EDUCATING THE LEGISLATURE: AMPHI JOINS 270 TEACHERS IN PHOENIX TO CHALLENGE BUDGET CUTS - Tucson Local Media: Import

EDUCATING THE LEGISLATURE: AMPHI JOINS 270 TEACHERS IN PHOENIX TO CHALLENGE BUDGET CUTS

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Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2003 12:00 am | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Representatives from Amphitheater Public Schools attending Education Day at the Capital March 5 heard that adequate funding for Arizona public education depends on an "ideological change" in the state legislature.

Two parents, one school board member, two administrators and a custodial site supervisor joined about 270 Arizona Education Association members - including six teachers from Amphi's local union - at the annual event held to meet and greet state lawmakers.

Although local teachers have attended the Phoenix affair in prior years, this was the first year Amphi put together a team to approach legislators in a manner modeled loosely on the Marana Unified School District's lobbying team effort developed five years ago.

Governing boardmember Patricia Clymer, Superintend-ent Vicki Balentine, Career Ladder specialist Deanna Day, custodian David Flores and parents Melinda Scolnick and Jenni Pagano spent the day at the capital getting to know where legislative offices were located and meeting with Sen. Toni Hellon (R-District 26), Sen. Jorge Garcia (D-District 27) and George Cunningham, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano's deputy chief of staff for finance and budget.

Hellon's district covers the northern part of the Amphi school district, and Garcia's represents a portion of Amphi's southern end.

The group had its longest meeting - about 40 minutes - with Cunningham, who told them that "the good news is that there are no further cuts in education" for the remainder of this fiscal year.

The bad news, however, is that about half of the House membership has "become more ideological, where in the past (it) was more pragmatic" and the budget proposal out of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is still on the table, he said.

Some of the budget cuts proposed by the JLBC - which consists of five Democrats and 11 Republicans - are slashing the 2 percent inflation funding approved by voters under Proposition 301; reducing funding to the teacher experience index, which provides higher salaries to more experienced teachers; cutting school transportation costs; and eliminating the career ladder program developed to improve teaching skills and reward successful teachers.

Napolitano, on the other hand, has proposed a plan to borrow against state assets in the 2003-2004 fiscal year to protect education and other social services, Cunningham said. Convincing a conservative Legislature that Napolitano's plan can work, however, will not be easy.

"If (legislation) doesn't have the effect of having people assume more personal responsibility - and the ultimate personal responsibility is to homeschool your child - then it isn't good legislation," Cunningham told the Amphi team. "If everyone were to homeschool their child, we wouldn't need a public school system. That is the ideology of some of the people we're dealing with.

"If parents would assume personal responsibility in terms of improving their own marketability in the employment area, they would have jobs that paid more than $20,000 a year and they could afford their own health insurance and wouldn't have to rely on the government," he continued. "So it is all on the back of personal responsibility and that ideology has a lot to do with the way the budget is formed."

Clymer, a former MUSD teacher, gave estimates to Cunningham concerning how Amphi's maintenance and operation budget would be affected should the education budget be cut as proposed by the JLBC for 2003-2004. Those estimates, which Superintendent Vicki Balentine said were understated by at least $750,000, showed that Amphi would lose approximately $4.3 million out of its approximately $75 million maintenance and operation budget.

Pagano, an Amphi parent and founder of AmphiForum, a local online discussion group concerning legislative news and education improvement, wanted to know what parents could do to increase state funding for education.

"We need to win the ideological argument," Cunningham said. "We need to talk about why it is important to have public education."

The legislators pushing the JLBC budget proposals "don't say, 'I don't want education' or, 'I don't want health care'," Cunningham continued. "They are very intelligent people, educated people - very often in the public school system - who really believe schools are wasting money. They honestly think government is an entity that is bad for us.

"It is easy for me to tell you to have everyone send an e-mail or write a letter or send a fax to the legislators about the importance of education, " he said. "But it is actually a refocusing on the message - winning the ideological war about why we need a public school system - that will get things changed."

Sen. Robert Burns (R-District 9), co-chair of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, said the assumption that the JLBC wants public schools to close down is "ludicrous."

"There are two sides to the ledger," Burns said. "The state of Arizona is in a budget crisis. Our checkbook balance, if you will, is at $5.5 billion and we are currently spending $6 billion, so we have a $500 million deficit in our checkbook. To me that's a serious problem. But the budget is not done yet and I believe there are some areas where we will restore some funding. We've put some things on (our list) for extra review."

Burns said statistics from the State Department of Education show that from 1994 until 2002 "per-student spending has increased by 25 percent, and that is adjusted for inflation and population growth."

"This (came) from the Republican governors and Republican legislatures that (people) claim don't want public education," he said. "And, something else: We are number one in the country in construction for schools, in bricks and mortar - we're number one. The legislatures over the past decade have put a tremendous amount of money into K-12 education.

