State board drops talk of punishing Red for Ed - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

State board drops talk of punishing Red for Ed

July 10th, 2018 SanTan Sun News
State board drops talk of punishing Red for Ed

By Paul Maryniak, Wayne Schutsky and Jim Walsh


The state Board of Education last month scuttled a plan to discuss discipline against teachers for their walkout the day after Gov. Doug Ducey told the SanTan Sun News that he opposed punishment.

While Chandler Superintendent Camille Casteel declined comment and the other East Valley school chiefs did not return emailed requests for comment, both Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely and Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Ember Conley criticized the board and said the teachers did nothing to warrant any punishment.

The board had placed on its June 25 agenda an item for a “presentation, discussion and possible action regarding the board’s authority to take disciplinary action,” although board Executive Director Alicia Williams said no formal action was planned.

That same day, the SanTan Sun News asked Ducey during a campaign stop in Gilbert how he felt about the board’s pending discussion.

He said, “I don’t want to see punitive action against our teachers. I’m on the side of the teachers. Our teachers are the biggest difference makers in the state, in addition to the parents of these children.

“What I want to do is move forward. I want to get additional dollars into our teachers’ paychecks and return our teachers to what they do best – to the front of the classroom teaching our children,” the governor added.

Ducey’s remarks took board member and Gilbert Town Councilman Jared Taylor by surprise when he was asked by the SanTan Sun News that afternoon if he thought the governor’s remarks would affect his colleagues’ intentions. Taylor paused, then replied, “I guess so.”

The next day, board President Lucas Narducci issued a written statement taking the item off the agenda, saying “I believe it is premature at this time, as the board does not have enough information or legal advice to have a constructive discussion.”

Williams also said the item was placed on the agenda at the request of state Public Schools Superintendent Diane Douglas, who during the six-day walkout in April had threatened teachers with possible disciplinary vacation if they did not return to class.

But Narducci never mentioned Douglas when he moved at the board’s meeting in May to put the discussion on the agenda.

Moreover, Williams had assured the board her staffers knew well enough what the board wanted to discuss for them to reach out to the state attorney general for his input before the June meeting.

During the May meeting, Narducci, a Phoenix attorney, told the board that due diligence required that “we have something to review,” citing “the past and ongoing conduct of Red for Ed.”

Red for Ed is the name of the movement that provoked thousands of teachers across the state to walk out of the classroom and shut down schools for six days. It ended after the State Legislature approved the plan that Ducey proposed as the walkout loomed to give teachers a 10 percent raise in the next school year and 5 percent raises in the following two school years.

When another board asked Narducci what he was referring to, he replied, “I really don’t know – for the way they continue….Everything that ran, from the effect on our schools, the effect on our parents, the effect on our teachers.”

He said that “in light of a few things we’ve seen this past month in our state,” he wanted to know “the authority and scope of action that the board may consider in light of the past and ongoing conduct of Red for Ed … If we can’t do anything, that’s fine. If we can, let’s see what we can do now and for the future.”

When another board member asked him what specifically he would put under the Red for Ed category, that’s when Williams cut Narducci short and ended the discussion by saying her staff had enough information to know what Narducci was talking about.

“We can work with the attorney general’s office and define where the board can go,” she said.

Conley, who heads the state’s largest school system, told the SanTan Sun News that teachers did nothing wrong, stating, “They were exercising their rights as citizens to stand up for something they believe in, in a peaceful manner.’’

Added Vesely: “Kyrene teachers were not in violation of any state statute for their participation in these rallies because our schools closed during this time. All teachers and support staff made up all contract days through an extension of our district work calendar.”

And she said, “We need to praise teachers, hold them to high standards and pay them the salaries they deserve, not punish them because they refuse to treat education as a commodity and they recognize that the crisis of schooling is about the crises of democracy, economic equality and justice.”

Higley teacher Joe Bisaccia, who is running for a state house seat in Legislative District 12, which covers most of Gilbert and part of Chandler, said “I think it is totally crazy.”

