Mesa Public Schools teachers protest

Hundreds of Mesa Public Schools teachers rallied after classes near Red Mountain High School last Wednesday as part of  statewide demonstrations for more money.

Hundreds of East Valley teachers who started their workday last Wednesday standing on curbs with posters urging better pay and more financial support for public education may have helped force Gov. Doug Ducey's hand.

But it remains unclear if his plan will prevent the waning school year from plunging into chaos.

From east Mesa to west Tempe and south Gilbert to north Chandler, teachers clad in the now-signature T-shirts of the statewide #RedforEd movement were joined by parents, administrators and governing board members near most public elementary and high schools, waving signs and chanting while passing motorists blared their horns in apparent support.

The demonstrations were bookended by two moves by the governor that made for a stunning turn of events.

Wednesday's protests came less than 24 hours after Ducey and leaders of two teacher groups ratcheted up their rhetoric, posing the possibility of a walkout before either side blinked.

Ducey said he wouldn’t meet with the leaders of two teacher groups, accusing them of “playing politics” and asserting that the state could only afford a 1 percent pay increase next school year – far less than the 20 percent the teachers sought.

But the day after the "walk-ins," Ducey announced a plan to give them that 20 percent in three increments over the next three years – and with no tax hikle.

On the other side, the walk-ins came the day after Noah Karvelis of Arizona Educators United threatened "escalated action" by teachers and indicated a date would be soon set for a statewide walkout.

On Thursday, some leaders said they'd wait for more details of Ducey's plan while others said it was not enough.

Ducey's announcement upstaged a plan unveiled several hours earlier by House Speaker J.D. Mesnard of Chandler.

 Mesnard proposed giving the teachers the the 20 percent pay hike over five years by taking money away from other school district funds that pay for supplies, computers, buses and other necessities.

That plan directly ran against the second reason for the peaceful demonstrations that prompted superintendents in Tempe Union and Kyrene school districts to join the protests.

They demanded the state also increase its overall support of public education – a demand Ducey at least partially met on Thursday by saying he remains committed to restoring $371 million taken away from districts over the past several years.

While Ducey's announcement won praise from many advocacy groups that had backed teachers, the leaders of the #RedforEd movement remained skeptical at best – as did at least one organizer of the East Valley protests.

Derek Harris of Arizona Educators United noted that Ducey made no mention of raises for support staff, such as cafeteria workers and health assistants. Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said he was skeptical of how Ducey suddenly found money.

"I'm worried about where the money is coming from," added teacher Joseph Buckley, Mesa Education Association president.

Ducey insisted, "There will be no shell game" and said the sudden windfall is the result of Arizona's growing economy.

It is also unclear how the Legislature will react to his proposal – or if walk-ins will go on as scheduled this Wednesday.

Mesnard, who accompanied Ducey at his Thursday press conference, was noncommittal, stating he wants more details.

But Mesnard added, "We all share the same priority," and that a 1 percent raise wouldn't cut it.

Anger, frustration, caution

How inclined East Valley teachers were – or are – toward more drastic action was and remains murky.

Many teachers on Wednesday said they were prepared to walk out, while others called a strike premature.

“When you say you are going to walk out, you have to be prepared to walk out,” said Diane Drazinski, president of Gilbert Education Association and a science teacher at Mesquite High School.

Drazinski noted that teachers in West Virginia planned for three years before going on strike last month for two weeks, ultimately winning their demand for a 5 percent pay hike.

All the teachers in walk-ins noted that teacher salaries in Arizona are among the lowest – if not the lowest – in the nation. Ducey's plan still keeps their pay below the national average.

Buckley said the 1 percent stipend Ducey originally offered amounted to almost nothing for young teachers in Mesa, which has 3,400 teachers and 60,000 students.

For an entry level teacher making $38,000, the stipend amounts to $380 before taxes and benefits, and less than $200 in additional take home pay.

 “The walk-ins are a step to say, ‘Hey, people are beginning to recognize this,’” Drazinski said. “The community’s response then starts to speak volumes to our politicians.”

