AZ Legislators: Listen Up or Get Out!

Night before last, at the West Campus of the Pima Community College in Tucson, AZ Schools Now held the second of three statewide Community Budget Hearings. I’m guessing over 100 people attended the Tucson event, including teachers, administrators, school board members, faith leaders and community advocates. AZ Senator Dalessandro and Representatives Friese, Gonzales, and Engle, and Pima County Schools Superintendent Williams were also in attendance to hear from their constituents.

AZ Schools Now is a coalition of public education advocate organizations from around the state focused on reinvesting in public schools to boost student achievement. The members are Support Our Schools Arizona, Pima County and Valley Interfaith organizations, Friends of Arizona School Boards Association, Christine Marsh (Arizona 2016 Teacher of the Year), Children’s Action Alliance and the Arizona: Education and Business Coalition, Center for Economic Progress, Education Association, School Administrators, Education Network, and Parent Teacher Association.

Moderators Julie Erfle, Jen Darland, David Lujan and Michelle Crow opened up the hearing aand provided information comparing the 2018 budget proposals from Governor Ducey, AZ Schools Now, and the Legislative Democrats prior to opening up the hearing to well…hear what the attendees had to say. All statements were being videotaped as part of the public hearing, so the attendees words could eventually be shared with AZ legislators.

David Lujan of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress gave a detailed description of the three proposals and told the audience that 65 percent of the Governor’s FY2018 education budget goes to high performing schools and 12 percent goes to two charter operators. Of the $10 million Ducey sets aside for kindergarten/early literacy for schools with highest percentage of low-income students, only one school in Pima County qualifies.

As far as funding sources go, Ducey proposes all of it to come from the General Fund and still wants to give a $3 million tax corporate tax cut. Republican legislators on the other hand, are looking to give $11 million in cuts to their corporate benefactors. This, despite 77 percent of Arizona voters wanting (in a Dec 2016) poll, to better fund education and 61 percent willing to pay more taxes to do end.

The AZ Schools Now proposal advocates for a 4 percent raise versus the 0.4 percent Ducey desires. The proposed raise cost of $134 million plus $2 million for building maintenance and repair would be paid for by shifting funding from Ducey’s Credit Enhancement District (which provides tax dollars as collateral for lower cost loans, primarily for charters), freezing growth in corporate tax credits which have grown from $12 million in 2009 to $127 million today, and a pause on new tax cuts.

Legislative Democrats want $136 million for teachers, $38 million for classroom funding and $14 million for building maintenance and repair, the latter two both phasing up over 10 years. They propose paying the bill with $56 million from the General Fund, along with all the methods AZ Schools Now favor plus $50 million in General Fund lottery revenue and $61 million in revenue from additional tax collections. Interestingly, we learned this revenue would come from rehiring 70 or so Department of Revenue tax collection staff who prior to their release by the current administration, each brought in about $1.2 million dollars a year in outstanding tax collections.

Once the microphones were passed to the audience, those wishing to speak lined up behind them and the floodgates opened. First up was a music teacher from Tucson Unified (TUSD) who wondered why our legislators continue to cut funding unless their intent is to kill public education. Needless to say, the audience immediately shouted in unison that is exactly their intention.

Next up was Judith, a grandmother and Pima County Interfaith leader who expressed concern about teachers buying their own supplies and needing second jobs to pay their bills. She said we don’t need more choice and instead of small increases, we should stop tax cuts, give teachers pay increases, stop vouchers, roll back tax credits allowed to School Tuition Organizations (STOs), and just stop taking any of her tax dollars to privatize our public education.

Elizabeth, a teacher, says she is just scraping by with one of her two monthly paychecks dedicated to her rent. She expressed great pride in her students saying they aren’t any less intelligent than others, they just don’t have the same background that initially sets them up for success.

A local business owner, Nicole, said the state should invest in teachers for the long-term because retention will produce the best return on investment (ROI). She talked about how teacher salaries have not only kept up with inflation, but have lost ground. Robert, an Oro Valley taxpayer and Interfaith community leader, said the problem is that the state’s tax structure has been systematically hollowed out and we must get back to collecting the taxes that are owed.

