Buckley, Townsend, Thacker

Republicans who control both the House and Senate spurned proposals to enact several other demands by striking teachers, including raises for support staff, smaller class sizes and more counselors.

Special to AFN

East Valley legislators and activists played key roles in two of the biggest political dramas involving public education last week – passage of Gov. Doug Ducey’s funding plan for better teacher pay and the proposed expansion of the state-funded voucher system to send children to private and parochial schools.

After shutting down schools for six days and relentless marches and vigils at the state Capitol, the Legislature on Thursday passed – and Ducey immediately signed – legislation granting teachers an average 19 percent pay increase within three years, including 9 percent next school year.

That action came after the Republican majority rejected multiple attempts by Democrats to add more money to the budget for public education – prompting House Democrats to vote against the bill and drawing the support of only four Democrats in the Senate, including Sen. Sean Bowie, LD 18.

Ducey said the plan also provides $100 million in other assistance, money he calls “flexible dollars’’ that can be used by schools for a variety of needs, including raises for support staff like counselors, custodians and others not included in the teacher pay package.

But the Republicans who control both the House and Senate spurned proposals to enact several other demands by striking teachers, including raises for support staff, smaller class sizes and more counselors.

“I was proud to support this budget which makes historic investments in K-12 education,” said state Rep. Jill Norgaard, R-18. “I enjoyed meeting many teachers who visited the Capitol, some who went to school with my children and some who were their teachers. As teachers head back to school, they can be assured that we have kept our promise.

All East Valley school districts resumed classes on Friday. After carefully calculating the hours they needed to meet the complicated requirement for a certain number of instructional hours set for students, only Kyrene School District officials had to adjust their calendar – making the last day of school a full day instead of the originally scheduled half-day.

But the Legislature ended the session without approving a maneuver to thwart a November referendum on the expanded school voucher program. The program – which Republican legislators pushed through last year with Ducey’s approval – was put on hold after the Tempe-based Save Our Schools secured enough signatures to force it on the ballot.

Any change in the measure referred to the ballot, even as small as a comma, would effectively have undermined the signature-gathering effort of foes of an expanded voucher program.

Here’s a look at some of East Valley figures who played key roles in these two issues.

Rep. J.D. Mesnard. The House Speaker from Chandler was noncommittal when Ducey tried to avert the walkout with his surprise proposal April 12 for a 20 percent raise for teachers and restoration of $371 million for school districts to cover a wide array of expenses.

But Mesnard, along with another Chandler legislator, Senate President Steve Yarbrough, cobbled enough support to push the legislation through largely intact.

And he chided Democrats for complaining that a 19 percent increase was too little, noting that they pushed unsuccessfully last year for a 4 percent hike.

Mesnard, who is termed out and will be seeking the LD 17 seat now held by the retiring Yarbrough, also tried to find a way to thwart the November vote on vouchers by repealing the measure.

Some political observers said the voucher referendum could bring out more voters likely to support opponents of incumbent Republicans seeking re-election. Repeal of the voucher bill might have blunted that possibility.

Sen. Sean Bowie. The Ahwatukee senator, whose district includes parts of Chandler, Mesa and Tempe, was one of only four Democrats in the Senate to vote for Ducey’s education bill.

Joined by three other Democratic Senate from other parts of the state, the first-term senator has preached the need for bipartisan approaches to legislation, and while he had no immediate statement after the pay bill passed, his vote likely reflected a realization that the measure was better than nothing – and the only thing education advocates could expect this session.

Sen. Bob Worsley. The Mesa Republican and another GOP senator, Kate Brophy McGee of Phoenix, signed the death warrant for the move against the voucher referendum by signaling they would not support it.

Worlsey, who declined to give reasons for his opposition, ironically cast the swing vote last year that made the voucher expansion law.

Opposition by Brophy McGee and Worsley was significant because there are only 17 Republicans in the 30-member chamber. With the 13 Democrats not interested in undermining the referendum, repeal-and-replace proposals fell short of the necessary 16 votes for approval.

“It’s honoring the people who got it to the ballot,’’ Brophy McGee said, noting that opponents of expansion of the voucher program gathered more than 100,000 signatures. They needed only 75,321 of them to be valid to force the election. “They want to see it voted on,’’ she said. “And I respect that.’’

Joe Thomas. As president of the Arizona Education Association, the former Mesa high school government teacher led one of the two groups that constituted the #RedforEd movement and organized the statewide walkout.

He and Avondale music teacher Noel Korvalis led thousands of teachers on a march from Chase Field to the Capital the day the strike began, then helped fire up the hundreds of red-T-shirt-clad educators who kept pressure on the Legislature by packing its galleries and holding long vigils outside.

Under the refrain “Remember in November,” Thomas and Korvalis strongly suggested that the walkout had given birth to a new force in state politics.

“The #RedforEd fight continues,” he said after the pay bill was passed. “And since lawmakers aren’t getting the job done, we will…And over the next few days we will provide additional details about the next step.”

Joshua Buckley. Another high school government teacher in Mesa Public Schools, Buckley not only is president of the district chapter of AEA but also became the public face of a move to get an initiative on the November ballot that would impose an income-tax surcharge on Arizonans earning more than $250,000 annually.

That bid – which advocates say would raise more than $650 million annually for public schools – faces an uphill battle since it needs 150,642 valid signatures on petitions in little more than seven weeks to be put on the ballot.

Rep. Kelly Townsend. The east Mesa Republican was a vocal opponent of the teacher walkout and at one point suggested parents might be able to launch class-action suits against teachers if they could prove substantial harm from the walkout.    

Last week, she 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 Townsend’s proposal to impose $5,000 fines on districts that close schools on days they were supposed to be open. Permissible exceptions would have included invasion, riot, epidemic, plagues of insects and acts of God – but not strikes.

Townsend lashed out at teachers who were in the gallery watching the debate, telling them, “You should not be able to do that to the people of this state because you want funding.

“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.’’

Dawn Penich-Thacker. The Tempe communications specialist is co-founder and spokeswoman of Save Our Schools AZ, a grassroots group of parents and teachers that sprang up last year to lead the petition drive to get the voucher program expansion on the ballot.

It now promises to be leading a get-out-the-vote campaign in November to defeat it.

Citing the influence of dark money, she said on Friday that SOS AZ has “brought to light the ways privatization schemes like vouchers siphon tax dollars out of the public education budget, the same already-insufficient budget used to pay teachers, repair buildings and purchase supplies.

“Parents and teachers now realize you can’t talk about investing in public education without seeing the ways the state undermines it by expanding ESA and STO vouchers, and voters aren’t having it,” Penich-Thacker added.

“Now they’ll get to vote their disapproval by saying no to Proposition 305 – and the politicians who backed it – in November,” she said.

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