With half of the school year nearly over, the debate between Amphitheater School District teachers and administrators has seen its peaks and valleys as teachers have advocated for everything from more pay to adequate school supplies while administrators struggled to make ends meet in the financially strapped district.
Last year alone, 100 employees, both teachers and support staff, found themselves without a job as the district trimmed the budget to find money for raises and to pay for the opening of Ironwood Ridge High School.
Now the governing board and teachers are at it again, this time with teachers fighting to keep their early retirement plan, the last of its kind in Pima County school districts.
The plan offers teachers a cash payout of nearly twice their ending salaries, spread out over 10 years if they retire at age 50, the minimum age of eligibility. If they retire after age 55, the cash benefits decrease. They would also continue to be covered by health insurance. In return, teachers must provide 20 days of service per year in district classrooms.
Those teachers who do not retire early would have to wait until they could receive state retirement benefits. Teachers who have taught for 10 years are eligible for state retirement as long as the number of years they have taught added to their age equals 80.
The plan was originally designed to save the district money, with the idea being that by encouraging higher paid veteran teachers to leave, the district could replace them with lower paid beginning teachers.
But that same plan is now costing the district more than $3 million per year, accounting for more than 4 percent of its main budget expenses.
"We're not taking away their early retirement, we're taking away the drain on the district," said boardmember Mary Schuh.
District officials have presented the governing board with an alternate plan, called the longevity incentive and reward plan, which would pay retiring teachers a one-time cash payout depending on the number of years with the district.
Todd Jaeger, Amphi's legal counsel who drew up the plan, said he regrets the need to get rid of the early retirement plan, but also sees it as necessary so the district doesn't go bankrupt.
"We have to find out how to keep teachers happy without bankrupting the district," he said. "There is no joy in this anywhere."
But some teachers are now questioning their trust in the board, saying the board should have met with teachers before putting the popular retirement plan on an agenda.
Other teachers say they have been planning their lives around the early retirement plan, counting on the money they would receive.
Several teachers have said they will leave the district if the plan is dissolved, not because of the money, but because of lack of trust in the administration.
Now, after the district has negotiated with teachers, they say their future is hanging in the balance until the governing board decides what to do at its Nov. 13 meeting where a decision will have to be made regardless of teacher concerns.
Peggy Woods, 51, the Amphi Education Association vice president who also heads the science department at Amphi High, said she is anxiously anticipating the board's decision since she was planning on retiring early next year. Woods makes about $49,000 a year.
During one of her classes last week, Woods, an Arizona Teacher of the Year winner, moved about the front of her classroom, going from drawing on the white board to the overhead projector, talking about electrons, electron transport systems and coenzymes as her advanced placement biology students furiously took notes in their notebooks.
But then, a much-needed break.
Woods displayed a worksheet to the class, and, with a sly smile, said "And now you get to color."
And her students, perhaps for a fleeting moment reverting back to their elementary school days, uttered a collective "Yea!" as Woods began passing out a worksheet where the students must color a chloroplast, or a "big green cigar thing," as Woods referred to it earlier in her lecture.
The lecture dealing with plant photosynthesis proved one of Woods' favorite points when people ask her about biology.
"People say simple plants and I laugh at them," she said.
But these days, Woods said she doesn't have much to laugh about. In fact, she said she has been on the verge of tears several times in the past few days, ever since she saw the Oct. 23 Amphitheater governing board agenda, which, she said, could destroy her future.
It was that agenda that told teachers that their early retirement plan, a benefit more than 400 teachers have taken advantage of since its inception in 1984, could be replaced with a new, but less lucrative plan.
Woods, who has been with the district for 27 years, had been planning to take advantage of the early retirement plan since its implementation.
She would also be eligible for state retirement benefits next year as well, and was planning on those combined incomes to support her and her family, the family she took two years off from teaching to raise.
