Raising Hell

TUSD candidates debate the question of teacher pay

Three incumbents and four challengers are vying for a spot on Tucson Unified School District's governing board, and with the election less than a week away, six of the seven candidates take a look back on one of the year's controversial decisions.

Incumbent Cam Juarez did not get back to Weekly as of our deadline.

Earlier this year, Arizonans passed Proposition 123, which increased education funding and resolved a lawsuit against the state for shortchanging schools in recent years. The spending plan would give around $3.5 billion to schools statewide over the next decade. Each district can allocate the money where officials conclude it's needed.

Much of the funding would come from larger-than-average withdrawals from the state land trust, which fueled much of the opposition to the proposition. In May's special election, the proposition won with a mere 2 percent margin. TUSD received around $9.8 million this year.

The board originally said they would give all of the money to teachers' salaries but instructors only saw about a third of the proposition proceeds. So TUSD teachers saw a $700 pay increase this year from Prop 123 funds. But before Prop 123 passed, the TUSD board awarded $1,300 raises to teachers, saying that they deserved raises whether Prop 123 passed or not.

Kristel Foster, a current board member running for reelection and a Sunnyside School District teacher, said she thinks the board did not shortchange its teachers this year because they gave them the raise ahead of the passage of Prop 123, but the way the board went about handling the issue demonstrated that district's communication skills need work.

"We learned about our messaging and we absolutely need to improve how we message this to the community," Foster said.

Foster added that teachers in the district are seeing a decade-long increase rather than just a one-time payout, which she said she thinks is an important aspect the board took into consideration.

Looking back on Prop. 123, Mark Stegeman, a long time board member running for reelection and a UA professor in economics, said the decision has increased distrust in the board.

"I would have done two things different: I would not have promised to give it all to the teachers," Stegeman said. "When it came to the decision I would've given substantially more of it to the teachers. I don't know if I would've given all of it to the teachers, because there are other needs, but I would've given much more. I think we should revisit it."

Stegeman added that the in the future the board needs to work on communication by incorporating an open budget since there wasn't much discussion with the public. He said wants to see the board thave a more extensive process on budget decisions in the next term.

For the challengers, this is yet another reason for their campaigns. All four political newcomers said the board needs to have a better sense of transparency.

"I think both the vote and the handling of the money was completely opaque," said Betts Putnam-Hidalgo, who is making her third run for the TUSD board. "I think the board, and I'm talking board majority, and the district put an incredible amount of energy into making sure that the proposition passed. ... For them to spend 25 percent of it on teachers' raises was unconscionable."

Putnam-Hidalgo said she thinks the board needs to ask more questions when making decisions, which she thinks was lacking in the proposition funding decision.  

"Really, without teachers, this whole thing doesn't run," Putnam-Hidalgo said. "And they are just not being treated that way."

Putnam-Hidalgo's stance on the issue doesn't vary too much between each of the four challenging candidates. Lori Riegel, Brett Rustand and Rachael Sedgwick all said a major factor in the decision was a lack of questioning from the board members on Superintendent H.T. Sanchez's priorities on where the money should go.

For Rustand, one of the biggest problems that stemmed from the board's decision was not only a lost in trust from the district community but also its teachers.

"When it comes to the trust of the people that work in the district, the teachers, you told us it was all for teachers," Rustand said. "To do something less than that, I think, is disingenuous."

Rustand said TUSD should model other Arizona districts and form committees to help decide where money should go. He said it's important that the board gives the community, specifically teachers, the opportunity to weigh in on district decisions.

Riegel said she thinks the board needs to support teachers after this decision and to provide them with pay increases. In order to support TUSD instructors, Riegel said one of her main goals, if elected, would be lowering class sizes.

"There are two ways to support teachers: one is through equitable pay and the other is actually supporting teachers through a positive environment," Riegel said.

Rachael Sedgwick's opinion on the boards decision on the proposition money doesn't differ too much from her opponents. She said that the board "flat out lied" and she would have given all of the money to the district's teachers.

"Promises were made very specifically on the news and in public," Sedgwick said. "It was downright false, it was the opposite of true because they took the money and used it to pad the budget."  

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