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Board of Education delays discipline discussion for striking teachers

Teachers rally outside the Arizona House of Representatives Monday, April 30, 2018, in Phoenix on their third day of walk outs. Teachers in Arizona and Colorado walked out of their classes over low salaries keeping hundreds of thousands of students out of school. It's the latest in a series of strikes across the nation over low teacher pay. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Teachers rally outside the Arizona House of Representatives Monday, April 30, 2018, in Phoenix on their third day of walk outs. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The state Board of Education won’t be weighing whether to discipline tens of thousands of teachers who walked out during the #RedForEd strike — at least not yet.

Board President Lucas Narducci on Friday yanked the subject of the board’s authority to sanction educators from the agenda for Monday’s meeting, calling any discussion of the issue “premature at this time.”

`The board does not have enough information or legal advice to have a constructive discussion,” he said in a statement, saying the board will “seek more guidance through legal counsel in due course.”

Narducci’s move is a setback for state schools chief Diane Douglas.

It has been Douglas who, even before the strike started, that teachers should be investigated — and, if appropriate, disciplined — for breaching their contracts. And while it was Narducci’s decision to examine the issue, Douglas said it was with her backing, and that the call for a discussion was a “mutual” determination.

But the superintendent of public instruction has made no secret for months of her belief that teachers who didn’t show up in class were acting illegally and should be punished in some way, saying Friday she told teachers “right from the beginning” that a strike is illegal in Arizona.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas (Photo by Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services)

Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas (Photo by Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services)

Only thing is, Douglas, by herself, is powerless to do anything: Only the full Board of Education, on which she serves, has the ability to take disciplinary action, whether a reprimand or censure, at one extreme or the more severe suspension or revocation of someone’s teaching certificate.

But Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said there’s nothing for the state board to investigate about individual teachers.

“The district made a decision to close the school,” he said, though he conceded that took place when administrators found there would be too few staffers in attendance to open a building. But Thomas said if the school was closed — whether for lack of staff or simply bad weather — a teacher who doesn’t show up has done nothing wrong.

As to other cases of teachers who did not show up, Thomas said school districts all have various policies that allow teachers to take personal time.

From his perspective, he said the whole push to look at the issue of whether teachers should be disciplined is political.

“If there wasn’t an election in November, this wouldn’t be an issue,” he said, referring to the fact that Douglas is seeking reelection.

“This is saber rattling,” Thomas said. “The superintendent is playing to her base.”

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.

On Friday 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 stayed away on purpose 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 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 whole walkout ” a political stunt.” She said the governor’s offer of a 19 percent pay hike by 2020 “was already on the table before they even voted to strike.”

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.

“You had thousands of educators that wanted to see this process all the way through,” he said.

“I don’t think that anyone could have guaranteed that that would go through,” Thomas continued. “I think it went through because we were out there.”


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