PHOENIX — Hoping to head off a walkout, Gov. Doug Ducey unveiled a plan Thursday he said will provide teachers the 20 percent pay hike they are demanding — by the 2020-21 school year.
The governor said he believes there are enough new tax dollars coming in the state through economic development and simple population growth to immediately bump the average teacher salary in Arizona to $52,725 by the new school year. That compares with $48,372, according to the Auditor General’s Office.
And by the fall of 2020, the figure would hit $58,130.
That infusion of $684 million new money, on top of other state aid to schools, would still leave teacher pay here below the current national average. But it would mean that Arizona would no longer be at or near the bottom, where it is now.
For the moment, the key groups involved are adopting a wait and see attitude.
Most crucial will be the reaction of Arizona Educators United, the newly formed loose-knit group of more than 40,000 teachers and support staff, which has been behind the demonstrations that have aroused public support and put the pressure on the governor.
Derek Harris, one of the organizers, said Thursday night members of the organization remain skeptical, particularly as Ducey has yet to identify exactly where he intends to get the money. “Right now it’s just words,’’ Harris said. “He can promise all he wants.’’
But one thing that’s clearly missing, he said, is additional money for support staff.
“We’re ‘Arizona Educators United,’ not ‘Arizona Teachers United,’” Harris said, adding that there are thousands of people working at schools whose presence is necessary for education.
“They’re our teammates,’’ he said. “We can’t go back to work and look at the health assistant and the cafeteria worker and say, ‘Hey, my pay is great, sorry you’re still making minimum wage.’”
Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said he is approaching the proposal with a certain skepticism.
Thomas said even if Ducey can deliver on the immediate hike, there is no guarantee that the money will be there in future years. He said the only way to assure that is to put a tax hike proposal on the ballot, something the governor has refused to do — and considers unnecessary.
And Thomas, whose organization already is backing Democrat David Garcia to replace Ducey in November, also said he lacks trust that the governor will do what he promised. “Remember, this is the same governor that offered 2 percent over five years,’’ Thomas said, referring to Ducey’s original pay hike plan from a year ago.
Others also are keeping watch for details.
“It’s an idea worth being optimistic about,’’ said Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools. That is the group of teachers and parents that gathered enough signatures to force a public vote on the 2017 decision by lawmakers to spend more tax dollars to help children go to private and parochial schools.
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She said her organization intends to watch and make sure that Ducey can deliver what he promised.
“If it really materializes, that’s a good enough gesture to keep working on everything else that needs to be done,’’ Penich-Thacker said.
What is clear is that the governor has sharply changed his position.
Just two days earlier, Ducey said he was sticking with his plan to give teachers only a 1 percent pay increase for this coming year. And he accused leaders of both Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association of “playing politics.’’
But the governor has been overwhelmed by events -- and specifically tens of thousands of teachers staging `walk-ins’’ Wednesday at more than half of the state’s public schools as a show of support for that 20 percent demand. That also was designed to show that, like counterparts in West Virginia and Oklahoma, they would consider a strike.
At the hastily called press conference Thursday, Ducey insisted he has been working on the teacher pay issue “for some time.’’ But the governor also made it clear that he is not operating in a political vacuum.
“I have been paying attention to what’s going on out across the state,’’ he said. “I’ve been listening and I’ve been impressed.’’
House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said it’s clear that the governor’s hand had been forced.
“It’s amazing what a threatened teacher strike in an election year can do,’’ she said.
The governor’s plan comes on the heels of House Speaker J.D. Mesnard crafting his own proposal for a 20 percent pay hike for teachers.
But Mesnard’s plan does not get teachers there until the 2022-2023 school year. Potentially more significant, he funds it not with using new money but largely by diverting funds from the “district additional assistance’’ account, money schools are counting on for other needs, such as computers, books and even school buses.
That, according to school officials, is a non-starter.
“The Legislature’s plan is terrible,’’ said Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Association of Arizona School Business Officials. In fact, he pointed out that various education groups are now in court suing over the failure of the state to provide those funds in prior years.
Ducey did not mention Mesnard’s proposal, at least not directly, as he said his plan does not divert other education dollars.
“There will be no shell game,’’ the governor said.
Mesnard, who was at Ducey’s press conference, was noncommittal in his response.
“Obviously I look forward to working with the governor,’’ the speaker said, saying he needs more details of exactly where Ducey intends to get the money. But Mesnard agreed with the governor that the current plan -- a 1 percent raise for the current year -- was not going to cut it.
“We all share the same priority,’’ he said.
“We want to get more money into the classroom, more money into teacher pay,’’ Mesnard continued. “And it’s always been how we go about achieving that.’’
That, in turn, comes down to how Ducey, who had until recently insisted he was putting as much as he could into education, says he has suddenly found new cash.
“Arizona’s economy is growing,’’ he said. “And with a growing economy comes more revenues.’’
But the governor also said some of the priorities he laid out at his State of the State speech in January also are being thrown overboard.
One appears to be a promise to retired military to increase the amount of their pensions they can exempt from state income taxes, from $2,500 now to $10,000. That proposal has a $15 million pricetag.
Also at risk could be Ducey’s plan to spend more money on law enforcement to go after those who drive the wrong way on freeways.
The governor said he also can find cash through “strategic efficiencies’’ in state government.