Board of Ed scraps proposal on sex education rules

State schools chief Kathy Hoffman and Luke Narducci, president of the state Board of Education, listen Monday to a parade of parents object to proposed changes in sex education rules. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)
State schools chief Kathy Hoffman and Luke Narducci, president of the state Board of Education, listen Monday to a parade of parents object to proposed changes in sex education rules. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Facing a barrage of parental criticism, the state Board of Education decided Monday to scrap a proposal to remove certain language from the rules on sex education.

Several members of the appointed board said they are unwilling to consider the kind of changes being proposed, not just by gay rights advocates on one side but a coalition of parents on the other who want even more restrictions on what can be taught. Armando Ruiz said that is the purview of elected state lawmakers.

“We’re not the Legislature,” he said.

Monday’s decision is most immediately a defeat for Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, and allies on the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, which sought to remove verbiage that now bans the teaching of “abnormal, deviant or unusual sexual acts and practices.” Instead, that proposal sought to spell out that sex education instruction must be “medically and scientifically accurate” and that courses provide “medically accurate instruction” on methods to prevent the transmission of disease.

That provoked a firestorm of protest, with more than four dozen foes showing up to tell the board to back off. It also raised questions from Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa.

“Who decides what’s medically accurate?” she asked the board, suggesting that scientific studies often reach the result desired by the organization that funded the research.

But board members also chose not to consider vastly different proposals by some parents for what they would change in the rules. Suggestions ranged from requiring that abstinence be the only thing taught in sex education to an outright prohibition on mentioning masturbation, oral or anal sex.

During the approximately four hours of testimony several parents took swipes at state schools chief Kathy Hoffman, who took office in January, for even putting the Quezada proposal on the agenda.

“You’re injecting your political beliefs,” said Scott Weinberg who said he has two children in the Kyrene Elementary School District.

“I understand that you won that election,” he said. “But that doesn’t give you the right to change the curriculum for all of our children.”

Lesa Antone was more direct, focusing on the state’s low rankings nationally in scores on reading, writing and math.

“Why don’t you spend more time focusing on that and less time trying to sexualize little innocent babies, because that’s what they are,” she said.

“And you want to put them in makeup and make them drag queens and make them sexualized individuals,” Antone continued. “Shame on you!”

Hoffman insisted that she was not trying to push a specific agenda. Instead, she told those in the audience that she was simply putting forward the suggestions from Quezada for the board to consider.

“I thought this was worthy of discussion,” she said. “I would give the same respect to any senator.”

But former schools chief Diane Douglas, defeated in last year’s Republican primary, accused Hoffman of giving “priority status to your most favorite organization over every other concerned parent that’s sitting in this room today.” Douglas did not publicly identify the organization.

Animosity to Hoffman, however, predates Monday’s proposed rule change.

She used her first State of Education speech to call on lawmakers to repeal a law that prohibits any courses on AIDS and HIV from portraying homosexuality “as a positive alternative lifestyle.” Hoffman, a Democrat, told members of the House Education Committee at the time that the verbiage “contributes to an unsafe school environment” and leads to discrimination and bullying.

Hoffman got her wish — but only after gay rights groups filed a federal court lawsuit and Attorney General Mark Brnovich declined to defend the law.

And the board last month separately repealed an existing rule that had required sex ed classes to “promote honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage,” a provision also challenged in the federal court lawsuit and demanded by plaintiffs to drop their lawsuit.

Hoffman, in defending herself Monday, also said that sex ed classes operate on an “opt-in” basis, with parents having to give consent.

“That is not changing,” she said. “It’s always the parents’ choice of whether or not their child participates.”

Michael Clark, attorney for the Center for Arizona Policy, separately objected to another proposed change which would have allowed – but not required – schools to have co-ed sex ed classes. Madeline Adelman, speaking for GLSEN, said those choices should be left to local school boards.

The board could get some direction from the Republican-controlled Legislature this coming year on what changes, if any, to make.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, vowed to propose a law that absolutely forbids sex education of any type before the fifth grade; existing law allows but does not require schools to provide instruction on AIDS and HIV from kindergarten through Grade 12.

