Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association
Cronkite News

Hundreds of Ahwatukee families are preparing for one of Arizona’s most far-reaching political confrontations in history as public school teachers gear up for a walkout this Thursday.

The walkout will come a week after leaders of the #RedforEd movement reported that 78 percent of more than 57,000 teachers statewide cast paper ballots favoring a walkout – spurning Gov. Doug Ducey’s effort to defuse their threat and directly challenging the State Legislature’s decade-long stance on public education funding.

And for now anyway, the Legislature is in no mood to budge – even after Ducey on Friday vetoed 10 bills unrelated to education in an effort to force passage of his plan.

“This is undeniably and clearly a mandate for action,’’ said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, which has been leading the #RedforEd movement with a start-up group called Arizona Educators United.

That announcement triggered a series of events locally.

Both Kyrene and Tempe Union High School District announced all schools will be closed Thursday. Tempe Union and Kyrene schools also will be closed Friday.

On Saturday night, the Tempe Union governing board held a hastily called meeting to waive a requirement through June 30 that teachers had to submit a doctor’s note if they were absent from their jobs for three or more consecutive days.

On Monday, top Republicans huddled to see if they could reach an accord over the issue of teacher pay ahead of Thursday’s strike deadline, potentially forestalling or at least undermining the walkout.

Senate President Steve Yarbrough told Capitol Media Services Monday there is “unease’’ among many House and Senate Republicans over Ducey’s predictions that a 19 percent pay hike for teachers by 2020 can be enacted and money from a special assistance fund for schools can be restored – all without a tax hike.

Ducey contends that there will be sufficient strong economic growth to both generate new tax revenues and reduce state spending on health and social service programs.

He said that’s why some GOP lawmakers are holding out until they can identify firm sources of revenue “to help us get to this very ambitious goal.’’

But whether anything that lawmakers approve is enough to avert a walkout remains to be seen.

The teacher pay plan does not address other demands by Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association. That includes pay hikes for support staff like teaching specialists, counselors, bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

And nothing in the governor’s proposal specifically addresses restoring the more than $1 billion that has been taken in state aid to schools in the last decade, as well as a demand to eventually get teacher pay here up to the national average.

“We are very cognizant of a wide variety of wishes,’’ Yarbrough said, pointing to the teacher pay issue and adding, “But we’re trying to get the really big nut cracked at the moment.’’

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said lawmakers will do what they do and a strike cannot be legislators’ primary concern.

“Few people down here are looking at Thursday as any kind of deadline,’’ Mesnard told Capitol Media Services. “The belief here is that Thursday’s going to happen, no matter what.’’

Both Thomas and AEU leader Noah Karvelis, a West Valley elementary school teacher, delayed the walkout for a week to let families prepare for its impact and work with local school districts to address other issues.

“We need to give our communities time to prepare,’’ Karvelis said.

But Karvelis left no doubt of his movement’s resolve.

“We can no longer allow the status quo in this state to go unchanged,’’ Karvelis said. “We need to bring the change that our educators and our students and our families in this state need.’’

The announcement drew criticism from Ducey, who said, “If schools shut down, our kids are the ones who will lose out.’’

Despite repeated requests, teacher votes in by district have not been released.

In his veto message, Ducey told lawmakers: “Please send me a budget that gives teachers a 20 percent pay raise by 2020 and restores additional (school district) assistance.’’

“Our teachers have earned this raise,’’ the governor said. “It’s time to get it done.’’

The state Auditor General says the average teacher salary in 2016-17 was $56,630 in Tempe Union and $48,372 in Kyrene. The National Education Association lists the national average at $58,950 and Arizona’s average as $47,403. The latter figure is slightly below the $48,372 listed by the AG as the average salary for teachers statewide.


Implications for many groups

Parents in Ahwatukee and throughout the state fretted over the strike’s impact as local school districts prepared for a host of implications that ranged from state instruction requirements and to poor kids’ access to a meal. Field trips will be cancelled for the duration of the walkout while each district in the state was left to decide whether their teams should continue in any varsity sports playoff games.

