Chandler schools preparing for possible chaos SanTan Sun News

Chandler schools preparing for possible chaos

April 4th, 2018 | by SanTan Sun News
Chandler schools preparing for possible chaos
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By Paul Marniak, Jim Walsh and Colleen Sparks Staff

As anxious parents and students face possible chaos in the waning weeks of the school year, teachers in Chandler public schools are divided over whether to turn their “walk-ins” into walkouts.

But school district administrators are preparing contingency plans in case of a strike – with at least one district planning to shut down schools and extend class days possibly into June while another is working on ways to spare high school seniors a traumatic turn as they prepare for graduation.

Leaders of the statewide Red for Ed movement were scheduled on Friday, April 20, to count the votes of teachers across Arizona on whether they should strike over the demands for a 20 percent salary increase and a restoration of public education funding to 2008 levels.

They called for a vote after scorning Gov. Doug Ducey’s pledge to give teachers a 19 percent raise over the next three years and return restoring $371 million taken away from districts over the past several years.

Stating Ducey ignored the key goal of getting education funding back to where it would have been now had lawmakers not made a series of cuts during the Great Recession, they said classroom sizes are still too large and equipment needs are unmet.

But Noah Karvelis, one of the leadership team members of Arizona Educators United, said there’s something even more basic.

“We don’t have a sustainable revenue source to fund these raises,’’ he said. “What that means is that these are empty promises.’’

And Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, publicly scorned the State Legislature, which would have to sign off on Ducey’s pledge.

“A legislature that says they’re going to give us a 5 percent raise in a budget a year away, well they might as well promise every kindergarten teacher a pony,’’ he said.

Ducey’s announcement April 12 came hours after a Chandler legislative leader offered a 20 percent raise over five years by shifting funds that would otherwise be allocated for things like school buses, classroom supplies and other necessities.

Upstaged by Ducey, House Leader J.D. Mesnard remained noncommittal as the governor rolled out his plan, saying he wanted more details.

Ducey’s announcement marked an abrupt shift from his claim 48 hours earlier that the state could afford only a 1 percent raise for teachers.

It came the day after hundreds of teachers, administrators, parents and even some students – clad in the now-signature red T-shirts of the #RedforEd movement – gathered in front of most Chandler 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.

State Sen. Sean Bowie, whose district includes part of Chandler, said the walk-ins undoubtedly influenced Ducey’s dramatic shift.

“What’s the reason for the turnaround? Well, it’s an election year, for one,” he said, adding:

“Most importantly, though, is the impact that the Red for Ed movement has had on the conversation – pressure works, especially in an election year. After attending several walk-in’s last week at three separate LD18 schools, I can tell you that the energy is real, and it deserves a lot of the credit for getting the governor to move so quickly.”

For Chandler teachers, the events of the last 10 days put an exclamation point on years of frustration.

“I think the vote is a great idea because the last thing we want to do is declare a walkout date and not have the support of the educators involved. It’s unfortunate that the governor’s plan did not meet the demands made by AEU/AEA,” said LeAnna Farmer, president of the Chandler Education Association.

A part-time counselor at Sanborn Elementary School, Farmer said she would vote against a strike only if the Legislature OKs a raise without funding it with money for other school needs.

But she said if money is taken away from those needs, “we have no other choice but to walk.  If Arizona educators go on strike, I will be right there with them.”

“We will not fall for the ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ funding,” Farmer also said. “Our walk-ins across the state and Chandler Unified School District were amazing. We stand together and we’re standing strong.”

CUSD and other districts serving Chandler were scrambling to make contingency plans in case teachers walk.

“We are in the process of determining plans for child care, food and nutrition and impact on the end-of-the-year events such as graduation assignments,” said CUSD spokesman Terry Locke. “These are a work in progress.”

Tempe Union High School Superintendent Kenneth Baca, who joined the Mountain Pointe High School walk-in April 11, said, “I think we have to be prepared for everything.”

“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,” Baca added.

Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely said schools in her district will be 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.

She praised 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 is Arizona has a “crisis” in attracting and retaining teachers while Baca made it clear that the rallies are just not about hiking teacher pay.

“Arizona is starving our schools and our teachers. It’s time for it to end,” Sharon Johnson, a first-grade teacher, told the enthusiastic crowd at the rally at Kyrene district headquarters – which was joined by Vesely, school board members Bernadette Coggins and Michelle Fahy and state Sen. Sean Bowie.

However, Johnson, who helped organize the rally at Kyrene District headquarters, said, “I’m not ready for a walkout.”

Other area teacher leaders also expressed caution over stronger action to force their demands to be met.

“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.”

“I think it’s probably inevitable,” said Sarah James, a music and orchestra teacher at Mesa Public Schools’ Pomeroy Elementary in Chandler.

“If we walk out, we will be united,” she said. “Yes, I feel disrespected. These kids shouldn’t grow up thinking teaching is a bad job, that you are going to be poor.”

James said her school has lost three teachers to other occupations in the last nine months – including one who found she could make more money selling Mary Kay products and staying home with her baby.

“One of our greatest strengths is also one of our greatest downfalls, that we feel a calling’’ to educate children, James said. “We stuck it out. If you have a passion, you stick it out.’’

But after 10 years with only a 1 percent stipend as a pay increase, teachers who often are working more than one job to support themselves are fed up, James said.

Teachers are appealing directly to the public for support through the walk-ins, but it is unclear how strong their backing will be if they go on strike.

The Arizona School Boards Association and the statewide PTA on April 16 came out in support of Ducey’s plan.

As he joined his colleagues in the walk-in April 11, Nick Oshita, a second-grade teacher at nearby Bologna Elementary School, was uncertain about overall public support for teachers,

“People are extremely supportive to your face,’’ Oshita said. “When it comes to voting and raising taxes, I don’t know what they feel about that.’’

Oshita said he has worked two jobs throughout his 13 years as a teacher in the Mesa and Chandler districts. After school, he works at a restaurant as a server and a deliveryman.

He took a four-year sabbatical from teaching, working as a manager in retail. He said that job was more lucrative but it also was boring a made for an empty existence.

“I came back because it was my calling,’’ Oshita said. “I could sell all day and do it well, but at the end of the day, it gives me purpose’’ to work as a teacher.

-Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.

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