"But part of the problem is we are one of the highest in the country in (spending for) administration," Burns continued. "We don't get our dollars into our classrooms and that is not a function of the legislature, that is a function of the school board."

Balentine told Cunningham that legislators in particular and the public in general need to understand that if funding for education continues to be cut, "there will come a moment where we will not be able to visibly recover and I think we are real close to that moment."

Cunningham agreed, saying that is why constituents need to get involved in the legislative process and "educate your leaders."

"Get involved in the political process. When legislators hold town halls, make that a priority, go and express your views," he said. "Try to establish a relationship with your legislators. Get involved in upcoming elections, volunteer in a candidate's campaign, show them there is some connection between parents and the person elected to office."

Getting involved is what the MUSD legislative lobby has been doing for five years, said Andrew Morrill, an English teacher at Mountain View High School and one of the original founders of the lobby.

"Silence is not an alternative," he said when asked why the group continues to lobby in the face of cuts to education. "Does it make a difference? I hope so. What I know is that the critical issue is education. As long as everyone is talking about accountability for teachers and students, we're here to tell the legislature that they are part of the equation. We're here to hold them accountable and we're coming back, coming back and coming back."

In fact, Morrill said, it was an obstinate senator five years ago pointing his finger at Morrill, MVHS social studies teacher Rob Bennett and Superintendent Wade McLean, telling them schools were "the problem in the state" that first convinced teachers and administrators to band together.

"We took the heat together, we were shocked and we walked out of there and said, 'Now we're mad. Now we're coming back.' We're in the business of education and we've got a classroom here, we need to educate them," Morrill said. "I don't think the intent was to change things in one year, but I think we've been effective. People know us, they listen to us and now we have to send the messages to the other local (unions) to do the same thing. Get up here and hold them accountable."

MUSD teams come to Phoenix three or four times each year during the legislative session, said Pam Simon, president of the Marana Education Association and a lobbying team member. The teams consist of a teacher, an administrator, a parent, a governing board member and one support staff employee. They field two or three teams a year and Morrill said MUSD picks up the tab for substitute salaries while the MEA pays for miscellaneous costs such as gasoline and food.

Hellon, who had lunch with both the Amphi team and the Amphi teachers attending, encouraged the group to identify potential candidates who are pro-education "and convince them to run for the legislature." Also, she said, voters need to understand that "the key to legislative races is the primary."

"In most cases, people don't pay attention to the primary and what you wind up with is the most liberal Democrat and the most conservative Republican getting elected in the primary," said Hellon. "That's because moderate people don't vote in primaries. They wait until the general election. By then it is too late. Eighty percent of the races are decided in the primaries."

John Lewandowski, president of the Amphi Education Association, said he met with Balentine after the Phoenix event to brainstorm ideas of how Amphi could approach a lobbying effort.

"We've agreed we need to do it and that we need to get the employees focused on Phoenix because that is where the problem is," Lewandowski said. "We don't know if we'll do it Marana's way, but the key is to be up there a lot and we want to do something in the next couple weeks because decisions are being made now and we simply can't wait."

Lewandowski said he told Balentine the Amphi union would pay the substitute costs for teachers who go to the legislature.

"Money in our district is tight and I'm the first to say it," he said. "I hope I can petition the state association for grants to help pay for it."

Clymer said she thought the day in Phoenix was successful.

"It's not like we changed anyone's mind, but it is important for us to make those relationships," she said. "We met Sen. Slade Mead in the hall and talked to him, which is good, since he's a Phoenix senator. It is about making connections across the state. And we have to thank the people who do support us because they are sometimes a lone voice. It must be hard for them sometimes and we have to encourage them so they can keep supporting education."

Chris Potter, a special education teacher at Mesa Verde Elementary School, 1661 W. Sage St., said she knew her presence at Education Day made a difference when she sat in on the House Education Committee for a report by the Office of the Auditor General. A committee member asked where Arizona ranked in teacher salaries compared to other states and the presenter from the auditor general's office said she would have to find out and get back to the committee.

"When her presentation was done and there was a break, I was able to go over to her and give her the AEA (Arizona Education Association) fact sheet on where we rank in teacher salaries and pupil spending," said Potter. "If we're up here we can help inform people and that is what will make a difference in the long run. We have to educate them."

Pagano said her message to members of the AmphiForum and parents in the district over the next few weeks will be that "we need to focus on the long-term issues."

"We have to get people elected across the state who are more sympathetic to education and we have to work on parent awareness so they understand how critical the situation actually is," she said.

Balentine said that much of the day was more beneficial in a "ceremonial way, perhaps, as it was in the nitty-gritty," but that it convinced her of the need to have a presence in the state capital.

"We can support our friends and then try to reach those who don't support education," she said. "At least then they have to look you in the eye when they (cut education funding). If nothing else, you are keeping people honest."

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