When class begins in Mesa schools on Aug. 11, teachers will be in their classrooms for the first time in more than two decades working under an employment agreement many of them do not approve of.
On July 22, the Mesa Unified School District governing board approved an agreement that gives the teachers an average 4.35 percent more in salary and benefits for the 2008-09 school year.
However, the teacher and staff associations representing the employees rejected the agreement because, as part of it, they were asked to accept a 1percent permanent pay increase and a 1percent one-time bonus spread across three checks because of hard economic times.
The associations said they asked for, and had been told, that they were getting the entire 2 percent as a permanent raise. The 2 percent is money that comes from the state as a cost-of-inflation factor and is voter-protected by Proposition 301, passed in 2000. The money goes to all the school districts, and teachers mostly expect to see it in the form of a pay raise.
As a result of the decision to not give it to them as a permanent raise, the members will not verify the agreement with the district, as they typically do.
But the failure of the district and the employees to reach an agreement won't change anything on the surface as class resumes this summer.
"We won't do anything different than we have in the past," said Kirk Hinsey, president of the Mesa Education Association. "We plan to be there and do our jobs."
However, it may change the nature of the relationship between the employer and employees moving forward.
Arizona is a right-to-work state, which essentially means that you don't need to be a member of a union to enjoy the benefits one negotiates.
Still, the majority of teachers in the state work under an agreement negotiated between employees and school administration and approved by the school board, said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.
"School boards are not obligated to negotiate," he said. "The majority do, though. I think that speaks to the importance of relationships over the importance of the law."
Wright said a school board has every right to impose an agreement the associations don't accept, but the danger is that a breakdown in trust will occur that is difficult to gain back. School districts benefit from that trust, he said, by having dedicated, loyal teachers willing to work through problems together.
Strikes are rare in education here, and public support for such action is low.
In Arizona, government employees are particularly challenged to prove their value to the public, said Dennis Hoffman, professor of economics at Arizona State University.
In the Midwest, many people grew up embracing the union sentiment, he said, and reaped the benefits of collective bargaining power. But here, unions have never been strong and are on the decline.
"As a result, you just don't have a groundswell of support," he said. "There's no deep-seeded, pro-union, pro-labor sentiment in the public, so the public would not embrace something like a work stoppage. What the public does embrace are investments in education. So the issue for people in Mesa is how will the quality of education be affected by this?"
Kinsey said this year's meet-and-confer process in Mesa ended badly in the minds of most staff, and he thinks the school board will have to reach out to teachers to mend wounds.
Hundreds of them showed up at the July 22 meeting, at many times booing board members as they were speaking.
"We do have to find a way to work together in a positive way, and we don't want our good relationship to go away," Hinsey said.
Board member Michael Hughes said he understands why the employees rejected this year's agreement and believes that it would have been accepted if the entire 2 percent salary increase was permanent. He said he also believes that the rest of the agreement should stand as is.
He said it remains to be seen, with all the unknowns in education funding, whether collective bargaining in Mesa will get even more difficult in the future.
"I don't feel at odds with them," he said. "I know there was a lot of snickering at the board meeting, but I know I would do everything I can to get them that 2 percent if things turn around."
Kinsey said that, moving forward from this decision, the education association will try to raise awareness among members that "education is becoming more about being politically active."
"For some people, this is probably a wake-up call," he said. "A lot of teachers are very frustrated and disappointed. But they need to be aware of who is at fault and where to put the blame."
He said he is encouraging people he talks with to vote, write letters, cyberlobby and do anything else they can to reach not just local politicians, but the Arizona Legislature and beyond.
Wright said the various associations in Mesa should try to build membership to gain even more support for their efforts.
Because the Mesa district is the largest in the state, other districts often look to it for cues about how to conduct business. But Wright said he does not expect a domino affect from this latest decision regarding pay.
"I don't think you'll see a lot of boards willing to damage that relationship over 1 percent," he said.