By Paul Maryniak, Wayne Schutsky and Jim Walsh GSN News Staff
The state Board of Education abrupty cancelled its plan to discuss on Monday whether it can, and should, discipline teachers for walking out for better pay this spring, apparently because it didn’t sit well with the man who appointed all but one of its members. Some East Valley school superintendents and other educators also criticized the board.
Asked about the board’s plan during a campaign stop in Gilbert on Thursday, Gov. Doug Ducey told the Gilbert Sun News: “I don’t want to see punitive action against our teachers. I’m on the side of the teachers. Our teachers are the biggest difference makers in the state, in addition to the parents of these children.
“What I want to do is move forward. I want to get additional dollars into our teachers’ paychecks and return our teachers to what they do best – to the front of the classroom teaching our children,” the governor added.
Mesa Public Schools’ new superintendent, Ember Conley, who heads the state’s largest school system, and Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely also oppose disciplinary action. Both said teachers did nothing to be disciplined for.
“They were exercising their rights as a citizen to stand up for something they believe in, in a peaceful manner,’’ Conley said.
Added Vesely: “Kyrene teachers were not in violation of any state statute for their participation in these rallies because our schools closed during this time. All teachers and support staff made up all contract days through an extension of our district work calendar.”
And she said, “We need to praise teachers, hold them to high standards, pay them the salaries they deserve, not punish them because they refuse to treat education as a commodity and they recognize that the crisis of schooling is about the crises of democracy, economic equality and justice.”
Higley teacher Joe Bisaccia, a Democrat running for a state House seat in Legislative District 12, which covers most of Gilbert and part of Chandler, said, “I think it is totally crazy.”
He noted State Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas “definitely made this veiled threat about coming after teachers that walked out.”
Douglas is the only member not appointed to the board.
Bisaccia added. “There are over 2,000 vacant teacher positions in Arizona. Perhaps she should focus on that rather than on teachers walking out to secure more funding for their students and their classrooms.”
Other East Valley superintendents declined comment.
Douglas did not ask for the discussion, which had been listed on the agenda for the board meeting June 25 as a “presentation, discussion and possible action regarding the board’s authority to take disciplinary action.”
It was placed at the request of board President Lucas Narducci, a Phoenix attorney who at the board’s May meeting said he thought it was the board’s due diligence that “we have something to review,” citing “the past and ongoing conduct of RedforEd.”
RedforEd is the name of the movement that provoked thousands of teachers across the state to walk out of the classroom and shut down schools for six days. It ended after the state Legislature approved the plan that Ducey proposed as the walkout loomed to give teachers a 10 percent raise in the next school year and 5 percent raises in the following two school years.
When another board member asked Narducci what actions deserve discipline, he replied, “I really don’t know – for the way they continue … Everything that ran, from the effect on our schools, the effect on our parents, the effect on our teachers.”
He said that “in light of a few things we’ve seen this past month in our state,” he wanted to know “the authority and scope of action that the board may consider in light of the past and ongoing conduct of RedforEd … If we can’t do anything, that’s fine. If we can, let’s see what we can do now and for the future.”
When another board member asked him what specifically he would put under the Red for Ed category, Executive Director Alicia Williams cut Narducci short and ended the discussion by saying her staff had enough information to know what Narducci was talking about.
“We can work with the attorney general’s office and define where the board can go,” she said.
No incidents of violence were reported in connection with the walkouts, and many teachers spent their time out of the classroom volunteering at programs hastily set up to feed kids who rely heavily on school meals or at others created to take care of kids while their parents were at work.
Ironically, the education board’s discussion comes after every East Valley school board voted to give their teachers 10 percent raises, with some teachers on the low end of the pay scale likely to get a far bigger bump in their paychecks.
Some people have been critical of RedforEd, however, because it has taken on overtones of a political movement.
In particular, the “Invest in Ed” plan has drawn the ire of chambers of commerce and other organizations, which say its proposal for an income tax surcharge on Arizonans earning at least $250,000 annually will hurt small businesses because of the way the state taxes business earnings.
Teachers are trying to get the surcharge on the November ballot for a referendum but have until early next month to collect thousands of signatures to qualify. At a press conference recently, leaders declined to discuss their progress.
Organizers of Invest for Ed say it would raise more than $600 million in new money for public schools, although chambers and other critics say it would drive the wealthy out of the state and crush businesses.
Conley said she also is not concerned that Josh Buckley, president of the Mesa Education Association, is a leader of that referendum drive.
Vesely noted that district staffers – including some superintendents themselves – as well as parents, students and community members joined the teachers in demonstrations.
“Every day, both experienced veterans and those early in their careers decide to leave the classroom in favor of less-stressful jobs that provide better compensation – jobs that allow them more time for their families and a way to make ends meet without worry or the need to find a second job,” she said.
“Teachers across America are beginning to rise up and made their voices heard, asking policymakers to honor the important work of educating our next generation by increasing funding for our schools,” Vesely added. “This is not a minor struggle, because no democracy can survive without informed citizens.