During those two years, though, Woods said she needed income, so she withdrew money from her retirement. The state can make those funds available for teachers should they need it before they retire.
When she went back to teaching, Woods entered into a contract with the state to buy those years back so she could retire early. If she hadn't bought those years back, she would not have been able to retire next year.
"Everyone prepares for retirement based on the information they have," Woods said. "One of the reasons why I stayed in the district is because of the early retirement plan. If the early retirement plan had not been available, I would not have spent $35,000 to buy those years back."
Dick Bemis, 49, a P.E. teacher at Holaway Elementary, said he was also planning on retiring early next year and has been expecting the funds he would receive since the plan was implemented.
"I have a buddy in District 1 (TUSD) who started teaching there the same time I started at Amphi and he's making $54,000," Bemis says. "But I stayed expecting a big payout in the end."
Bemis, who makes about $49,000 a year and is at the top of his salary scale, said since he has been with the district so long, he is ready to leave.
Bemis said he had been told by district administrators that he couldn't get bigger pay raises because the district had programs like the early retirement program.
Bemis stands almost twice as tall as the children who gazed up at him while he instructed them how to play a friendly game.
"Now, one team is going to win and one team is going to lose and we're not going to make a big deal out of it," Bemis warned his students.
The students split up into two teams on either side of a net and began to unleash a barrage of foam rubber balls, trying to knock over each other's "hurdles," Styrofoam blocks resting at the far ends of the court.
On Bemis' cue, the game ended.
"Now, let's all tell each other good game," he said. The children did as they were told and screamed their salutations almost incoherently, but the point still got across.
Bemis hopes board members and teachers can reach a similar amicable outcome about the early retirement plan.
Kathy Dickert is a 21-year veteran of the district who teaches at Copper Creek Elementary who makes about $45,000 a year, said she is in no hurry to leave but was hoping to retire early in a few years.
"I love what I do. I'm not in any hurry to get out of the classroom."
But with three children, two nearing the time when they would be ready to go to college and one already there, Dickert said she has been keeping the early retirement program in the back of her mind.
"It was the carrot at the end of the road," she said. "It was so close I could taste it. But now I feel like they're pulling a rug out from under me."
Dickert said the income she would receive under the early retirement plan along with the income she would get from another job would help her family's financial situation.
"I'm very happy with my situation, but I also had to look at the situation with my family," she said.
Dickert said even if she did retire next year, she would still try to remain actively involved in teaching or be a part of the classroom in some way.
"I still want to be involved with parents and students," she said.
Jim Reed, 54, a seventh grade science teacher at Wilson K-8 who makes about $51,000 a year, says he would like to retire early to move to New Mexico to get some rest after being diagnosed with glaucoma, surviving cancer, having a pacemaker put in his chest and suffering three herniated disks that cause him "a lot of discomfort," he said.
Reed said he spent nine months on disability to return to school so he could go on the early retirement plan.
"(If the plan is dissolved) it would force me to have to work four or five more years," said Reed, a 24-year veteran teacher in the district.
And with his medical problems, Reed said he would be hard-pressed to find an insurance company to cover him until he could qualify for Medicare.
Under the early retirement plan, the district would still provide health insurance for early retirees.
"It would reduce my retirement income by $300 per month," he said. "I know that I would have to find income that would supplement it."
Claudia Gary, a math teacher at Amphi High who makes about $45,000 a year, said she is also concerned about health insurance since both of her parents were diagnosed with diabetes and recently died from complications of the disease.
"I'd have to purchase my own insurance until I'd qualify for Medicare," she said.
Gary, 59, said the financial impact of not getting Amphi's early retirement benefits is not what concerns her, but rather getting the health insurance benefits.
"It's utterly depressing to be treated this way," she said. "I feel so completely abandoned."
Gary said she has not decided if she will leave the district if the plan is dissolved, but said she has seriously considered it, along with many other teachers.
With many teachers threatening to leave the district, those teachers say the impact that potential mass exodus could have would drastically impact students in the classroom.