Ceasar, a parent who is a member of the newly formed Tucson Unified Parent Action Council (TUPAC) said parents need to be engaged. On his daughters’ school site council, he said it was a shock to have to deal with a 66 percent cut in funding. He also said he gets really tired of hearing old timers talk about “back in the day.” It’s not your day he said, it’s my kid’s day.

Rebecca, a teacher from Sunnyside Unified said she took a $35K pay cut when she moved here as a teacher from another state and to those who want to blame it on cost-of-living, said she pays more rent in Tucson. She doesn’t teach for the money, but for the love of her students — 90 percent of whom quality for free and reduced lunch and may not be highly proficient on AzMERIT, but have grown three grade levels in reading this year alone.

Another member of TUPAC and a resident of the Catalina Foothills Unified District, Lisa said it wasn’t until she open enrolled her gifted autistic child in TUSD that she was able to get him the type of help he needs to thrive. She appreciates her son’s teachers and wants them to be able to afford a house and a car and not have to get another job to do it.

Nate, a 6th grade ELA teacher in Sahuarita Unified, said 30% of his school’s teachers are in their first year of teaching, there are 35 kids in his 6th grade class, he often doesn’t have enough supplies in his classrooms, and he tires of having tiles fall down from his classroom ceiling when it rains. He also said he is sad to see the 21st Century Classroom program defunded just when they are starting to see tangible benefits to the district.

Another teacher in Sunnyside Unified, April, said her priorities for additional funding are teacher salaries and building maintenance and repair. As an example, her school has had to do away with the rule against traveling during basketball at their school because the gym floor is so worn students can’t stop as they should.

Jennifer, a third grade teacher from Sunnyside, said at the age of 47, that she is just getting too tired to work two jobs to make ends meet. She said she isn’t asking for a life of luxury, just the ability to pay her bills.

A retired kindergarten teacher who taught in Cave Creek for 20 years, Ann said she received no pay increase during the last 10 of those years. During her tenure, her class size increased from 20 kids to 29, she lost some of her support staff, and she gained more special needs students. She said she has friends at Raytheon and through them, understands the company is very pro-education, but very concerned about the education of Arizona’s workforce. Her personal concerns about the direction of Arizona education has caused her to get political for the first time in her life. She said the walking and calling for candidates and causes was not initially easy, but now she finds it empowering.

Sandy, President of the Marana Teacher’s Association, said she is in her 15th year of teaching. She is now within six years of retirement and worries about teachers coming behind her. She then read a letter from a high school teacher who loves her job but now $20,000 in debt, has made the tough decision to leave the career field for better pay. She wrote that by paying teacher wages that are less they could get in most other jobs, the legislature has shown they don’t really care about our kids.

Kevin, another Interfaith leader, teacher, and grandparent, said the hearing had been a good public processing of pain. But, he said, we need to do more than process. We are at a point in this nation that if we don’t come together to save our Democracy, we are going to lose it. If we allow that to happen, we will only have ourselves to blame for the untenable, unethical and immoral state of our affairs.

There were a few other speakers, but Judy, a librarian in three different school districts, was the last. She expressed great concern about our students’ literacy and lack of critical thinking skills. She then looked into directly the camera and told legislators she hopes will eventually listen, “if you are not moved by what you heard tonight, shame on you!”

Kudos to AZ Schools Now for holding these important hearings. Not only does the public need to be much better informed about the issues challenging our district schools, but they also need to be heard. It was great to see all the teachers in the house. They, along with the parents are really the ones who have the loudest megaphones to spur action. That action, retired Air Force Colonel Holly Lyon said, is to elect more pro-district education candidates to the Arizona Legislature.

That is the real bottom line. If the voters of Arizona really do support district education, the choice of over 80 percent of our students, they must look beyond the party and vote for pro-district education candidates. Two more Democratic Senators will bring parity to that chamber and hopefully the need to compromise for the best solutions. As Martin Luther King said, I have a dream…”

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