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12:17 PM Sat, Sept. 22nd

Speaker proposes raises for teachers

Democrats say move is political ploy, and possibly illegal

PHOENIX — Saying schools have the money to do it, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard wants to double the raises that teachers will get this coming school year.

Mesnard is proposing the House vote today to force schools to use half the additional money they get each year to compensate for inflation for teacher pay hikes. That computes out to about $38 million.

And that would come on top of the $34 million in the already approved state budget for a 1 percent hike.

Only thing is, Chris Thomas of the Arizona School Boards Association said the move is illegal.

He said Proposition 301, the 2000 voter-approved measure mandating annual inflation increases, specifically says it is up to each school district to decide how to best use the dollars. And Thomas pointed out there are constitutional limits on the ability of lawmakers to alter what voters have said.

He said if Mesnard somehow gets the measure approved a lawsuit is a virtual certainty.

House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios said the Republican speaker is playing political games. She said Mesnard, knowing the Democrats won’t support an illegal plan, then hopes to use their “no” votes to argue that Democrats don’t care about teachers.

But it isn’t just the school boards and Democrats who want to quash what Mesnard is doing and avoid yet another lawsuit.

Gov. Doug Ducey was intimately involved with negotiations last year to settle a lawsuit filed by school districts who sued after the state failed to provide the inflation dollars mandated by Proposition 301.

That deal reaffirmed and cemented into place the state’s legal obligation to adjust state aid each year for inflation. And that agreement, which voters approved last year in Proposition 123, did not allow for earmarking how schools use those dollars.

Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said his boss does not want to endanger that deal.

“Prop. 123 and the education settlement are settled, and that’s a positive,” Scarpinato said. “We are not interested in renegotiating the terms of the agreement.”

That suggests a gubernatorial veto -- if what Mesnard is proposing even gets that far.

Mesnard conceded that the earmark he wants on inflation funds is not authorized by what voters approved in 2000. And the Voter Protection Act specifically bars lawmakers from tinkering with what was enacted at the ballot.

But Mesnard said there’s an exception for any changes that “furthers the purpose.”

“Suggesting that the cost of living adjustment that we give to the schools should be going to teachers, at least in part, I think is entirely consistent with the idea behind Prop. 301,” he said.

But even if that’s the case -- and Thomas contends it is not -- Mesnard still needs a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate. And he can’t get that without the Democrats.

Rios said members of her caucus recognize Mesnard’s move as a political ploy, knowing they can’t vote for something they believe is illegal.

“It feels like a ‘gotcha’ amendment and an attempt to say Democrats don’t support teacher pay raises,” she said.

Mesnard said he and fellow Republicans see nothing wrong with telling schools that if the state is going to increase aid each year to compensate for inflation, then half should go to teacher salaries.

“If school districts are spending it on other things, then, from my view, their priorities are messed up,” he said.

“That’s going to contribute to this idea that we have the lowest teacher salaries in the country,” Mesnard said. He said his legislation ensures that teachers get a cost-of-living increase each year.

“And then, of course, if we’re putting $1,000 on top of that, that’s obviously even better,” he said. That $1,000 is close to what the average teacher would get after a second 1 percent raise that lawmakers have promised to enact next year.

Rios, however, said it’s not that simple to simply tell schools to use half their additional state aid each year for pay hikes.

“They always forget that there’s more to running a school than just the teacher salary,” she said. “There’s buses, there’s bus drivers, there’s maintenance and operations.”

Thomas agreed, saying Proposition 301 was worded to give school boards maximum flexibility to spend the inflation dollars as best needed.

“What if you wanted to hire new teachers?” he asked, perhaps by offering higher starting salaries. “Or what if you wanted to lower class sizes?”

What Mesnard wants, Thomas said, is directly contrary to what voters approved and undermines the ability of school boards to make decisions.