"The public may not appreciate how this is going to impact classrooms (if the ERP is dissolved)," Woods said. "All of these teachers are going to leave the Amphi district and there will be no qualified teachers to replace them. The students will have young teachers with no experience, substitute teachers or teachers with no degrees."
The board has said if they don't get rid of this plan, other programs directly affecting students will have to be cut. But Woods said she doesn't buy it.
"They always say that whenever they need money," she said. "What they don't realize is that teachers are the programs. If they want to protect programs, they have to protect teachers."
Reed added that teachers' motivation to teach the best they can could also be affected.
"They're not going to have the same enthusiasm," he said.
Reed said he had hoped relationships with the board and teachers would improve when the new board was formed last year, but as of right now, Reed said the board isn't living up to his expectations.
May 2000 marked a turning point for the district. Three members of the school board were recalled with the support of teachers and parents in the district.
Mary Schuh, Mike Prout and Kent Barrabee ran as a bloc, promising to improve relationships and communication with teachers.
But now some teachers are saying the board is not living up to its promises and they feel abandoned and betrayed.
"They wanted to bring respect, peace and unity back to the district and they are not doing that," Gary said.
"Amphi used to be a family," Woods said. "The district took care of its teachers. But I see the most recent actions as very vindictive.
"For whatever reasons, they are not trusting the teachers," she continued. "The lack of trust on their part has absolutely demoralized teachers."
Woods also said she shares one sentiment with other teachers she has talked to: the desire to leave if nothing changes.
"I'm going to get out of this district probably next year if nothing changes and there is no compromise," she said. "And a lot of teachers have the same sentiment. Teachers will leave as quick as they can."
Woods said she finds the longevity incentive plan to be "insulting," and said even if teachers do decide to stay with the district, they will have lost trust in the administration.
"The younger teachers will leave because they don't see a future in a district where there is no trust," Woods said.
"Teachers feel like our board doesn't care about us anymore," Dickert added.
Woods said older teachers have even been counseling younger teachers to get out of the district.
"Young teachers will look elsewhere," Woods promised.
Christen Stuetze, a science teacher at Amphi, is what Woods would call a young teacher, only having been with the district for a few years.
"It's the system I don't trust," Stuetze said. "If they don't negotiate with teachers, what is going to happen next?"
Gary, who likened the proposal of getting rid of the early retirement plan to a terrorist attack at the Oct. 23 board meeting, said she has the same feelings of uncertainty.
"Those words will probably come back to haunt me, but I just felt the same sense of uncertainty. There was nothing you could do to prevent it, there was nothing you could do to prepare for it."
Stuetze said the early retirement plan has been a useful recruiting tool for the district to attract good teachers and says if the plan is dissolved, the district could suffer.
"I just think it's really going to hurt their ability to recruit," he says.
Gary said, though, that she believes the board is trying to do what is best for the district.
"You could feel their anguish," she said. "But they need to think before they drop things on people. They see something they want changed and they come up with the worst case scenario, then they negotiate with teachers."
John Lewandowski, Amphi Education Association president, said the district has asked for suggestions on revisions to the proposal, but has now been told that teachers will have to wait until the next meeting to see what happens.
"They have told us they have no intention of meeting with us again," Lewandowski said. "I want to emphasize that we want to work this out with the board."
"Our first priority would be to work something out with the district," Dickert agreed.
Schuh said her priorities are the same: to work something out and move on.
"I respect their feelings, I really do," Schuh said regarding teachers' concerns. "But I don't think I'll be getting Christmas cards from any of them."
Boardmember Nancy Young Wright also said she understands the plight of teachers and that the board has been trying to work out a situation that will be best for both teachers and the district.
"We asked for information from the (Amphi Education) association on several things," Young Wright said. "I hope to get things resolved. (Superintendent Vicki) Balentine has been meeting with anyone who has suggestions."
