Teachers wary of Arizona governor's pay boost plan

Teachers at Humphrey Elementary school participate in a state-wide walk-in prior to classes Wednesday, April 11, 2018, in Chandler, Ariz. Arizona teachers are demanding a 20 percent pay raise and more than $1 billion in new education funding. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — Arizona teachers said Friday they were deeply skeptical of the Republican governor's promise to sharply increase pay, wondering where the money will come from while pointing to ongoing concerns about overall education funding.

Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday unveiled a plan to boost pay 9 percent in the next school year and by a full 20 percent by 2020. The announcement came in response to weeks of growing teacher protests that included talk of possible walkouts.

Teachers said Ducey's election year announcement failed to address other demands from the statewide #RedforEd campaign, including raises for support staff, a return to pre-Great Recession school funding levels and a freeze on corporate tax cuts until per-pupil spending reaches the national average.

Jeff Davis, a one-time Republican legislative candidate who teaches at Mountain View High School in Mesa, said he was glad to see Ducey making concessions, but was disappointed that pay hikes for cafeteria workers, librarians, and other support staff were not addressed.

"I do believe that he genuinely changed his priorities because of the #RedforEd movement, but I think that's a reflection of his desire to avoid a walkout more than a reflection of his desire to take care of Arizona's students," he said.

Tammy Curtis, who teaches at Paseo Verde Elementary in Peoria, called the proposal divisive, because support staff is angry that they were left out of the governor's proposal.

Also Friday, the Republican chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee wondered aloud how Ducey can pay for the plan without raising taxes, a word that is anathema to the governor and GOP lawmakers who control the Legislature.

Lawmakers are currently drafting a $10 billion budget proposal that until Thursday didn't include the $270 million for teacher pay raises proposed by Ducey.

"We would have to make drastic changes, either in reducing all member requests and our governor's requests except this, and that still isn't enough," Rep. David Livingston said. "We would have to have tax increases to have $650 million in three years."

Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said a surging economy is translating into big increases in state revenue and a drop in social service spending like Medicaid. The governor also plans to redirect some proposed spending, he said. He said the governor will be able to find the $270 million needed for teacher raises.

"We think there's a path between increased revenue, declining (Medicaid and social services) caseload and the reprioritization of some governor's office proposals that gets us there," Scarpinato said.

The nationwide rebellion over low teacher wages has spread from West Virginia to Arizona, Kentucky and Oklahoma.

Earlier this week, the grassroots organization Arizona Educators United told members to prepare for a possible walkout. Ducey at the time insisted he was sticking to a proposal for a 1 percent raise and said he has increased education funding since taking office in 2015.

On Wednesday, Arizona teachers and others held "walk-ins" at more than 1,100 schools.

The following day, Ducey, facing re-election, changed direction and announced his teacher pay plan.

"Today is a good day for teachers in Arizona," he boasted.

School districts were pleased with the proposal because it maintains a previously promised $100 million boost as a down payment to restoring nearly $400 million in cuts to an account schools can use for textbooks, school buses and salaries, said Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

"It will be one of the best years in a long time," Essigs said. "We may only move up a slot, or not move up at all, but at least we're getting closer to the states above us."

Arizona teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Adjusted for local cost of living, federal figures show elementary teachers actually rank 49th in earnings and high school teachers 48th.

Ducey says the average teacher earned $48,372 last year and his proposal would see a nearly $10,000 increase by 2020.

But Arizona Educators United says that the proposal has too many unanswered questions and ignores other needs. "Everybody knows it takes a village to raise our students, and that village includes teachers and classified staff," Phoenix Union High School District employee Vanessa Jimenez said in a Facebook video.

"We all are in this together, so I hope we don't let this break us apart."

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