in additional district assistance comes with sufficient flexibility for school districts to use some or all of that for those employees.

Those dollars and a lot more used to be given to schools automatically for things like computers, books, buses and minor repairs. But those funds were raided during the recession, with Ducey himself taking $117 million from that account his first year in office to balance the state's books and make good on a promise of a tax cut.

Both Tempe Union and Kyrene district officials late Wednesday signaled the resumption of classes on Thursday. But until late Tuesday, uncertainty reigned.

 Desert Vista High School teacher Lara Bruner said on Sunday: “The majority of Desert Vista teachers were in the flood of Arizonans who marched on the Capitol.”

“After years of feeling that public education has been a low priority in this state, it was incredibly inspiring to see so many educators and community members tell the Legislature that their number one priority needs to be education. Despite people passing out from the heat throughout the day (including my own teenage son), folks showed up in record numbers,” Bruner added.

Jen Liewer, spokeswoman for Tempe Union High School District, said, “We are making closure decisions based on staffing levels, on a day-by-day basis.”

Vesely on  Tuesday said, “We are hopeful that Kyrene schools will reopen on Thursday.”

Both districts urge parents to keep an eye on their email and the districts’ websites for late-breaking announcements.

“Thus far, Kyrene has not had the necessary site-based attendance to reopen our schools,” Vesely also said at press time.

Noting she and other district officials have been working with teachers and staff teams, Vesely said earlier this week, “We are continuously assessing the status of school closures. Once we know whether we have adequate staffing to safely operate our schools, we will notify families immediately.”

As uncertainty prevailed, parents continued fretting over how long the school year might be extended, although Vesely has been telling some parents, “We will not penalize families who need to leave early due to other scheduled events. Parents can simply excuse their student from school.”

The walkout triggered a rapid series of events since Thursday, when thousands of teachers gathered at Chase Field and walked to the State Capitol, where many have maintained a daily vigil since.

Those events started on Friday when movement leaders announced an initiative – called Invest in Education – to put a surcharge on income taxes paid by people making more than $250,000 annually.

The biggest increase would be for those in the $500,000-plus income range and the levy could mean they’d pay as much as $14,000 more in additional taxes.

Backers have an uphill fight just to get the measure on the November ballot. They have to gather 150,642 valid signatures on petitions in just the next 68 days – or more than 2,200 signatures a day. Organizers said the levy could raise about $690 million a year.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers took the first steps Monday to providing a 9 percent raise this coming year for teachers – but not necessarily all teachers.

The final version of the budget deal negotiated between GOP leaders and Gov. Doug Ducey puts $273 million into the $10.4 billion spending plan for the coming year specifically for teacher pay hikes.

Unlike Ducey’s original proposal, each school district will get its share as a bulk dollar amount. That then leaves it up to board members to decide how to divide it up.

What that could mean is a larger bump at the bottom of the pay scale, both to attract new teachers and keep them in the profession. The state Department of Education estimates that 40 percent of new teachers leave after two years.

That same plan for bulk salary grants to school districts also will apply for the 5 percent pay hike proposed by the governor for the following school year and an additional 5 percent the year after that.

Along with that flexibility, the spending plan unveiled Monday also calls for more transparency, with new requirements for school districts to annually report on their web sites their average teacher salaries. House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said that ensures “this is all out there for people to see.’’

None of this satisfied educators and all indications are that many teachers will remain on strike until the budget is enacted at the end of the week – the deadline legislative leaders hope to meet

Education groups are not confident that the funds will be there, particularly in out years, leaving open the possibility a future governor and future lawmakers could rescind the promise.

What’s also missing as far as educators are concerned are specific dollars earmarked for support personnel like janitors, reading specialists, counselors and bus drivers.

Ducey countered that his budget includes $100 million in additional district assistance – money that schools can spend on whatever priorities they have, whether repairs or other pay increases. But that is only part of $371 million a year schools are supposed to have been getting all along for books, computers, buses and other minor repairs.

The movement leaders’ biggest complaint is that state aid on a per-student basis is less now than it was a decade ago, even before the effects of inflation are considered. The education groups want that $1 billion difference restored.

David Lujan, who chairs the Invest in Education campaign, denied Monday that financing increased aid to education through a surcharge on high incomes is a kind of class warfare.

“Right now, lower and middle-income people are paying a larger portion of their income in taxes,’’ he said. “I think this is a fair way to go.’’

In criticizing the plan, Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that one big flaw is that there are not that many people in Arizona who are in those top tax brackets. The result, he contends, is that it would take only a few of the richest choosing to move – or find other ways of shielding their income – to drop the bottom out of the anticipated $620 million in annual revenues.

But the most recent figures from the state Department of Revenue – from 2012 – suggest there aren’t a lot of people at the top end of the income scale to bear the burden. It found there were fewer than 15,000 filers in Arizona with a federal adjusted gross income of more than $500,000 out of more than 2.4 million tax returns.

Meanwhile, the Goldwater Institute raised the possibility of a lawsuit against local school districts.

Timothy Sandefur, an attorney for the organization that litigates over conservative causes, contends the walkout by teachers that has affected close to 850,000 youngsters statewide is an illegal strike.

“Public school teachers in Arizona have no legal right to strike, and their contracts require that they report to work as they agreed,’’ he said.

But the real target of his legal threats are individual school districts, which he contends are facilitating that illegal activity. That includes everything from closing schools while the teachers and support staff are staying away to refusing to dock the pay of the absent teachers.

The bottom line, Sandefur said, is that not only makes school officials equally guilty of an illegal act but puts them in violation of their constitutional obligations to educate children.

“In order to prevent the possibility of a lawsuit, it is necessary for district employees to return to work, and for the district to operate as normal, including, if necessary, taking steps to find substitute teachers to replace those who refuse to comply with their legal and contractual obligations,’’ he wrote in identical letters to school districts around the state.

Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Michael Cowan said the district “can’t hold classes and expect meaningful learning to take place without a sufficient number of teachers to teach. Opening schools without enough teachers will not provide a safe learning environment.”

Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, said the local board members made legally defensible decisions. He told Capitol Media Services it would be “irresponsible’’ to open a school building after administration determines there would not be enough staff to safely supervise the students, much less actually try to conduct lessons.

Sandefur said it would be one thing if a school were closed for a “genuine public safety reason.’’ This, he said, is not that.

“Districts have encouraged teachers not to show up for work,’’ Sandefur said. And he said they have an obligation to seek out substitutes.

But Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said there is no constitutional violation.

“Districts are free to set their own calendars,’’ he said, just so long as they provide the minimum hours of instruction required by state law. And if that means altering the calendar to add a few extra days at the end of the school year, that’s perfectly legal, he said.

Thomas’ organization fired off its own letter to Attorney General Mark Brnovich challenging Sandefur’s claims that teachers are acting illegally.

It also seeks to debunk a parallel argument by state schools chief Diane Douglas that the teachers have abandoned their jobs, meaning their teaching certificates can be suspended or revoked by the state Board of Education.

Jarrett Haskovec, the AEA’s general counsel, said it is up to each school district and not Douglas nor the state board to determine if a teacher has effectively resigned.

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