School may last longer now as walkout ends - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

School may last longer now as walkout ends

May 7th, 2018 development
School may last longer now as walkout ends
Sports and Recreation

By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services and Paul Maryniak, Executive Editor


A tumultuous two weeks in school districts across Chandler and the state came to an end May 3 after Republican lawmakers pushed through – and Gov. Doug Ducey signed – 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.

At press time it was unclear if classes in Chandler Unified and Kyrene school districts would be resuming the next day or on Monday, May 7, but the larger question now is whether the school year will be extended – and for how long.

“The closure of school today (May 3) will likely mean additional hours will need to be added,” CUSD spokesman Terry Locke said.

Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely said she would be meeting with her district governing board “to determine adjustment to instructional calendar.”

While graduation ceremonies in CUSD will go on as planned, it was unclear whether seniors would have to return to class for a few days before getting their diplomas.

The state law requiring certain days of instruction actually is more complicated and a state Education Department spokesman told the SanTan Sun News that hours of instruction are far more important.

Under the law, seniors likely will not have much lost time to make up. The law requires that high school students received 720 hours of instruction a year.

But the State Legislature several years ago amended the law to basically require that high school students do nothing but show up.

“If high school students are assembled in a common area during required school hours, those hours may be counted as instructional time,” the Education Department advised school districts after teachers began the statewide walkout on April 26.

Students in first through eighth grade, however, don’t have that luxury – and they are required to get actual instruction for more hours than high school students. Those mandatory hours vary from grade to grade.

On May 3, 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.

The House passed the education bill along party lines but in the Senate, four Democrats – including Sen. Sean Bowie, whose district includes part of Chandler – joined Republicans in approving the measure. It was immediately signed by the governor.

During the Legislative debate, several hundred teachers in the galleries – and more outside – sand “America the Beautiful’’ and “Amazing Grace’’ while the bills were debated.

“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.

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

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 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.

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 a proposal to limit class size to no more than 25 students.

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.

Teachers have announced an initiative to get a referendum in Nov ember on a proposal to add a tax surcharge on individuals earning more than$250,000 a year, with those earning more than $1 million paying as much as $15,000 in additional taxes.

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.

Chandler and Kyrene had planned to reopen schools on May 3, but called off the plan after it became clear that most teachers would stay off the job until the Legislature passed the measure.

Mesnard had tried to assure the teachers they had no worries, telling them  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.’’

“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 Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, one of the two groups that led the strike said teachers do not trust the Legislature.

During hearings occurring Tuesday, 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.

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 also calls for more transparency, with new requirements for school districts to annually report on their web sites their average teacher salaries. Mesnard said that ensures “this is all out there for people to see.’’

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.