And Allen, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, made it clear she’s not particularly pleased with what is being taught at all grade levels.

“Schools should never be in competition with what parents are trying to teach at home and how they are directing their children,” she said. Allen also took a broader swipe at public education, saying it is moving away from instruction and instead to “social engineering” of children.

There were other political overtones in the hearing,

Ashley Davis, who said she was a member of the Patriot Movement, complained that 75 percent of teachers in the nation “openly identify with many leftist and Marxist values that are indoctrinating the youth of America with spite for our flag, disgust for our history, hatred for our values but, most of all, violent rhetoric towards our awesome president Donald J. Trump.”

Education board adopts rules for high school graduation during crisis


The state’s estimated 86,000 high school seniors won’t be prevented from graduating just because the governor shut down Arizona schools through the end of the academic year.

But there were only questions — and no immediate answers — to how to make up the loss of nearly a third of the academic year for students in the lower grades.

Without dissent, the state Board of Education adopted an emergency rule Tuesday that bars school districts and charter schools from withholding academic credit or a diploma “solely because the student missed instructional time due to a school closure issued by the governor.”

The rule also says that schools, in determining if a student meets the minimum course and competency requirements may consider whether that person has successfully completed the educational opportunities that were provided during the days the schools where shuttered. That can include both online instruction and independent study that may be through printed materials.

Kathy Hoffman
Kathy Hoffman

But the rule does have an escape clause of sorts if there is no ability to determine if a student actually has been doing anything while at home. In that case, schools can decide that a student has met the requirements if he or she “was on track to meet the minimum course of study and competency requirements prior to the school closure.”

What that can include, the rule says, could include whether the student was passing all of his or her courses. Also acceptable would be passing scores on locally or nationally administered academic assessments.

That decision ultimately would be made by local school officials.

And the rule spells out that when schools determine that students are entitled to academic credits and to graduate that they get their transcripts and diplomas “in the same manner” as if there had not been a closure.

Kathy Hoffman, the superintendent of public instruction and a member of the board, told Capitol Media Services after the meeting that her aim and that of the board is to ensure that students are given the benefit of the doubt and get to graduate, even if they didn’t do any work at all since schools were closed last month.

“There are definitely situations across the state where students are not going to be able to access high-quality curriculum, whether that’s because they don’t have the ability to get online, or they’re sick, or their family’s sick,” she said, saying there are “so many unique circumstances.”

“I definitely would not encourage anybody to stop trying or stop working to access high-quality instruction and curriculum,” Hoffman said. “I just think we need to be honest that there’s going to be situations in which students don’t have the ability to meet all the typical expectations we would have during a normal school year.”

In separate emails to the boards, various high school students and their parents urged board members to tell high schools to simply delay but not cancel high school graduation.

Yoly Martinez said that seniors have worked hard for years while helping families and holding a job at the same time.

“It would be cruel if we do not find a way to celebrate their success thus far in their lives,” she wrote. “For some, it may even leave a mark saying all you’ve worked for tirelessly in the past years means nothing.”

She suggested some ceremony where each student got only two tickets with a requirement “to keep the social distancing.”

A senior at Mountain Pointe High School in Tempe, whose name was redacted from the public version of the email, said students have been waiting 12 years — or, as she put it, 105,120 hours — to walk across the stage.

“Please let the seniors have this one thing, to see the teachers who changed their lives and to walk across with the friends they stressed about grades with, and the friends and family who pushed them to be great to get to that stage,” the email reads.

Despite the lack of formal action, board member Armando Ruiz said he believes that most high schools will find an “innovative way to celebrate graduation.”

Hoffman agreed, saying she already has spoken with some school superintendents about finding “creative” solutions.

For example, she said, one superintendent is looking at bringing in students one at a time, having each record a video message. Those messages then would be compiled into a graduation video.

High school graduation aside, Ruiz separately worried about the larger effects of the shutdown of close to a third of the school year will have on students.

