Less than three years ago, Arizona's teachers received a boost in morale when voters approved an education sales tax to give them a raise.
Now the boost has gone bust.
Nearly all teachers will take home less money next year because of skyrocketing health insurance and retirement costs. Many are in danger of losing thousands of dollars through state budget cuts. Some, including 163 teachers in the Scottsdale Unified School District, will lose their jobs.
Jerry Mogalian, a sixth-grade teacher at Grayhawk Elementary School, a Scottsdale school in the Paradise Valley Unified School District, left a lucrative career in sales and marketing 15 years ago to become a teacher. With a current base salary of $50,231, he is just starting to come close to making what he earned in his previous career more than a decade ago.
But this fall, Mogalian — at age 50, eight years away from retirement — could see his salary reduced by more than $3,200 through a combination of health insurance and retirement increases and possible cuts from the Legislature.
“I know I will stay in teaching. I'm too committed to kids and teaching to get out of it,” he said. “But my morale is at an all-time low.”
John Wright, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said school districts across Arizona are reducing their teaching work force and cutting salaries. Yet, he said, public comment on the plight of the state's teachers has been “eerily quiet.”
“It's almost like the budget proposals are so extreme, people think they'll never happen. People either don't get it or they're not taking it seriously,” Wright said. “The public needs to cause a ruckus. There needs to be a public outcry.”
Wright puts much of the blame on the Arizona Legislature, where Republican leaders have proposed cutting the Career Ladder teacher incentive pay program by 25 percent and the Teacher Experience Index, which gives more money to districts with more experienced and higher-salaried teachers, by 50 percent.
The GOP proposal also would cut funding to school districts with administrative expenses that are not 10 percent below the state average, and would provide a 2 percent inflation increase to school districts for transportation only.
Republican leaders have said their proposal is just a starting point for negotiating a state budget with Gov. Janet Napolitano, whose budget plan would not cut education funding. Both the Legislature and the governor are grappling with how to resolve a $1 billion budget deficit.
Regardless of what state leaders do, many Arizona school districts face financial crises because of rising health insurance costs and a new requirement that public employers double their contributions to the state retirement fund starting in July.
The Mesa Unified School District will have to spend $12 million more next year to cover health insurance and retirement. That, coupled with potential cuts in Career Ladder and the Teacher Experience Index, could cost some teachers a hefty chunk of their pay.
For $43,834 a year, Kelly McGinnis teaches alternative geometry and trigonometry at Mesa's Dobson High School. She also serves as the school's math department chairwoman, putting together teacher schedules, ordering supplies and making recommendations on job candidates.
Chuck Essigs, adviser to the superintendent, estimated that McGinnis will see an additional $700 for health insurance and $1,200 for retirement coming out of her salary next year. That only includes the district's share of her retirement. Her share — an additional $1,200 — would also reduce her take-home pay.
If the Legislature cuts Career Ladder and the Teacher Experience Index, McGinnis could lose $2,100 more, Essigs said.
McGinnis' frustration echoes that of many Arizona teachers: The state increased accountability requirements for schools through high-stakes testing and performance labels, but doesn't want to increase teacher pay in return.
“They raised the bar on us, and now, they're giving us less money to reach it,” she said.
Wright said this is not what voters wanted when they approved in 2000 the 0.6 percent increase in the sales tax for education.
“Polls and anecdotes showed that people wanted to put more money into teachers' paychecks, to compensate teachers for what they do by treating them as professionals, to attract better teachers into the classroom,” Wright said. “If teachers are taking home less pay next year, that's a step backward.”
Rob Melnick, director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, said the state's teachers need to understand how different the picture was in November 2000, when voters approved Proposition 301.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had not yet occurred. The economy was in good shape. The nation was not at war.
“I'm not so sure that if people were voting today, (the education sales tax) would pass — not because people don't support teachers or education, but because these are very different economic times,” Melnick said.
Robin Horn, a first- and second-grade teacher at Chandler's Galveston Elementary School, and Sergio Acosta, a fifth-grade teacher at Tempe's Laird Elementary School, said they do understand that the economy has changed.
“People don't do teaching for the money. It's about making a difference and helping kids to be successful,” Acosta said. “But when voters approved that initiative, a lot of teachers were looking forward to an increase in their salary. Now we have cutbacks.”
For 12 years, Horn has chosen to teach at Galveston, a school with an enrollment that is 80 percent low-income, instead of teaching at other schools with more affluent families who are not struggling with poverty.
She loves her students and she loves her job. Horn said there is nothing else she wants to do. But she said that her morale is bruised.
“With all the accountability the state and federal government is putting on us . . . it's frustrating when you feel like you have to do and do and do — and you see no support,” she said.
Despite difficult times ahead, most Arizona teachers will still be better off this fall than they were before the sales tax increase passed in 2000, Essigs said. In fact, the Morrison Institute noted in a recent teacher shortage report that Proposition 301 resulted in Arizona's average teacher salary — $39,973 in 2001-02 — ranking 26th in the nation that year, up from 33rd among all states in 2000-01.
Still, Arizona's average teacher salary remains below the national average of $44,499, the report said.
Melnick pointed out that while other entities taking financial hits, such as cities, can raise taxes and fees, state law limits what school districts can do.
“School districts have a limited capacity to fend for themselves financially,” Melnick said. “They really are in harm's way.”