Arizona’s new policies that eliminate seniority as a way to downsize teacher ranks and cancel the state deadline to issue contracts are unconstitutional, the state’s largest teachers union said Monday. The Arizona Education Association plans to file a lawsuit to fight the changes.
The lawsuit will be filed with the Arizona Supreme Court against the state challenging the changes made during the third budget special session in September.
The AEA contends that because the policies were approved during a special legislative session, which is supposed to have one focus — the budget — they do not pass constitutional muster.
“The constitution states when you have a special session it has a directive: to make a budget. These policy changes as they stand are not related to the state’s budget and are therefore unconstitutional,” said John Hartsell, spokesman for the AEA, which represents 34,000 teachers in the state.
Each of the policy changes came up during the regular session, but none passed, he said. Lawmakers then put them into HB2011, the state budget bill signed into law in September.
Teachers are already circulating a petition against the changes. The law includes sweeping changes in school districts’ employment agreements with teachers:
• Districts cannot use seniority as a method of call-back when jobs open up following a reduction-in-force.
• Districts cannot pay employees release time for doing teacher association work.
• Districts cannot use seniority when issuing reduction-in-force notices.
• Teachers who want to dispute a pending dismissal now have 10 days, not 30, to appeal.
• Teachers who have been informed they must improve their teaching now have 60 instructional days, not 85 instructional days, to put corrective action into place.
• The March 15 to May 15 deadline to issue contracts is gone.
• The April 15 deadline to issue notices of nonrenewal is gone.
Even before word of the lawsuit filing came Monday, the Queen Creek Unified School District said it would still offer contracts at least 30 days before the end of the school year, said Tom Lindsey, the assistant superintendent of instructional services and human resources.
“It’s best to know who’s returning and who isn’t,” said Lindsey, who has been visiting schools and talking to teachers about what the repealed laws mean to the district. “We’re entering a new era. There’s still more questions than answers. We have no intent of sending out contracts in June or July.”
Queen Creek, as well as other districts, now have to come up with new evaluation policies if reduction-in-force notices need to go out.
“It will be policy-driven as opposed to legislative,” Lindsey said.
The new legislation took effect Tuesday, but there is debate about when some of the law could actually be enforced since teachers signed contracts prior to the governor signing the bill into law.
The policies “could lead to real instability in school districts and for employees,” said Will Moore, an AEA consultant with the Mesa Education Association. “I believe most school districts will continue to operate by a matter of policy according to the dates and timeliness in statutes prior to the changes.”
Though the state-mandated dates for contracts are eliminated, school districts could still choose to have deadlines in place, Moore said, even the same dates as previously required, such as in the Queen Creek district.
Janice Palmer, government liaison for the Arizona School Boards Association, said earlier this month that the changes put Arizona in the forefront of a national movement being required by the federal government.
“Overall, this should not be looked at through a small window,” Palmer said. “When you start taking a look at President Obama, Education Secretary (Arne) Duncan, and the Race to the Top grants, everything is aligning to the changes made this past legislative session. It’s really trying to focus on the students and what it takes in order to help teachers meet their full potential.
“There are very few teachers not performing, but teachers who are not should not be left in the classroom for those students to fall behind,” she said.
Hayley Ringle contributed to this article.