The Arizona Educators United group is calling for a ‘Red for Ed’ sick-out protest that is scheduled to take center stage at the Arizona State Capital Building this Wednesday to push for a wage increase in teachers’ salaries across the state. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey was slow in his response to their call for action but promised more money for educators in a radio interview with KTAR where the AEU gathered outside the station to protest his lack of action. In the KTAR interview he announced a proposed budget for a $400 million increase that would put into account a two percent increase in pay along with monies that will incorporate student growth, inflation and capital costs that had been promised to education a year ago.
Though the proposal was only mentioned in the media arena, Arizona Educators United are still moving forward with the protest on March 28 which will mean a state-wide call-in-sick protest. Governor Ducey admits the proposal won’t take effect fast enough to satisfy the movement. The official walk to the state capital building is scheduled for after school hours at 4-7 p.m. if teachers who are working and choose not to call in sick. The movement is expected to attract teachers; both retired or employed, parents and students, and business leaders who are in support of the grassroots movement.
How this movement will affect the Page Unified School District is unclear at the moment but many teachers are electing to wear red in support of the wage increases. Wage increase has been a behind the scenes issue among the staff of PUSD and with the problems of teacher retention in the last several years many are hoping the Governor is able to find the funds to make good on his promise.
District expenditures, which totaled over $34 million dollars in 2017 is more than $2 million short at $32 million. Governor Ducey’s promise of a two percent increase for schools would only cover another $700,000 of PUSD’s current budget assuming the proposal is approved and assuming the district will actually be given the consideration of the actual two percent when the Governor’s proposal is approved by state legislature. PUSD’s funding currently gives 85% of its entire budget to spend on staff salary.
A Page High School teacher, who talked with the Chronicle if we kept her name anonymous –we’ll call her Ms. X- says she’ll definitely be wearing red because, according to state statistics, educators in Page are already making 33% less than the national average. Statistical data and documentation found on the PUSD Human Resource’s pay schedule has estimated PUSD’s teaching salary to be seven thousand less than the lowest pay in Arizona. The lowest estimate in salary is applied to the incoming teacher with first year experience. Ms. X has over 14 years experience but is being paid for only 8 years experience.
The PUSD Board had elected in favor of a reserve amount of money to be set aside each year in case the state cut PUSD’s funding.
Due to federal and state funding being unpredictable, Superintendent Rob Varner calls the reserve the ‘Contingency Plan’, which is necessary in case of emergency. “Every district has a reserve,” he said. “Remember that accident that happened. You can’t wait for the insurance company. It is an emergency contingency plan. What business doesn’t have a contingency plan.”
Varner says the reserve was established when the recession in 2009-2010 hit a lot of schools and funding dried up. “There is no money in a secret vault. We are not hiding anything. Nobody is keeping money from the kids.”
The proposition to establish an emergency fund came with certain sacrifices.
With an unselfish act by the district teaching staff the teachers missed the ‘step-up’ raises and, in some cases, a teaching aide for larger classes. Some qualified teachers have left because of it.
Varner confirms the step-up salary schedule has been replaced with raises.
“They stopped giving steps before I got here, they froze that,” Varner said. “If anybody got leaped frogged, we fixed that and now everyone’s [pay] is where it’s supposed to be. We’ve gotten raises every year since I have been here. By switching over to a raise it keeps validating the salary schedule and it keeps it growing at a nice pace so everybody gets paid. We also give return to work stipends that is over and above the salary. [For the Classified staff] it’s a one time dollar amount that we can’t guarantee every year out of a different account that has no real allocation so we helped to offset the prop 301 certified teachers return to work stipend. I always try to find means to take care of both groups.”
Opinions circulate concerning changes that could be made to the budget.
For example, a grant writer position has been downsized. Many felt the grant writer’s position was key in making the budget work in the past.
Another popular opinion among teachers is to eliminate positions that are overpaid and have raditionally been done by teacher, such as outlining a curriculum plan.
“Honestly, things would go better if the district could make decisions based on the best interest of the student,” said Ms. X “Most of our students are not college, career or community ready. I personally would like to see more teachers hired and [have] no raise… because I can’t have 25 kids in class unless I have two aides. Soon I won’t be teaching, I will become a glorified babysitter.”
Varner recognized the need to make improvements to teacher retention prompting his 20/20 Vision plan. Upon a demographic study of peer districts Varner wanted to see what was needed to retain teachers. He elected to continue to give raises to the teaching staff and seek improvement with the parent and teacher relationships for quality education. With the Red for Ed movement gaining momentum it has placed Varner at the helm of a much bigger vision.
“You retain teachers by treating them with respect and dignity. Nobody is keeping money from the kids, we are bottom-lining it for the kids. A lot of people will sacrifice raises to not increase class sizes. Some school districts have outrageous class sizes. Our classes sit at 21-23 and we are trying to respect that.”
“I think they should get paid. I might wear red myself,” said Varner “I absolutely think we need more money for teachers and we need more funding for all sorts of things. I’ve been in education since 1984 and I remember the good times and I remember wondering if we are getting a raise the next year or they would give a raise then cut something over there. So I got to say ‘Okay Governor we are giving our teachers more money but where are you taking it from? The police, the fire department, or social security?’”
Currently PUSD has 67 state, grants and federal funding sources to accommodate the expenditures for the current year. The funding sources are unpredictable and not always available from year to year. With Prop 301 teachers in Arizona experienced a 1.06% boost in pay but nothing to call fair by way of cost of living. With another two percent raise the pay will not be sufficient to support some demographical cost of living from district to district. PUSD teachers’ wages are middle of the row. They aren’t the lowest in the state, and they’re not the highest in the state.