Lisa Ferko did considerable research into schools, public and private alike, before she chose Harelson Elementary School for her child.
“I can’t say enough about how happy I am with that school,” Ferko said.
Melissa Megna, parent of a Harelson kindergartener, feels the same way. “There is not one person who is not completely dedicated to the education of those children,” Megna said of the staff at the Amphitheater district school.
But the two Northwest mothers are worried by public school budget cuts, some imposed immediately by the Legislature, and more, larger cuts proposed for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
“We feel threatened,” Megna said. “We don’t want to see that fall apart.”
Ferko, Megna, retired 35-year middle school teacher Carolyn Badger of SaddleBrooke and others have turned anxiety into action. They have formed Concerned Arizona Residents for Education, a non-partisan, all-volunteer group that has enlisted nearly 500 members in 3-1/2 weeks.
“These two got inspired,” Badger said of Ferko and Megna. When they learned of “extreme budget cuts being proposed for education,” Megna called Badger and said “ ‘we’ve got to do something.’”
“We want to provide basically a vehicle in Northwest Tucson … to let legislators and the governor know that we prioritize public education, that we understand there is a budget crisis, but divesting in public education is not the answer,” Megna said. “We need to be investing.”
None of them pretends to speak for a group. All of them recognize there are hard choices ahead.
“We’re not trying to set a policy people have to support,” Megna said. “We’re just trying to open the discussion. Anyone who is concerned about public education is invited to join.”
The group provides information – the status of legislation, addresses for legislators, and avenues “to have their voices heard,” Megna said.
When a bill comes up, CARE can tell people what it is, what it means, “and how to contact their legislator or our governor.”
CARE sent 50 to an education rally in Phoenix on Feb. 11. Members are off to another rally this Thursday, Feb. 26, at the state capitol. The group has met with Northwest legislators, Sen. Al Melvin, and Reps. Vic Williams and Nancy Young Wright, to express their views.
“Traditionally, this area has valued public education as its #1 priority, and in the past our legislators have reflected that,” Badger said. “We are concerned all our representatives are not as supportive of public education as we would like them to be.”
“People had felt budget cuts wouldn’t affect children, and that their voice wouldn’t mean anything,” Ferko said. “Parents are realizing it is a time to speak up.”
Passion swells when Ferko, president of the parent-teacher organization at Harelson, speaks about school funding. The group is delving into the enormous complexity of school funding in Arizona. What Ferko has learned “has helped energize me, and keeps me on task.”
At Harelson, teachers lack money for textbooks, and some have no workbooks. One teacher had been copying textbook pages for her class, then found out there was no more money for copies.
“What does that mean?” Ferko asked. “What do we expect of our educators, and how do we expect our teachers to educate our children? We are crippling our educators’ ability to instruct our children.”
“One thing I’d like to see happen, and I know this is heretical,” is resumption of a statewide county education equalization property tax, Badger said. In 2006, the Legislature suspended that tax, “when Arizona was doing quite well.” Now, some legislators are pushing for its permanent repeal, via House Bill 2073, which was sent to the floor by a House committee on Monday. Williams is a co-sponsor of the repeal bill.
“Let it come back,” Badger said. “It’s not a new tax. It’s $77 a year on a $200,000 assessed valuation home. I feel that’s an appropriate amount for Arizonans to invest in education.” And the tax generated $250 million for education annually before its 2006 suspension.
“That could go a long way to helping mitigate cuts to education,” Megna said.
Badger emphasizes that retirees “care about education,” and “want to see it funded” in Arizona.
“It’s not going to be the retirees against the parents,” Badger said. “We want to break that perception. One-third of our members are retirees living in the Northwest.”
“They were a substantial part of the group that went up to the rally in Phoenix,” Ferko said.
“When I see SaddleBrooke pass the override for Oracle schools, to me, that’s a strong indication of how important public education is to SaddleBrooke residents,” Badger said.
“I am willing to raise my tax, and not just for my child,” Megna said. “I’m not saying CARE is saying that. It’s an investment, not just a fee I pay, in Arizona.”
Schools are making mandated cuts in the current year’s spending plan. CARE is greatly concerned with what happens with the fiscal 2010 budget that begins July 1. If budgets are cut by 20 percent, as has been mentioned, “what is a school district supposed to do?” Ferko asked. “What do you think is going to happen? They will have seriously crippled public education.”
Because much of the cost of public education is people, fewer educators likely means larger class sizes. In that instance, “the children are going to lose out,” Megna said.
Another piece of legislation, House Bill 2288, would continue the ability of corporations to receive tax credits for contributions to private schools.
“For me, CARE is not about a public versus private mentality,” Ferko said, but “I am concerned about the disparity, private and public, in reference to the 2010 budget. As a voter, as a parent, I am very concerned when I hear legislators are concerned about protecting the right of choice for parents. I do not agree that this legislature, any legislature, has the right to take away the choice” by pulling money from public schools. “It makes me angry when the right to choice in education does not include public education.”
Megna’s mother, Catalina artist Anne Leonard, and her sister, Judy Leonard, whose child attends Copper Creek Elementary School, are also founders of CARE. Badger’s husband, Richard, works the Web site, www.azcare.info.
CARE is free to join, with no paid staff.
“We have made a conscious decision as a group not to affiliate with other groups,” Ferko said. “Our mission is simply to be a conduit of information for those in Arizona who want to take action, and who are concerned.”
“I hope that we make smart choices,” Megna said.
Legislators meet with parents at school March 5
Concerned Arizona Residents for Education is participating in a March 5 meeting where citizens can speak with legislators on the subject of public education.
The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. that Thursday at Cross Middle School, 1000 W. Chapala Drive. District 26 Reps. Vic Williams and Nancy Young Wright, both members of the Arizona House Education Committee, have said they would attend.
The session is intended to “provide dialogue, so legislators can hear, and people can express” opinions, “so we can work together toward a solution,” CARE member Melissa Megna said.
The day before, on March 4, CARE is pushing for participation in March 4Schools, also at the state capitol.