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Lawmakers approve $10.4 billion budget, teacher pay raises

Some teachers sleep while waiting in the senate lobby during early morning hours as Arizona state legislatures continue to debate the State's budget Thursday, May 3, 2018, at the Capitol in Phoenix. The budget gives teachers big raises but falls short of their demands for better school funding. The teachers, in the sixth day of classroom walk outs, have agreed to return to the classroom once the budget has been approved by the legislature. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Some teachers sleep while waiting in the senate lobby during early morning hours as Arizona state legislatures continue to debate the State’s budget Thursday, May 3, 2018, at the Capitol in Phoenix. The budget gives teachers big raises but falls short of their demands for better school funding. The teachers, in the sixth day of classroom walk outs, have agreed to return to the classroom once the budget has been approved by the legislature. (AP Photo/Matt York)

After marathon sessions, Arizona lawmakers passed a $10.4-billion spending plan early May 3 that fully funds Gov. Doug Ducey’s promise to boost teacher pay this fall and in the following two school years.

Ducey promptly signed the K-12 portion of the budget around 6 a.m. while several bills of the budget package were still pending approval. He signed the rest of the package late May 3.

The budget, approved mostly along party lines, represents a vastly revamped proposal from what the governor pitched for teachers in January. It provides a 9-percent boost to teacher pay, far more than the 1-percent Ducey initially offered.

And by 2020, funding for teacher pay will have increased by 19 percent over three years thanks to roughly $644 million in new education funding, including $273 million in fiscal year 2019.

The spending plan also provides $100 million to restore previous cuts to public schools in funding for computers, books and minor repair needs — though Ducey and Republican legislators have repeatedly pointed to those dollars as another way school district officials could give teachers even larger raises, or provide a pay bump to support staff that aren’t defined as a “teacher.”

The budget’s approval came after marathon floor sessions in the Senate and House of Representatives, with high stakes in front of crowds of red-clad educators who have been on strike for a week.

Those teachers had promised to return to their classrooms as soon as lawmakers pass the budget offering teachers raises.

Though budget deals are struck behind closed doors by Republican leaders, even some Democrats supported parts of the budget that boost teacher pay, giving the spending plan rare bipartisan support in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Democratic Sens. Sean Bowie, Andrea Dalessandro, David Bradley and Steve Farley, who is running for governor against Ducey this fall, voted for the K-12 budget bill.

Still, Democrats were exasperated after they repeatedly attempted to amend the budget, to no avail, to insert their own priorities. Those measures included phasing out tax credits, cutting base funding to “economic freedom schools” and directing the Department of Education to study capping classroom sizes.

Teachers with the “Red for Ed” movement, who held out in the gallery for upwards of 13 hours, provided a rare audience for lawmakers used to passing budgets in the middle of night with only lobbyists and staff around to witness their votes.

They used jazz hands to silently express their support for comments made on the floor, usually by Democrats, and occasionally murmured and gasped at heated points in the debate.

And in both chambers, faint chants of “we’re still here” could be heard from the courtyard below.

Earlier on May 2, Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association issued four new demands of state lawmakers, less than 24 hours after declaring they would end a week-long teacher strike May 3 if lawmakers adopted a budget on May 2.

The education groups requested a broader definition of “teachers” that would have granted raises to more school personnel, 10-percent raises for support staff and capping classroom sizes and student-to-counselor ratios.

All of their demands, which were introduced by Democrats as budget amendments, failed during budget negotiations on the floor, as Republicans routinely rejected the minority party’s offerings. The maneuver created a hostile environment for Republican senators and representatives, while their Democratic colleagues drew audible cheers from protesters outside the House and Senate chambers.

Republicans and Democrats alike also killed three amendments offered by Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, that sought to prohibit public school teachers from using classroom time to “espouse political ideology or beliefs.”

Another amendment would have allowed lawmakers to ask the attorney general to investigate whether a district rule or procedure flouts state law, and a third would have prohibited schools from closing during regular scheduled hours except for a “bona fide” safety threat, an epidemic, disease or plague of insects, a flood, an act of God, a wildfire, or inclement weather.

Townsend’s amendments were met by laughter from teachers in the gallery, and were rejected by even her Republican colleagues to preserve a deal struck by GOP leaders with Ducey.

Of the many amendments offered to alter K-12 funding laws, only one was approved.

Sponsored by GOP leaders, it removed requirements that charter schools post their budget on the school’s website.

Those reporting requirements were included in the budget as an accountability measure. But pro-charter Republicans stripped the measure from the bill, while leaving the requirement intact for public schools.

Charters will still be required to post information regarding teacher salaries online.

The final budget represents a 5.7 percent overall growth in spending compared to the $9.8 billion spending plan from fiscal year 2018, growth primarily financed through rosier revenue projections provided by budget analysts and economists who have become optimistic about Arizona’s economic growth.

It also scrapes together funds by other means, including more than $100 million in dollars freed up due to a new vehicle registration fee. And Ducey gave up on several of his own initiatives, including a sizable tax break for certain veterans and more dollars for school resource officers, a part of his pitch for a series of school safety measures.

The Governor’s Office boasts that the budget still leaves Arizona in a healthy financial state. Budget analysts estimate the state will have a $150 million structural balance thanks to the spending plan.

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