He noted Douglas “definitely made this veiled threat about coming after teachers that walked out” and said, “I don’t know what she is trying to accomplish here. There are over 2,000 vacant teacher positions in Arizona. Perhaps she should focus on that rather than on teachers walking out to secure more funding for their students and their classrooms.”

No incidents of violence were ever reported in connection with the walkouts and many teachers spent their time out of the classroom volunteering at programs hastily set up to feed kids who rely heavily on school meals or at others created to take care of kids while their parents were at work.

Ironically, the education board’s decision to even discuss discipline was made after every East Valley school board voted to give their teachers 10 percent raises, with some teachers on the low end of the pay scale likely to get a far bigger bump in their paychecks.

Some people have been critical of Red for Ed, however, because it has taken on overtones of a political movement.

In particular, the Invest in Ed has drawn the ire of chambers of commerce and other organizations, which say its proposal for an income tax surcharge on Arizonans earning at least $250,000 annually will hurt small businesses because of the way the state taxes business earnings.

Teachers are trying to get the surcharge on the November ballot for a referendum but have until early next month to collect thousands of signatures to qualify. At a press conference several weeks ago, leaders declined to discuss their progress in collecting those signatures.

Organizers of Invest for Ed say it would raise more than $600 million in new money for public schools, although chambers and other critics say it would drive wealthy Arizonans out of the state and crush businesses.

Conley said she also is not concerned that Josh Buckley, president of the Mesa Education Association, is a leader of that referendum drive.

Vesely noted that district staffers – including some superintendents themselves – as well as parents, students and community members joined the teachers in demonstrations.

“Every day, both experienced veterans and those early in their careers decide to leave the classroom in favor of less-stressful jobs that provide better compensation – jobs that allow them more time for their families and a way to make ends meet without worry or the need to find a second job,” she said.

“Teachers across America are beginning to rise up and made their voices heard, asking policy makers to honor the important work of educating our next generation by increasing funding for our schools,” Vesely added. “This is not a minor struggle because no democracy can survive without informed citizens.”

The issue does have political overtones. In fact, it came up Wednesday during a televised debate among the five Republicans who hope to be state schools chief for the next four years.

“They didn’t strike,’’ said Tracy Livingston. “The doors were closed.’’

“The doors would have never been closed if the teachers didn’t vote to walk out,’’ Douglas responded.

Livingston, who is a teacher, said while she didn’t support the walkout, she does not believe those who did stay away from class should be disciplined.

And Jonathan Gelbart said while he, too, did not support the walkout, he said there’s “no realistic way’’ to discipline those who stayed away from their classrooms, some for more than the week that some schools remained closed.

Douglas conceded the practical problems of trying to discipline teachers who did not go to work.

It starts with how to separate out those teachers who purposely stayed away to strike versus those who may not have wanted to strike but simply found their schools closed. But Douglas said there was a way – if only teachers would have followed her advice.

“I very, very loudly and clearly for a week before that strike told any teacher who disagreed with this and didn’t want to walk out that they should very clearly, in their personnel file, make sure their their district is aware of their thoughts and their intent to come to school and work,’’ she said. Still, Douglas has no idea how many actually followed her advice.

There’s an even more basic issue: Should the state consider suspending or revoking the teaching certificates of those who went on strike given that Arizona already has a shortage of certified teachers.

“I don’t know,’’ Douglas responded. “That’s a very theoretical question.’’

But the superintendent told Capitol Media Services she remains convinced that some sort of sanction is necessary, at least to set a precedent.

“Do we let our teachers just walk out on children any time they feel like it at the behest of any political operative who comes along and pulls their strings?’’ Douglas said. And Douglas said it would be wrong to see the issue of teacher discipline in this case as something special or unusual.

“We routinely censure teachers who walk out on their contracts,’’ she said. “I guess the rhetorical question is, if you do something wrong that you normally get disciplined for, if you do it with enough people, do we then just say it doesn’t matter anymore?’’

As much as Thomas sees the push by Douglas for discipline as political, she has her own take on the issue, calling the walkout “a political stunt.’’

But Thomas said that’s telling only half the story, noting that lawmakers had yet to consider the matter by the time teachers and other staff showed up in front of the Capitol.

-Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.

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