Balentine has been taking those suggestions to the board where she says those ideas were looked at very carefully.
"For certain the boardmembers listened very carefully to the concerns," Balentine said. "I do know board members are interested in finding a solution"
Balentine and boardmembers also agree that this situation has not been fun to deal with.
"I certainly regret we have this crisis," Balentine said.
Jaeger said some teachers might have some misconceptions about the district and its financial situation.
He said he has heard the suggestion to raise tax rates in the district, but Jaeger said the money generated by that tax increase would not be able to be used on teachers.
"There are all sorts of misconceptions," he said. "Raising the tax rate does no good."
Jaeger also said that money that would be used for teachers on the early retirement plan could be used to give teachers raises.
"That money can do amazing things," he said.
Jaeger also said that when new teachers are hired, they are not thinking about perks like the early retirement plan.
"When we talk to new teachers, they think about things like student population, school facilities and other benefits," Jaeger said. "The early retirement plan is very low on the list."
Jaeger did say that the early retirement plan does save the district money, but only over a period of years, which does the district no good.
"You can't accrue savings over time," he said. "We have to look (at the savings) in this fiscal year."
Jaeger says he also fears what would happen if the early retirement plan is not dissolved.
"We would have to cut programmatic things," Jaeger said. "We've really got tremendous programs."
Diana Boros, a parent with three children in Amphi schools who supported the recall election and openly supports members of the board, said cutting programs is not something she wants to happen.
"We need a financially sound district," she said. "We are cutting teachers so that other teachers can get raises. When those teachers leave, so do the programs."
Boros said she believes teachers are acting selfishly and not caring about their students or other teachers.
"That is not an all for one, one for all attitude," she said. "To be honest, I'm very disappointed in the attitude of the AEA."
"They're only concerned about themselves," she says. "I'm concerned about the 17,000 kids we have in this district."
Boros, a regular attendee at board meetings, said the board is handling the situation the best it can.
"They're trying to act fiscally responsible," she said.
Boros said she is concerned about teachers leaving, but sees a greater need for keeping student programs.
"I'm very sad (about the potential for teachers leaving), but there's nothing we can do about that," she said.
Balentine said she is also concerned about the threat of teachers leaving.
"That certainly would not be a positive outcome," she said, but also said she couldn't quantify how concerned she actually is.
"It's certainly something I would not want to happen and the board would not want to happen."
Schuh said once the new school board was in place, members only had a short time to deal with complicated budget issues the old board had not addressed.
"The Amphi budget has been the alligator they forgot to take with them when they drained the swamp," Schuh said.
Schuh said the teachers shouldn't have been so surprised since the board has been looking at the early retirement plan as a potential program to cut when the new board first started looking at the budget.
Schuh also said the Arizona Retirement System has its own early retirement that teachers can take advantage of.
"Nobody likes change, but the only thing constant is change," Schuh said. "You can't change Kleenex colors without teachers reacting."
Schuh also said the board and district administration has always maintained an open relationship with teachers, despite what teachers have said.
"They get the agendas ahead of time, they have our emails, the superintendent has an open door with Lewandowski, something they've never had before," she said. "How much more open can you get?"
But Young Wright and boardmember Kent Barrabee both said they might have encouraged a different process if they had to do things over again.
"This is the type of thing that could be political suicide," Young Wright said. "If I had to do things over again, I might have made some suggestions."
"We will do something more teacher-friendly," Barrabee said. "I was very impressed with the plight of individuals. I think we can do better than what we proposed."
But both Young Wright and Barrabee also agreed that something needs to be done to alleviate the financial strains on the district.
"It would be disastrous for the district if we didn't get something in place," Barrabee said.
Schuh also said teachers failed to remember that another promise made by the three incumbents during the recall election was to get the district back in better financial shape.
"When we ran, we said we had to get this district back on track fiscally," she said. "If they are taking this personally, they missed the point."