Arizona PTA withdraws support of governor’s plan to boost teacher salaries

Teachers, staff and community members have a “walk in” Wednesday morning before school hours at Mingus Union High School to bring attention to the state of education in Arizona. VVN/Vyto Starinskas

Teachers, staff and community members have a “walk in” Wednesday morning before school hours at Mingus Union High School to bring attention to the state of education in Arizona. VVN/Vyto Starinskas

PHOENIX -- Calling the governor’s plan not financially sustainable, the Arizona PTA has withdrawn its backing for Gov. Doug Ducey’s teacher pay hike plan.

Beth Simek, the organization’s president, told Capitol Media Services Wednesday that said her own research showed her that there is no way Ducey can finance both the raises and restore capital funding without cutting other needed programs. And Simek said she believes some of what the governor plans to slice could end up hurting the very children her organization is working to protect.

The change of heart comes just two days after Simek stood with the Arizona School Boards Association and some other school groups to give their blessing to Ducey’s proposal.

Potentially more significant, one purpose of that press conference was to convince teachers to vote against a strike. And her public change of heart comes even as teachers are voting through today on whether to walk out, with an announcement by organizers of the #RedForEd movement consisting of Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association set for Thursday evening.

And her message to teachers now?

“If they feel like they cannot afford in their personal financial household to walk out, then they should follow their heart,’’ Simek said. “If they feel they can afford this, or that it’s something they feel morally strongly about, then they should follow their heart and walk out.’’

Simek said she was not given all the relevant information about how Ducey planned to finance his plan when the governor first asked to sign on in support. So what she did was strike out on her own and gather as much in specifics as she could from various other sources, including other state agencies.

Most crucial, she said, are cuts being made elsewhere in the budget.

For example, Simek said, Ducey’s plan cuts $2.9 million that had been allocated for skilled nursing services in both the state Medicaid program and the Department of Economic Security. Also gone is $1.8 million aid for “critical access hospitals’’ and $4 million that the governor had proposed in additional dollars for developmentally disabled.

“We can’t support that,’’ Simek said. “That hurts kids and it hurts families.’’

Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said nothing in the plan actually reduces existing funds. Instead, he said, this is simply Ducey deciding not to add money to these programs.

Simek, for her part, said she’s not convinced that deciding not to added those dollars -- dollars that originally had been proposed as necessary -- will not harm children.

More to the point, Simek said none of this was disclosed to her when she was asked to support Ducey’s plan.

The desertion of the governor by the PTA is only part of the bad news on Thursday for Ducey.

In a separate announcement, Save Our Schools Arizona announced it, too, cannot support the governor’s proposal.

Spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker said the group had originally agreed to withhold judgment when Ducey unveiled the plan last week, awaiting details about funding.

“It is now clear the existing proposal is not sustainable or comprehensive as a means of increasing educator pay and reinvesting in Arizona’s classrooms and schools,’’ she said in a prepared statement. Penich-Thacker said her organization wants the governor and lawmakers to work with education groups and community interests to “collaborate on better ways to invest in Arizona’s starving public education system.’’

In a prepared statement, Scarpinato said his boss “has great respect’’ for the PTA and its leadership.

“We don’t always agree on every issue,’’ he said. “But we all agree that Arizona needs to do more for our teachers and our kids.’’

Scarpinato said that Ducey still has “a strong coalition of education champions’’ backing the plan, saying that the governor intends to work to get it passed.

Among those still on board is the Association of School Business Officials.

“We believe that it is sustainable,’’ said Chuck Essigs, the organization’s lobbyist, even given the uncertainty of the economy. But he said that whatever can be financed is important.

“We think it’s important that we get money into the teachers’ hands in a significant amount as soon as possible,’’ Essigs said. “And this plan does that.’’

The proposal also has the backing of the Arizona School Boards Association as well as groups representing school superintendents and rural school districts.

Simek said, though, that if Ducey wants the support of the PTA the governor is going to have to try harder. And she specifically rejected the idea that her organization should offer a counter proposal.

“To ask a group of volunteers to come up with a plan to support education funding is a little unrealistic,’’ she said.

“That’s what we have a governor and Legislature for,’’ Simek said. “They’re supposed to be coming up with ideas and make plans.’’

Simek stressed that she is not criticizing Ducey for coming up with a plan.

“I hope he will come forward with something else,’’ she said.

“I don’t want this to be the end of the line,’’ Simek continued. “And I certainly would be happy to sit down and listen again and start over with something new.’’

Still unclear is whether the #RedForEd organizers will call a strike even if a majority of those who vote say they want to walk.

Derek Harris said he and other leaders have a number in their heads -- he won’t divulge details -- of how much of a margin in support is needed to start a job action. He said, though, it will have to be more than a simple majority, with support from multiple areas of the state.

Whatever the outcome, the movement will not go away. Organizers already have reserved space on the Capitol lawn for rallies on Friday and into next week.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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