Mesa teachers showed up en masse to the district’s school board's April 9 meeting to show their support, but also remind them that it’s time for a raise.
More than 200 teachers dressed in red shirts lined the board room and flooded the hallway and kitchen area outside the Mesa Unified School District’s meeting. They didn’t speak to the board but stood together and listened to the meeting.
“We wanted to give the teachers an outlet and a voice to let the board know that just as they ask us to work hard every day, we’re asking them to work hard to find compensation,” Mesa Education Association President Tammie Pursley told the Tribune. Her group represents teachers and classified staff.
“We want them to know we appreciate what they are doing,” Pursley said.
Pursley said that teacher salary has been frozen the last four years. During that same time, the district has faced cutbacks from the state, as well as an enrollment decline, which also takes away dollars from the budget.
In the past few years, the district has closed Powell and Mesa junior high schools, as well as transformed Brimhall Junior High School and Alma Elementary School into back-to-basics Franklin campuses.
“We acknowledge that Mesa Public Schools has gone through some difficult times, however, it is time to step-up and honor those who have demonstrated their loyalty by staying with Mesa Public Schools,” Pursley said in a news release.
Though they were silent Tuesday, the teachers did not go unnoticed.
“I assure you we are committed to providing additional compensation to all employee groups,” Board President Mike Nichols said. “We respect all our employees. Despite the lackluster funds from the state. We are committed to that.”
Superintendent Mike Cowan also addressed the teachers, letting everyone know, that the board has worked toward improving salary compensation for several years.
“It is the commitment of our staff to make sure we’re providing additional compensation to a very committed and patient staff who has been working through some tough years,” he said.
The teachers’ appearance Tuesday comes in the middle of the regular, annual contract negotiations.
Each year, the district and the Mesa Education Association, as well as the Mesa Education Support Personnel Association – the group that represents classified employees – sits down in a “meet and confer” meeting to negotiate different issues: contracts, benefits, salaries, teaching time, planning time and more.
Those meetings have been going on for several weeks, even though the district does not know exactly how much funding it will receive from the state. But districts are required to pass a budget for next year prior to July 15, whether or not those figures are finalized. A proposed budget meeting is scheduled for late June. Budgets are then revised throughout the year.
“Right now, we’re not close to an agreement, but we want them to know that’s not a negative thing. There’s just so much to discuss,” Pursley said.
But in terms of salaries, “I think we’re still expecting it to be frozen,” Pursley said.
The district has given teachers additional compensation in the form of one-time stipends, but the actual base pay for teachers has not changed in years.
Washington Elementary School teacher Nancy Munoz said she came into the district five years ago with five years of experience. And though she now has 10 years of experience, her base pay has not changed. But her paycheck has actually decreased as the state has increased the required amount of retirement taken from teachers each year.
“My husband has taken on a second job so I can continue to do what I do as a parent and a teacher,” she said.
With three children at home – one in college, one in high school and one in junior high – expenses have also increased, adding to financial stress.
“We’re having to make big cuts in our family budget,” Munoz said.
But she has taken advantage of the one way teachers in Mesa still can earn additional pay – at a price.
Each summer she takes continuing education classes. For that, the district gives her a stipend.
“The district is very good at offering professional development. I take a stipend on every class I take so I can feed my family through the summer,” she said. “This year, I’m teaching summer school and taking classes.”
Munoz reiterated that Tuesday’s teacher showing was “not a protest.”
“This is us showing we’re united and we understand they want to work with us. We want to show we’re still Mesa employees. We’re very loyal employees.”
The district, like all others in the state, is still waiting to find out how much funding it will receive next year. Gov. Jan Brewer and state lawmakers must negotiate their differences before a final state budget is approved. Then, public schools – as well as other public groups – will know their funding that begins on July 1.
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