Tempe Union spokeswoman Jen Liewer said, “Our hope is to continue to offer athletics and activities.”

Depending on the strike’s duration, there were other implications of closure:

For students: Like many districts, Tempe Union said that graduation ceremonies will take place as schedule – but seniors won’t get their diplomas until they complete their instruction.

“We are committed to making sure seniors graduate on time, ensuring students can continue to participate in after-school athletics and activities, and minimizing the impact of possibly having to make up days for families who already have made plans after the last day of school,” Tempe Union Superintendent Kenneth Baca said.

But the district website skirted the question of an extended school year, stating, “This must be determined once the length of the school closure is complete.”

Kyrene, on the other hand, has stated, “Any day that a school is closed would have to be made up to meet the statute requirement of 180 instructional days.”

Instructional mandates apply to all students, meaning that vacations, part-time jobs and other summer plans could be put on hold.

But the Arizona School Boards Association indicated that “required instruction” is a complex issue since different grades have different total hours. It stated:

“If a district must close schools, each school must evaluate whether the district must extend the school year to meet instructional hour requirements or the 180 days of instruction in order to satisfy requirements for full-time average daily membership. This review will vary depending on the grades impacted.”

While the impact is believed considerably less in Ahwatukee, thousands of  children could go hungry since they often depend on free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches as their only healthy meals of the week.

Teachers in some districts were working with district officials, food banks, other nonprofits and even a few businesses to arrange for meals.

Kyrene will have food service regionally at Ninos, Lomas, Kyrene Traditional Academy and Milenio. Breakfast will be 7-8:30 a.m., lunch from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Students from any Kyrene school are able to come to the open school sites for food service programs. Even adults will be able to eat at the four sites.

Meanwhile, high school students can earn community service credits by voluneering at the Kyrene Resource Center Thursday through Saturday. The center extended its hours from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. those days. Students can call Irma Horton at 480-541-4773.

For parents: Households face disruption, particularly where both parents work. Numerous daycare programs at varying cost have set up special programs.

Social media sites exploded as parents debated the strike.

Typical was this exchange:

“What about summer school that has already been arranged? What about family vacations that are planned? Summer jobs? Remember ‘this is for the students.’ They have lives too, you know. Teachers deserve more pay but a strike is not the answer,” one parent posted.

Countered another: “While it would be a major inconvenience for me if school is cancelled and then has to be made up later, I whole heartedly support #RedForEd and if the teachers feel that it is best to walkout then I say do it. An inconvenience on me is a tiny sacrifice compared to what these educators sacrifice for our children.”

Parents were told by Kyrene and Tempe Union officials that that every effort will be made to keep them informed through school messenger systems and their websites.

For teachers: Teachers run the risk of simply being replaced as having abandoned their jobs – and possibly having their teaching certificates revoked.

There is no Arizona law that precludes teachers from walking off the job. So, there is no danger of being arrested – or even being found in contempt should the state or local districts try to seek a court order to force teachers back to work.

“Under the common law, strikes by public employees are forbidden,’’ wrote Gary Nelson, who was the attorney general in 1971. He said a strike by public employees is “an act against the public itself.’’

Nelson said Arizona law appears to say that a teacher who strikes after signing a contract has effectively resigned. And he said state law makes it illegal to resign without first getting the approval of the local school board.

Nelson said a teacher who resigns without that approval is guilty of unprofessional conduct. And that, in turn, allows the state Board of Education to revoke that person’s teaching certificate.

“That’s something we have communicated out to all our members so they understand the risk that … there can be repercussions,’’ said Thomas.

Derek Harris, another teacher organizer, said teachers cannot rely on statements of support for the movement from superintendents and school boards as evidence that their jobs will not be at risk.

But Harris said the teachers have something going their way.

“We’ve worked on the assumption that they can’t fire all of us,’’ he said. Even with the eased rules on who can teach, he added, “If it was that easy to replace everybody, we wouldn’t have 2,000 teacher jobs unfilled.”

