The petition drive for a ballot question on a proposed tax surcharge on high-income Arizonans to raise more money for public education has created a potential tempest with a T-shirt for teachers and local school districts, including Tempe Union and Kyrene.
Both districts, as well as Mesa and Chandler, have warned teachers that wearing the signature red shirts to class could violate state law and cost them as much as $5,000 in civil penalties – at least if there is any message on them, including #RedforEd.
Some districts, including Kyrene and Chandler Unified, specifically warned teachers that opponents of their six-day walkout might try to turn them in for violating Arizona statute 15-511, which prohibits the “use of school district or charter school resources or employees to influence elections.”
Besides that, it also strictly forbids district employees from wearing any buttons or other items advocating for any political initiative or candidate while on school grounds as well as trying to influence students toward a particular viewpoint.
Right now, districts apparently are worried for their employees.
“We’re not an enforcement agency. There are eyes out there,” said Kyrene Assistant Superintendent Mark Knight at the district’s governing board meeting May 8.
Chandler Unified Superintendent Camille Castille told teachers and staff in a memo: “Now that #RedForEd has morphed into #InvestInEd, the rules have changed. Districts, schools and individuals will be under more scrutiny.”
“To ensure we are all meeting the letter of the law, especially as we gather more information, we are going to prohibit all shirts with political messages,” Castille added. “You can wear red on Wednesday, but there can be no politically related message on your clothing. And please remember to not engage with students on this topic.”
The warnings reflect district officials’ sensitivity to the fact that not everyone agreed with the walkout and that teachers and other #RedforEd supporters with district jobs are vulnerable.
“Our job is not to police but to protect,” said Kyrene Superintendent. “We want to keep our teachers safe.”
That would mean safe from penalties that the law provides – and that the Legislature several years ago increased. Moreover, Knight noted, those penalties cannot be paid by the district or insurance but must come out of the individual’s pocket.
And they can be assessed on every individual act deemed against the law. In other words, wearing a shirt with a political message on five different days could mean five separate offenses with a potential maximum total penalty of $30,000.
Kyrene officials stressed that their warnings are normal during any election year and that they routinely make them during years when overrides are on the ballot.
But Mesa school officials, like their Chandler Unified counterparts, said #RedforEd-turned-InvestforEd is a particularly significant consideration.
Mesa schools General Council Tom Pickrell issued a stern warning to staff last Friday, calling for “a return to our traditional rule that teachers and other staff members will not wear T-shirts that convey, directly or indirectly, a political, religious or moral message while on duty.”
“The traditional standard regarding message T-shirts was relaxed in the days before the RedforEd walkout because, frankly, more teachers were wearing RedforEd T-shirts than not,” Pickrell continued. “The walkout is now over, The Legislature approved a state budget that will enable our governing board to substantially improve salaries.”
Calling the message ban “a reasonable effort to avoid nedless controversies,” he said the ban is meant to spare coworkers, parents and staff from feeling “they are held captive” to a message they don’t agree with.”
Tempe Union officials also stressed their warnings were different this time.
“On the advice of our district legal team, we are asking that TUHSD employees refrain from wearing red shirts bearing a reference to the #RedforEd movement,” the district told staff, adding:
“By all means, feel free to wear red, just not anything related to the movement or with the hashtag. We have been very clear with employees that we are providing the guidance to protect them from potential personal liability if someone were to file a complaint regarding A.R.S. § 15-511.”
Even the Kyrene board meeting May 8 meeting showed #RedforEd added urgency to whatever warnings have been traditional during election years.
“The dress code. It’s not working,” parent Steve O’Hanian told the board, noting that Kyrene’s policies prohibit clothing and symbolism that create “an atmosphere of threats, intimidation or undue influence” and “disrupt or may disrupt the educational environment or interfere” with education.
“This is precisely what will happen in today’s very high political environment,” he said.
O’Hanian asserted that Kyrene’s dress code prohibited employees – when on school grounds – from wearing “colored clothing containing symbols being worn by a group for displaying solidarity with a political activist group.
“Not only have students been wearing such clothing, but (so are) teachers and principals – in the school during school hours,” he said.
“We want our children to attend school each day with enthusiasm and an open mind, not being exposed en masse to any curriculum favoring one ideology or another,” O’Hanian added, adding that such clothing is “intimidating and disruptive to the educational objectives and must not be tolerated.”
But Kyrene parent Cathy Zinkhon Matsumoto, a special education teacher in another district, told the board she participated in teacher protests at the Capitol and noted some parents who opposed the walkout are wearing purple shirts as a public protest of the protest.
“I see people in purple,” she said. “I hear that’s a political color now. Who gets to make that decision on what colors we get to wear?
“Is everything we do political?” Matsumoto continued, calling #RedforEd a movement that has been around for “many many years.”
Those exchanges reflect a more fundamental disagreement on the law between lawyers for the Arizona Education Association, which helped lead the walkout, and the Arizona School Boards Association, which advises governing boards on a wide array of policy and legal issues.
Josh Buckley – president of the Mesa Education Association and the teacher leader who ac tually introduced to the public the initiative for surcharging the incomes of Arizonans earning more than $250,000 annually – said the AEA attorney’s interpretation was that no violation exists by wearing the “RedforEd’’ shirts.
But because the matter has not been resolved, most teachers will probably wear red shirts without the catchy messages on Wednesday.
Buckley said Mesa’s governing board told association officials, “We’d rather not do any message on T-shirts. We know there are a lot of options that don’t say “RedforEd’’ on them.’’
He said most teachers have purchased some other red clothing, noting, “I will break out my red button-up shirt on Wednesday.”
Kyrene teacher Amanda McDaniels said, “We are now organized. We are smarter and we will not forget. We will continue to wear red on Wednesdays to remind us that the fight for our children and Arizona’s future continues.”
But McDaniels also was playing it safe with her red T-shirt bearing the profile of Arizona on it.
Instead of “#RedforEd” within the border, there was a small apple.