“It’s going to take from three to five years for kids to catch up,” he said. Ruiz was particularly focused on students in the lower grades — and particularly from families who lack access to the internet. He figures that category could equal about 170,000 Arizona children who do not have access to remote learning.

“I’ve heard people say you can do packets,” Ruiz said, sending home materials. But he said that’s not an answer.

“Parents are often ill-prepared to teach their kids at home,” he said. For example, he said, there are children who come from homes where the parents speak only Spanish and lack any way of getting help.

“This is going to be an ongoing challenge for our state,” Hoffman said. “There’s no easy solution to make it up.”

Aside from working with business leaders, the schools chief said the state can make this a priority for the use of federal funds it expects to get.

“This will definitely be a multi-year project,” she said. “It’s not something we can fix overnight.”

In adopting the rules for graduation, board members declined to consider several suggestions for alterations.

In a filing with the board, a group of school superintendents wanted a requirement to keep community colleges, universities and other post-secondary institutions from revoking already-issued admission letters which were contingent on successful completion of the school year.

Hoffman, however, said the board does not regulate these institutions and has no legal right to direct what they do.

They also suggested — and the state board did not consider — a “better but not worse” grading policy that allows students to use the time schools are closed to not only take advantage of learning opportunities but also make up missed work or retake exams. That would allow teachers at the end of the school year to update grades, but only to improve them and not to lower them.

Board members in their discussion did not explain their decision not to consider those recommendations. But Hoffman said that doesn’t mean the concerns were being ignored, saying the board still could take up these issues at a regular meeting.

“Today my intention was to prioritize and take care of some of the high-need areas,” she said.

Legislators consider tax hike for some types of home rentals

Home For Rent Sign

Arizona lawmakers grappling with the unintended consequences of a 2016 law that prohibited cities from regulating vacation rentals want to hike taxes on some rental owners.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, and Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, described potential legislation that would make investor-owned vacation rentals subject to commercial property tax rates as low-hanging fruit.

But a tax watchdog group warned that the legislation risks conflict with the state Constitution, unless lawmakers are clear that they’re targeting commercial short-term rentals because of how they’re used, not because of who owns them.

“You can’t classify property based on ownership,” said Jennifer Stielow, vice president of the Arizona Tax Research Association. “That would be unconstitutional.” Jo

John Kavanagh
John Kavanagh

Draft legislation backed by local leaders seeks to differentiate between vacation rentals owned by investment companies and primary or secondary residences that a person who occasionally rents out a home. The latter is truly the “sharing economy” promised by vacation rental proponents when the 2016 law passed, while the former is just a business operation, Sedona Mayor Sandy Moriarty said.

Short-term rentals are most easily compared to bed-and-breakfasts or timeshares, both of which can be classified as residential property in some instances and commercial in others, Coconino County Assessor Armando Ruiz said.

For instance, a traditional B&B can be considered a residential property for tax purposes if it rents out 10 rooms or fewer, the owner lives on site and it only serves breakfast. Otherwise, it’s considered commercial property and subject to higher taxes.

Ruiz shared an example of a Flagstaff property, the Bella Vue Estate, that boasts a mansion that can sleep 28 people, three chalets on the property with beds for four each and an additional residential space above a garage.

“This is clearly a commercial property operating in a residential area that should be able to be classified as a commercial property,” he said. “What we are lacking is that specific definition or that threshold to allow us to classify short-term vacation rentals as commercial.”

Kate Brophy-McGee
Kate Brophy-McGee

In Jerome, where water, sewer and trash services are handled in-house, being able to classify short-term rentals as commercial property would mean the town could charge those owners higher commercial rates, Jerome Town Councilwoman Mandy Worth said.

“We just want to be able to control it in-house as we do everything else,” she said. “We’ve been self-supporting and self-sustaining for over a century.”

Kavanagh said he is on board with providing “tax equity” between commercial short-term rentals and hotels and B&Bs that already are taxed as businesses. And he noted higher taxes for some property owners doesn’t mean more revenue for city or county governments.

“That would not result in a money grab or tax increase for government,” he said. “All it would do is redistribute who pays for what.”

