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Arizona teachers protest low pay at state Capitol

March 21, 2018
Arizona teachers walk into the senate building as they protest for higher pay at the capitol Wednesday, March 21, 2018, in Phoenix. The protest comes as educators try to persuade the Legislature and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to boost their pay significantly. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX (AP) — Hundreds of red-shirted educators jammed into Capitol hearings rooms and marched around the Legislature Wednesday to protest what they call dismal pay and conditions for their students.

The protesters included dozens of teachers from nine schools in west Phoenix and Glendale who called in sick in the first job action teachers have called since organizing earlier this month. The move left Pendergast Elementary School District parents scrambling as the schools were closed with little notice and hundreds of students missed a day of school.

“They deserve more, so I’m here to try to fight for them and to try to fight for all these hundreds of teachers out here who want at least a doable living,” said Kayla Wilson, a 5th grade teacher at Pendergast Elementary with three years on the job who makes about $35,000 a year and owes more than $40,000 in student loans. “My dad told me this morning, because I asked him for advice, he told me ‘how am I supposed to teach my kids to fight for what’s right if I’m too scared to do it myself.’ So that’s why I’m here.”

The protest comes as educators try to persuade the Legislature and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to boost their pay significantly and will mark the second week in a row they gathered at the Capitol.

Adjusted for local cost of living, federal figures show elementary teachers in Arizona rank 50th in earnings nationally and high school teachers 49th. Arizona teachers were energized when West Virginia educators called a strike and won a 5 percent pay boost two weeks ago.

Lawmakers and Ducey gave them a 1 percent raise last year and plan on awarding them another 1 percent in the budget being considered during the current legislative session.

The teachers packed into a Senate hearing room where Republican House Speaker J.D. Mesnard was advocating for two tax cut bills he is sponsoring. They booed as the panel heard testimony from Mesnard and cheered when the three Democratic senators linked their “no” votes to the push for increased teacher pay.

Mesnard said his efforts to trim taxes weren’t tone deaf and said he supports K-12 education and the teachers.

“I take it as a passion to get more money into education, which I strongly support,” he said. “I think it’s unfortunate that they’re making it sort of one or the other, you can’t have both. You can have both.”

Republicans who control the Legislature enact new tax cuts each year, even while funding cuts for schools and other state spending made during the Great Recession remain mainly unrestored.

“I’m going to be continuing to be advocating for additional resources to K-12 and I’m also going to be advocating for good tax policy,” Mesnard said. “It’s a balancing act as both of how we spur economic development and also get resources to K-12 education.”

Mesnard wants ask voters to substantially trim a personal property tax for businesses and to cut capital gains taxes, which mostly benefits the wealthy. The capital gains tax would cut more than $23 million a year in state revenue by 2023 and more in later years.

“This is a bill that gives away money for no good reason,” said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson.

But the bill passed out of the committee, setting it up for a vote from the full Senate. Committee Chairman Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, said that “nothing is more important” than educating young people, and encouraged the teachers in the room to call the attorney general or his office with any reports of money being misused in their districts.

“The money that’s spent on education, make sure it gets into the classroom,” he said.

Christiane Walters, a fifth-grade teacher at Villa de Paz Elementary School in the Pendergast Elementary District, said she was compelled to call in sick and head to the Capitol

“Nothing’s gonna happen unless we do something about it,” she said.

Walters became an educator after working in the medical industry. She obtained a masters’ degree and earns $38,000 a year - a pay cut from her previous position, she said.

With a class of 30 students, Walters said there are fewer teachers than the school should have. She draws a direct line to the low pay and tough conditions.

“No one wants to be a teacher because they know how hard it is,” she said.