Mesa and Chandler rally leaders also were cautious when asked about a strike.

“We’re not rioting,” said Chandler Education Association president LeAnna Farmer, 56, a part-time counselor at Sanborn Elementary.

“We’re just walking in, showing it’s our next step in unity and to let the Legislature and the governor know we are not stopping.

"We’re a strong force,” Farmer added. “I’ve been a teacher and educator and counselor in the Chandler district for 32 years and I’ve never seen a movement like this. The point is to come back to our demands. Teachers can’t even make a living.”

Buckley was guarded as well, but he acknowledged a walk-out was possible, citing one teacher wearing a button that read, “I don’t want to strike but I will.”

Sharon Johnson, a first-grade teacher in Kyrene District who organized an after-school rally at Kyrene’s Tempe headquarters that attracted well over 400 teachers, said flatly, “I’m not ready for a walkout.”

Preparing for the worst

Tempe Union High School District Superintendent Kenneth Baca, who stood with teachers outside Mountain Pointe High School in Ahwatukee, said his staff was taking no chances and making contingency plans in case teachers walk out before the school year ends next month.

“I think we have to be prepared for everything,” Baca said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that students are taken care of. We want to be very cognizant of the needs of our seniors and want to ensure nothing deters their ability to graduate.”

Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, said his organization is having a webinar for school officials on how to handle both walk-ins and walkouts.

The bottom line, Ogle said, is that Arizona has a “crisis” in attracting and retaining teachers, though Baca made it clear that the rallies also reflect a demand for more state money for everything from books to supplies to building repairs.

Drazinski agreed, stating “This is not just about teacher pay but also per-pupil funding. This is about funding our school districts … It is about the entire environment.”

Other teachers complained that students already are being shortchanged by lack of classroom supplies and larger class sizes caused by the teacher shortage.

Not all teachers ruled out the possibility of a strike.

“I think it’s probably inevitable,” said Sarah James, a music and orchestra teacher at Mesa Public Schools’ Pomeroy Elementary in Chandler.

“If we walk out, we will be united,” she said. “Yes, I feel disrespected. These kids shouldn’t grow up thinking teaching is a bad job, that you are going to be poor.”

At an afternoon protest by more than 300 teachers near Red Mountain High School in east Mesa, Jessie Pomonis, an English and student government teacher, said, “I’m just a regular teacher who has had enough.” 

“We have been patient, we have been cordial, we have been professional. We are not patient anymore,” she added.

Pomonis said Mesa Superintendent Michael Cowan and the governing board have promised teachers no disciplinary action if they walk out.

 She said plans are being made to feed students who depend upon school lunches and to meet other student needs.

“Kids are our first priority, lawmakers are second,” Pomonis said. “If and when that happens, I will make sure our kids are taken care of.”

She said some teachers have even discussed making contributions so employees who live paycheck to paycheck do not miss mortgage payments.

“We’re going to be there for each other and kids,” Pomonis said.

Sentiments against Ducey and the Republic-controlled Legislature cut across the teachers’ political affiliations.

Carrying a sign that read “Conservative Teachers Support Red for Ed,” Red Mountain teacher Beth Bonewell said that supporting education is an investment in consistent with conservative values.

“Either I’m going to pay for it in public schools or I’m going to pay for it in the prisons,” she said.

How deep community support might be for they if they do strike is a question some teachers had even before Ducey's announcement.

Nick Oshita, a second-grade teacher at Balogna Elementary in Chandler, said, "People are extremely supportive to your face. When it comes to voting and raising taxes, I don't know what they feel about that."

Oshita said in addition to teaching, he works at a restaurant or a server – and has for the 13 years he's been a teacher.

For four years, he took a sabaitcal as a retail manager, but returned to teaching when he decided "it was my calling."

"I could sell all day and do it well," he said, "but at the end of the day (teaching) gives me purpose."

This story is based on reporting by Tribune Executive Editor Paul Maryniak, Tribune staff writers Wayne Schutsky, Colleen Sparks and Jim Walsh, and Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services. It was written by Maryniak.

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