Huge political struggle

With the nation’s eyes now fixed on Arizona, the strike also poses huge implications for Arizona’s political establishment in an election year.

Though Ducey initially gained the support of a number of advocacy groups early last week, the Arizona PTA and Save Our Schools Arizona withdrew theirs two days later because some of the money to finance his plan would be taken away from other programs benefitting poor families.

Leaders of both the AEA and AEU said Ducey’s offer falls short partly because it fails to include support staff, from reading specialists to custodians and bus drivers.

They also demanded that the state restore other funds that have been cut from schools during the past decade as lawmakers have enacted tax cuts even during the recession.

Ducey’s office has acknowledged that state aid on a per-student basis is currently less than it was a decade ago, even before the effects of inflation are considered.

Finally, there is the question of whether the money will be there, as teachers’ leaders and others insisted that the governor’s plan could not be sustained.

Ducey insists that a growing economy will bring in more tax dollars and reduce spending on social services. He also proposes to move money out of other accounts and not fund some budget requests.

That alarmed special interest groups like the Arizona Arts Commission. It said the $2 million it would lose could cost 6,250 workshops and classes to Arizona residents of all ages, over 3,300 arts and culture-focused school field trips and more than 5,250 arts learning and arts integration programs in schools.

But even legislative budget staffers found what they said are flaws in the governor’s number crunching, and estimated that the price tag for Ducey’s school funding plans would leave the state $265 million in the red by 2020.

That drew a sharp retort from gubernatorial spokesman Daniel Scarpinato, who called those conclusions “based on one faulty analysis that underestimates the amount of revenue growth in the state.’’ And he said legislative budget staffers are wrong in presuming that the higher revenue growth through March is a one-time event and cannot be sustained.

Legislature in the cross-hairs

Teachers’ leaders have condemned several tax cuts the Legislature enacted this session alone, saying they reduced overall revenue and, with it, dollars for districts. Ducey himself pledged to continue those tax cuts, further infuriating teachers.

Thomas called on legislators to refuse to enact future tax cuts – and rescind some that have been granted during the past decade, including a 30 percent cut in corporate income tax rates. He also said all people should be made to pay their fair share, hinting at a surcharge on the highest wage earners.

He also acknowledged it would take a two-thirds vote of lawmakers either to hike taxes or roll back prior tax cuts. Thomas said lawmakers can come up with that margin if they have the will.

But not all lawmakers have been less than sympathetic with teacher demands for a 20 percent pay hike and would likely be just as happy to scrap Ducey’s proposal.

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, pointed out that the legislative decision to extend the 0.6-cent sales tax beyond 2020 will free up another $64 million a year for salaries, a figure he translated out to about $1,315 per teacher.

“I want those numbers to kind of sink in,’’ he told colleagues, saying it will put teacher pay “well above the wage that most Arizonans make in this state.’’

Ducey said average teacher pay would reach $52,725 by the upcoming school year and $58,130 by 2020.

All that, in turn, leads to the possibility that the public support that has empowered the #RedForEd movement could evaporate if voters see the teachers as greedy or ungrateful. For now, East Valley superintendents and school boards – including Kyrene and Tempe Union – are backing teachers while stressing their other demands for more state support.

While individual legislators have been largely silent since the strike vote results were announced, a rural southern Arizona legislator left no doubt where he stood.

“The strike should be seen for what it is – a political ploy intended to disrupt meaningful progress on an issue so many Arizonans care about,” said Republican Rep. David Cook, adding:

“I won’t be deterred by political theater and gamesmanship and will instead continue to do the work my constituents sent me to the Legislature to do.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Sean Bowie of Ahwatukee told his constituents Tuesday:

“I, as always, stand ready to work in a bipartisan way with both the governor and legislative leadership on solutions. My door will always be open, but bipartisanship requires both sides to put partisanship aside for the greater good of the state. It’s up to the governor now to decide if he wants to do the same.”

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