Under Arizona’s complicated property tax system, taxing districts have a set levy, or maximum amount they can collect. The state sets assessment ratios for different classes of property — 18% for commercial property; 10% for primary and secondary residences.

Multiplying the cash value of an individual property by that assessment ratio results in the assessed value. A home worth $200,000, for instance, would have an assessed value of $20,000, while a commercial property worth $200,000 would have an assessed value of $36,000.

From there, taxing districts use their maximum levy and the sum of assessed values to determine their tax rate. If the hypothetical commercial and residential property were both in Phoenix, which had a 2018 tax rate of $1.32 for every $100 of assessed value, the commercial owner would owe $475.20 to the city, while the homeowner would owe $264 to the city. That’s not counting additional taxes levied by counties, school districts or bond issues.

Along with changing how property taxes are assessed on some short-term rentals, Kavanagh and Brophy McGee said they wanted more information on how well short-term rental owners are doing at collecting and remitting sales and room taxes.

Airbnb reported that it has generated $53.3 million in tax revenue in Arizona since the beginning of 2017, and $23.1 million this year. A law that took effect at the beginning of 2019 required all short-term rental marketplaces to collect and remit taxes, but Department of Revenue employees acknowledged they don’t have available data on how well that law is being followed.

“I fear we just see the tip of the iceberg because it is so difficult to enforce this at every level,” Kavanagh said.

He warned that vacation rental operators should accept tax changes and other adjustments to the state’s 2016 law, or risk a full repeal of the law becoming more politically feasible. Democratic Reps. Aaron Lieberman of Phoenix and Isela Blanc of Tempe filed a repeal bill as the first House measure of the 2020 session.

“Get on board with reform, because if it’s not enacted, I honestly think your days are numbered,” Kavanagh said.

State education board eliminates rule to promote heterosexual marriage


Over the objections of one member, the state Board of Education voted Monday to scrap a rule that requires sex education classes in Arizona to “promote honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage.”

Armando Ruiz said he understands the aim is to prevent discrimination against those who are different. He told colleagues of his experience of being called a “wetback” and being one of just seven children of color at Brophy Preparatory Academy.

There’s also the fact that repeal of the section is necessary to end a lawsuit against the state by gay rights advocates.

But Ruiz, a former Democrat state lawmaker, told colleagues he fears that the repeal will result in a new form of discrimination, this time against members of the faith community who do believe in what the that language has, until now, promoted.

“Once we take that off the table, we brand that as inferior,” he said of the idea of monogamous heterosexual marriage. “Like it or not, the message that we send is that world view is inferior, it’s denigrating, there’s something wrong with it.”

And Ruiz said that’s not acceptable to the Mexican community, which he said has a large number of people of faith.

“We see it as an attack on what we believe,” he said.

“I know that’s not the intent here,” Ruiz continued. “But that’s the message that will go out.”

And he said the change will result in a new form of discrimination, this time against members of the faith community who do believe in what the rule promotes.

“What I do know is that you cannot cure discrimination by discriminating against another group,” he said.

Ruiz was outvoted, though, as the other board members instead agreed to close the rule-making docket, essentially a procedural step before a formal board vote to repeal the language.

State schools chief Kathy Hoffman, who sits on the board, also supported the repeal.

She pointed out that the action will end a lawsuit filed in March against the state in federal court by two gay rights organizations and a gay Tucson student who challenged not just the rule but also a state law that prohibits instruction that “promotes a homosexual lifestyle” or “portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style” when teaching about AIDS and HIV.

The Legislature repealed the statute last month; Monday’s board vote to eliminate the rule should result in dismissal of the case.

But Hoffman said Monday’s vote is not the end of the matter.

She proposed that the board take a harder look at all of its rules on sex education, something Hoffman said will create an opportunity to address the concerns raised by Ruiz.

Others also want change.

In a letter to the board, Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, pointed out there is other language that could be considered discriminatory against gays.

For example, it spells out that sex education materials “shall not include the teaching of abnormal, deviate, or unusual sexual acts and practices.” Quezada wants that replaced with a requirement that course be “medically and scientifically accurate.”

The board agreed to have that discussion next month.