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Missing details of Ducey pay plan leave teachers skeptical

Public education advocates rally at the Arizona Capitol on March, 28, 2018, to demand higher teacher pay, among other improvements to public school funding. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Public education advocates rally at the Arizona Capitol on March, 28, 2018, to demand higher teacher pay, among other improvements to public school funding. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Lack of details of where the money is coming from and what the governor’s plan does not include has Arizona educators panning his offer of a big hike in teacher pay.

But groups that represent school boards and business personnel are lining up behind it, even while waiting to see specifics, calling it a good first step.

Gov. Doug Ducey Thursday said he can find funds to add 8 percent to teacher salaries this coming school year, on top of the 1 percent he already offered. And Ducey said he believes there will be money in the budget for a pair of back-to-back 5 percent pay hikes in the two subsequent years.

Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato cited forecasts by economists released just this past week which predict that revenues for this year will be $262 million higher than anticipated, with an additional $300 million from all sources for the coming budget year.

With other expenses, that by itself will not be enough to fund the $274 million first-year cost, much less the more than $670 million price tag when fully implemented. But Scarpinato said an improving economy also means fewer people in the state’s Medicaid program and needing other state services.

He also said Ducey is willing to forego some of the things he asked for in January, though he would not provide specifics. Scarpinato acknowledged one “ask” likely being thrown overboard is a tax cut for military retirees, though that saves the state just $15 million.

That lack of financing details, however, addresses only part of the reason that members of Arizona Educators United are not ready to give up their protests, their walk-ins — and even the possibility of a strike.

Noah Karvelis, one of the organizers of Arizona Educators United, said Ducey’s proposal deals with only one of the group’s five demands. And it doesn’t even fully address that one, providing 19 percent over three years versus 20 percent immediately.

The potential political problem now is that it has been strong public support that has gotten the educators this far, with the governor acceding to demands for a pay hike that only a week ago he had dismissed as “political theater.” Karvelis said some people could see the governor’s offer and believe the problem has been solved.

“We all realize that,” he said. “But I think we’re going to be able put out a higher level of engagement and really educate people on what some of the flaws are in the plan and what pieces it lacks.”

Derek Harris, another organizer of the newly formed and loosely knit group of teachers and support staff, said that will be crucial.

“Whenever you get a chance to educate someone on the real ins and outs of an issue and show them the facts and point them in the direction of what really is going on somewhere, they usually have a more detailed appreciation for where people stand,” he said.

Demands not addressed in Ducey’s offer are a system of permanent future salary increases, restoring education funding to 2008 levels, and a promise of no new tax cuts until per-student funding in Arizona reaches the national average.

And then there’s the question of who would — and would not — get a raise.

There is no new money in the governor’s plan for support staff. And that slight is not sitting well for members of Arizona Educators United in that group.

Vanessa Jimenez, vice president of the Phoenix Union Classified Employees Association, said her “heart sank” when she listened to the governor’s plan.

“Everybody knows it takes a village to raise our students,” she said. “And that village includes teachers and classified staff.”

Jimenez called the governor’s plan “clearly an attempt to divide us.”

Scarpinato, however, said there actually is money in the governor’s plan for classified staff — sort of.

He said the governor is committed to eventually restore the $371 million a year schools are supposed to get in what’s called “district additional assistance,” money that even Ducey himself had taken from the fund in prior years to balance the rest of the state budget.

This money is primarily earmarked for things like books, computers and buses. But school boards have flexibility to use it for whatever priorities they have.

Ducey also has vowed to boost basic state aid each year for inflation, something that lawmakers failed to do for years.

In any other school year, Scarpinato said school boards would use those funds to boost teacher pay. But now, with new dollars earmarked specifically for pay hikes, local officials have those dollars for other priorities, like pay for classified staff.

Harris said that’s hardly reassuring, noting the governor’s plan leaves the question of what raises to give to support staff — if any — is left to the whims of local school boards.

“One person can say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going to free up all of this money for custodians and cafeteria workers and all that,’ ” he said. “It’s another thing to actually do it.”

Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, said his members realize that boosting teacher pay, by itself, does not solve all problems.

“The classified folks are underpaid also,” he said. But Ogle said there’s nothing wrong with leaving the question of their remuneration to individual school boards.

“The reason we have locally elected boards with fiduciary responsibility is that they make value judgments in their communities,” he said. He said the governor’s plan, in providing more dollars for teacher pay, gives local officials more flexibility to decide how to divide up the other dollars that will be coming in, including for support staff.

Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Association of School Business Officials agrees that having the state pick up the burden for teacher pay hikes frees up other dollars for other priorities.

“They can go to the ‘district additional assistance’ and the regular inflation funding to meet some of the other needs in the district because the teachers would have gotten probably the biggest raise any of them have gotten in their career,” he said.

Essigs acknowledged the plan does not give Arizona Educators United everything it wants, like restoring funding to 2008 levels. Estimates are that, on an inflation-adjusted basis, schools are getting $1 billion a year less now than a decade ago.

But he does not see it as a reason to reject it.

“It’s a great start,” Essigs said, saying the additional dollars will give schools about $300 extra per student.

“That’s pretty significant,” Essigs said, though it still leaves schools far short of the national average. The most recent numbers from the National Education Association put total spending at $7,566 in Arizona compared to $11,787 nationally.

What it will also do is finally bring the amount of money the state provides on a per-student basis back above where it was in 2009, even before inflation is considered.

“That’s a pretty nice bump,” Essigs said.

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