Originally Published: March 8, 2018 6:02 a.m.
The head of the statewide teachers union said Wednesday a strike may be necessary to get salaries closer to where he believes they should be.
But not this year.
“A lot of work has to be done, a lot of storytelling has to happen so that people understand what the real issues are,’’ said Joe Thomas. The president of the Arizona Education Association told Capitol Media Services that centers on “support and respect.’’
“Part of that comes as class size, part of that comes as a salary that keeps you in the state,” Thomas explained. And he said the 1.06 percent hike for this school year approved by lawmakers and a promise for an identical amount next year, is not going to cut it.
“Our teachers need to see something north of 5 percent,” Thomas said, something to bring salaries close to what they are in surrounding states.
But Thomas conceded that still leaves the question of whether anything will change if the estimated 50,000 public school teachers — or a significant share of them — abandon their classrooms for the picket line.
The issue arises in the wake of teachers in West Virginia securing a 5 percent pay hike from state lawmakers there after walking off their jobs. Education Week reports average salaries there already are close to $2,000 higher than they are here even before the new boost.
Thomas said that did not go unnoticed here. But he also said that his conversation with counterparts in West Virginia convinces him that kind of action doesn’t just happen.
“It’s months of discussions that lead to that frustration level,’’ he said.
Thomas said some of that was on display in Arizona Wednesday by teachers around the state who wore red to express their beliefs that their needs and the needs of classrooms are being ignored. He said that is a “statement of awareness that there are issues in our schools that people really need to start paying attention to.”
“And if that doesn’t work, well, then I don’t know what we’ll do next year,” Thomas said.
In Prescott Unified School District, some teachers and administrators wore red attire or accessories as a means of being in solidarity with the notion of showing more appreciation to teachers. It was not a united effort because the call to “Wear Red for Ed” was a Facebook rally and not everyone got the word.
At Mile High Middle School, veteran teacher Wendy Tollefsen sported her red with pride. She and several of her red-clad colleagues posed for a selfie to show their commitment to their colleagues across the state and nation.
Tollefsen said she isn’t about to strike, but wants to recognize the need for teachers to be viewed as professionals responsible for infusing young adults with the ideas and knowledge they need to succeed in a globally competitive world.
Tollefsen teaches communication and design thinking in an avant garde style — her classroom is bright orange and has no conventional desks but rather café tables, couches and comfy cushions. Her aim is to enable students to think outside the box. She offers digital and social media tools to engage them in meaningful debate and conversation.
Like her colleagues, Tollefsen wants state leaders to recognize the role educators play in society and pay them for that expertise. She and others want teachers to be adequately equipped with the necessary resources to care for their students so they can learn. The notion of hundreds of unfilled teaching positions every year because pay is too low to recruit certified professionals is not something she and others in her profession find acceptable.
“We’re bleeding teachers in Arizona,” Tollefsen said.
PUSD Superintendent Joe Howard said he was unaware of the “Wear Red for Ed” campaign until a neighbor informed him Wednesday morning as he was taking out the trash.
So he donned a red tie.
On some school visits Wednesday, Howard said he spotted a few staff members wearing red. He said this is an effort he can endorse; clearly he would not favor anything that would interfere with daily classroom instruction.
“We need to bring attention to the concerns of our teachers who need to be supported,” Howard said.
The last teacher strike in Arizona didn’t work out so well. That was in Sierra Vista in 1980 when slightly more than half of the district’s 300 teachers walked out at the beginning of the school year.
They were back in class a month later after schools remained open and the teachers were told to accept the school board’s last offer or be replaced. And the base salary remained unchanged.
Thomas, who moved to Arizona from Oklahoma 21 years ago, acknowledged this state’s general antipathy to unions — and strikes.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really seen that a statewide action could have the support, even among the teacher ranks to be successful,” he said. “But I’m really questioning that right now.’’
What’s changed, Thomas said, is that teachers have seen year after year of state leaders ignoring not only the fact that salaries here are the lowest nationally but that Arizona has the third highest number of students per classroom.
“I believe they’re frustrated to the point where they just don’t believe they have many options left,’’ he said.
At the same time, Thomas said, the general public needs to be educated on what teachers already know is happening in Arizona.
“We have people that turn on a Facebook, or any social media, and see advertisements out of Clark County, Nevada, every single day that tells them ‘You’re going to earn $11,000 more dollars and, by the way, we have just as much sunshine as you do in Arizona,’ Arizona has to wake up to that,” he said.
Ultimately, the association’s rank and file will have to make some decisions.
“What teachers have to figure out is their level of frustration, their level of risk, and what it is they want to get,’’ he said.
One thing that is different than West Virginia, though, is that Arizona has what is likely the largest charter school system in the country. These schools, which can be run as for-profit or non-profit operations, are permitted to hire whoever they want to teach.
That raises the question of whether a labor action by professionally trained teachers in traditional public schools would falter if their charter school counterparts refused to join.
Thomas, however, said he thinks there would be a unified front.
“I think they’re paid from the same meager funds and their salaries are just as poor as teachers in the district school are,’’ he said. “I don’t think that if you work in one or the other that you have a very different understanding of the respect you’re getting from the state.’’