About 100 Prescott Education Association (PEA) protesters converged outside the Prescott Unified School District office on Granite Street Tuesday afternoon demanding salary increases and chanting "Step and Five" to governing board members indoors wrestling with the declining district's budget woes.
Teachers in the group donned red T-shirts and held aloft signs reading, among other things, "Step & 5%: It's a matter of respect," "Teachers Care About Students & Salaries," "Without Us There's No PUSD" and "Fair Pay Now."
Some wore shorts – the better to stay cool on a hot spring afternoon. Others carried toddlers. One pushed a baby carriage. Older children carried signs, too.
All staged an orderly march through the board meeting room and then headed to a pro-education rally on the Courthouse Plaza.
At 5 p.m., PEA President Janie Phare and others took turns speaking to a crowd of 150 to 200 people.
"For 30 years plus, staff salaries in this district have been PUSD's slush fund," she said. "We've saved this district over and over. Every time money runs short, a roof needs to be fixed or replaced, or an override fails or some new program must be implemented, our salaries have funded it by taking up the slack."
According to Phare, the only solution the administration and school board have ever come up with is freezing staff salaries.
"This is the way of life in Prescott, Ariz., home of the lowest-paid teachers in the state," she said. "This is why it's time for us to break the cycle."
Further, Phare said teachers don't want raises at the expense of children. However, salary increases haven't kept up with the cost of living, and teachers and support staff are becoming demoralized. She sees "realistic downsizing" as the answer.
This year, the district proposes a raise that amounts to $14.61 every two weeks before taxes, and that's for teachers at the top of the salary scale and earning $38,000 annually.
"It's appalling for administrators to ask us to settle, once again, for a raise that will amount to a once-a-month meal at McDonald's, provided your family is not too large," Phare said.
Marilyn Thomas, reading specialist and summer school director, said she lost a total of $11,000 when the district froze salaries for six out of the past 10 years.
"We want to keep programs the children need, but we need to cut the administration, downsize our school district, cut expenses and reward the staff that has made Prescott public schools the best place in the state to be educated," she said. " The staff of PUSD can no longer be expected to absorb the cost of the board's poor planning, along with everything else."
Patty McCrady, Miller Valley School fifth-grade teacher and Prescott Unified School District Governing Board President Vaughn Delp's daughter, spoke. McCrady said she and her husband Mike, Skull Valley School head teacher, are still paying off student loans for undergraduate and graduate degrees.
"What other profession requires its employees to acquire advanced education but doesn't pay them or pays them little for it?" she said. "We are highly educated, skilled professionals. We need and deserve to be paid a decent wage."
Further she said their two children, Mekayla and Madison, "shouldn't have to struggle because their parents are teachers."
Unless things change in Prescott for teachers, McCrady says they'll go elsewhere to be able to care for their children and for themselves in their retirement years.
She challenged school leaders "to put teachers as a higher priority than the utility bill. Other districts do budget their teachers' salaries first and build around that base."
McCrady advocated downsizing the district and realigning it so that it operates within its budget constraints as well as flooding legislators with calls, e-mails and letters "demanding for education to be better funded so that Arizona isn't 48th, 49th or 50th in the nation in funding our children's education."
Groups of Chino Valley and Humboldt school district teachers attended the rally.
Margaret Savoini, Chino Valley Education Association president, said she was there not only to support Prescott teachers' salary demand but also to make the statement that giving education low priority diminishes the pool of future leaders.
"Prescott will go the way of many, many towns in the Midwest, with empty buildings and empty shopping centers," said Savoini, a native Prescottonian. "We need to respect teachers because they're the sole group of individuals who can educate the next generation of leadership in our communities."
Tom Bockman, Prescott High School shop teacher and a PEA member for 18 years, supported protesters but urged caution.
"We have to be careful with how we achieve what the PEA is trying to do, because if we don't remain competitive with the charter schools, we could actually put ourselves out of business," he said.
Sharon Bender, a Taylor Hicks Elementary School second-grade teacher, was in the audience.
"I've been here 35 years, and I don't make as much as I should, either," she said. "I appreciate all the people who do support the kids, but for the most part, we're not a kid-loving community any more."
Jennifer Pike, who has a master's degree in special education, says she took home $22,000 last year, not including retirement.
"I made about $32,000 as a graphic artist in California, and $26,000 working as classified manager at the Courier," she said. "That means advertising is more important to people than teaching. If that's how it is in this state, that's pretty bad."
Arizona Education Association Vice President John Wright, III, said Tuesday's rally was an important step toward making Arizona take responsibility for all of its schools.
"It's making sure that people of the community and the board understand that teachers are standing together and are not willing to take second best," he said. "This show of unity is critical to having an impact on the district administration, the school board and the Legislature – all those that have the authority to make this better."