Voting process underway to decide Arizona teacher strike

Beth Simek, president of the Arizona PTA, explains Monday that while a proposal by Gov. Doug Ducey for a 19 percent pay hike for teachers is not perfect, accepting it keeps the door open for future negotiations. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Beth Simek, president of the Arizona PTA, explains Monday that while a proposal by Gov. Doug Ducey for a 19 percent pay hike for teachers is not perfect, accepting it keeps the door open for future negotiations. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX -- Empowered by successful walkouts in other states, Arizona teachers began three days of voting Tuesday on whether to follow suit here.

But if they do decide to walk -- a decision is promised Friday -- they will be acting illegally. And they run the risk of simply being replaced as having abandoned their jobs -- and possibly having their certificates to teach revoked.

There is no Arizona law that precludes teachers from walking off the job. So there is no danger of being arrested -- or even being found in contempt should the state or local districts try to seek a court order to force teachers back to work.

But it's not that simple.

"Under the common law, strikes by public employees are forbidden,'' wrote Gary Nelson, who was the attorney general in 1971. He said a strike by public employees is consider "an act against the public itself.''

As to the penalty, that gets a little trickier.

Nelson said Arizona law appears to say that a teacher who strikes after signing a contract has effectively resigned. And he said state law makes it illegal to resign without first getting the approval of the local school board.

More to the point, Nelson said a teacher who resigns without that approval is guilty of unprofessional conduct. And that, in turn, allows the state Board of Education to revoke that person's teaching certificate.

"That's something we have communicated out to all our members so they understand the risk that if you're not at school when you're supposed to be at school, there can be repercussions,'' said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association.

"What everyone understands is the district could terminate you,'' Thomas said. "And the district could go after your (teaching) certificate.''

"We've told everyone that there are no guarantees,'' agreed Derek Harris, one of the organizers of Arizona Educators United. And he said teachers cannot rely on statements of support for the movement from school superintendents as evidence that their jobs will not be at risk.

But Harris said the teachers do have something going their way.

"We've worked on the assumption that they can't fire all of us,'' he said. And Harris said even the eased rules on who can teach won't bail out schools.

"If it was that easy to replace everybody, we wouldn't have 2,000 teacher jobs unfilled,'' he said.

The voting comes as Gov. Doug Ducey is trying to convince teachers and others that there really will be the money in the state budget to pay for his promised series of raises. If approved, they would boost average teacher pay by 19 percent over current levels by the 2020-2021 school year.

Organizers of Arizona Educators United have recommended that teachers and support staff vote to strike. They cite what they say are shortcomings in the governor's plan, including the failure to include support staff in the pay hike plan and the failure to restore $1 billion in student funding to where it was before the recession.

But a big concern is Ducey's claim he can find the money for the raises -- $670 million above current funding -- without raising taxes and without a dedicated revenue source.

Noah Karvelis, one of the Arizona Educators United organizers, called that an "empty promise.'' And Thomas said teachers should not bank on anything beyond the first-year appropriation.

Ducey now is fighting back, at least on that issue.

On Tuesday aides to the governor rolled out projections they said should boost tax collections by $1 billion by the 2020-2021.

Some of that will be needed just to sustain current spending levels as state population increases. But Matt Gress, who directs the governor's budget office, said there will be enough additional dollars to finance the teacher pay hike when coupled with Ducey rearranging his other priorities.

Economist Dennis Hoffman of Arizona State University, a consultant to the governor's office, said it turns out that employment last year was stronger than previously thought. What that means, he said, is it is reasonable to assume an annual growth rate in tax collections of 5 to 6 percent.

Several teachers who met with Ducey Tuesday said they got the same forecast.

"I believe that he's committed to the plan,'' said Michelle Thompson who teaches elementary school in the Pima Unified School District. "But trust is an issue.''

Thompson said she started the day thinking she would vote to strike.

After meeting with the governor she's not as sure. But Thompson said she and her colleagues are waiting to see what Ducey delivers.

"If we need to, we have a group of 45,000 educators who can come together at a moment's notice,'' she said.

Vico Guerrero who heard the same financial presentation, commended Ducey for making what he called a "first step proposal'' of pay hikes. But Guerrero who teaches in the Kyrene Elementary School District said that, even after hearing the projections, he is not convinced the dollars will really be there, especially after the first few years.

Katie Nash who teaches at Chandler High School, declined to say how she's inclined to vote on a walkout after the meeting, saying she didn't want to influence anyone else's vote. She said a lot of how teachers will vote could depend on their family situation, including whether there's a spouse and children.

Others outside the teaching profession were not so willing to accept the governor's financial forecasts.

Former state lawmaker David Lujan, now director of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, recalled that lawmakers enacted a program in 1998 called Students FIRST, short for "fair and immediate resources for schools today.''

The idea was that the state would assume the burden, until then borne by local districts. More to the point, lawmakers were told all that could be done within existing revenue projections, with no new source of funds.

That proved to be an unfounded assumption. In fact, lawmakers stopped funding the construction and repair formula during the recession. The result was a lawsuit filed against the state by school districts and education groups, a legal action still pending in Maricopa County Superior Court.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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