Teacher protection bill proposed by House Majority Whip Kelly Townsend

PHOENIX -- With a strike today, a key Republican lawmaker is moving to give legal protections to teachers who say they don't want to walk out.

House Majority Whip Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, is telling teachers who oppose the job action to send her emails at her official state address detailing that they actually want to go to work but can't because the school has been closed. Townsend told Capitol Media Services she will write back -- and from her official state email account -- to provide proof that they made that claim.

What makes that important is that state schools chief Diane Douglas is issuing some last-minute warnings to teachers that she will refer complaints against teachers for abandoning their jobs to the state Board of Education. And that board, she said, can investigate and, if appropriate, rescind the teaching certificates of each of the strikers.

Douglas acknowledged that the odds are against the state board decertifying tens of thousands of teachers, especially with schools already unable to find certified teachers for thousands of classrooms. That has resulted in increased class sizes in some cases and courses being taught by long-term substitutes in others.

She said the board has other options, like a censure.

None of this is likely to come into play, however, at least not for the rest of the week.

Stefan Swiat, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said a teacher runs afoul of the law by abandoning his or her job.

But many of the teachers are instead taking personal leave days today and Friday, something to which they are entitled in their contracts. And that, Swiat said, means no breach of contract -- and no chance of punishment.

All this comes as Townsend also is working with attorneys to explore the possibility of a class-action lawsuit on behalf of people who were financially harmed by the strike.

That specifically includes families who might have to reschedule a long-planned vacation or even change airline reservations for a planned graduation ceremony that had to be rescheduled. Townsend declined to identify the law firms involved, saying they are still planning their strategy.

Townsend said she's not at liberty to say who, exactly would be the defendant in any lawsuit seeking damages. Townsend said, though, she would not want to penalize individual teachers.

Douglas said what's happening today and Friday raises another issue, with some districts closing their schools in anticipation of a walkout.

"I would like to know how a governing board or a school superintendent ratifies an illegal action by just closing the schools,'' she said.

And Douglas brushed aside the contention that such a move may be appropriate, given that district officials fear that not enough staff shows up to open the building and operate it safely.

"You don't know that,'' she said.

"Has every single principal sat down with his staff and said, 'Are you going to walk out or do you want to be here?' '' Douglas said. "I bet you we're going to find a whole lot of people who want to be at work but can't be.''

That is backed, at least in part, by the tally of last week's vote by the Arizona Education Association and Arizona Educators United. They said of the 57,000 people who asked for ballots -- both teachers and support staff -- 78 percent voted to strike.

What that also means is that more than one out of every five people who voted are against the walkout.

But Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, said the local board members who decided to close schools were doing the right thing.

"You trust that your school leadership has done their homework,'' he said, looking at any contingency plans about what it takes to keep a building open -- and safe.

"It would be irresponsible to have school if you're not staffing it appropriately,'' Ogle said.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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