Budget Bind Throws #RedForEd Plan to End Strike Into Chaos

From right: Arizona Educators United leaders Noah Karvelis, Dylan Wegela, Catherine Barrett, Rebecca Garelli, and Kelley Fisher.
From right: Arizona Educators United leaders Noah Karvelis, Dylan Wegela, Catherine Barrett, Rebecca Garelli, and Kelley Fisher. Joseph Flaherty; New Times illustration
Return to the classroom?

Go on strike for another day, testing the patience of parents and school administrators?

End the walkout, but continue to fight for an education budget at the Capitol?

Confusion reigned among #RedForEd teachers between Tuesday evening and Wednesday afternoon, ever since leaders of grassroots organization Arizona Educators United pledged that they would end a five-day school walkout if lawmakers passed a budget by Thursday.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, it appeared that the strike could continue through Thursday. But until the ink is dry on a budget deal, the #RedForEd leaders could not predict when the crisis would end.

On the #RedForEd Facebook discussion hub, teachers speculated about the budget bill under discussion and expressed anger at the perception that AEU leaders had caved too soon.

Teachers and the rest of the state face uncertainty – it’s unclear whether the Legislature will be able pass a budget by Thursday morning.

Educators may have to decide whether they will go back to class, even if there is no deal, as school districts reopen.

Amid the confusion, as of 4:30 p.m. some school districts notified parents that they'd be closed on Thursday, while the last message from others was that schools would reopen.

As the budget negotiations were hanging in midair around 3 p.m. on Wednesday, AEU leaders Dylan Wegela and Rebecca Garelli told educators that they should come to the Capitol that night and Thursday to offer their support for amendments that work toward their goals.

“We need everybody here at the Capitol until the budget is passed,” Wegela said in a video. “That is what we said yesterday, and that is the sentiment that we are getting from the people who are here.”

“Tomorrow, if you can get here, get here,” Wegela added.

Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas told Phoenix New Times that they support a continued walkout on Thursday if the budget is not completed, and they are asking school employees to discuss whether they will report to work or walk out.

click to enlarge Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas says his organization support sa continued walkout on Thursday if the budget is not completed. - ZEE PERALTA
Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas says his organization support sa continued walkout on Thursday if the budget is not completed.
Zee Peralta

Although the #RedForEd leaders are rallying supporters,
some educators have grown frustrated with AEU. From their perspective, the leadership bent too soon by holding a press conference that effectively set an end date for the strike.

On Wednesday morning, Monicia Porter officially abandoned #RedForEd. She removed the #RedForEd sticker from her car, and cut up her T-shirt.

The counselor at Tucson High School had watched Tuesday evening as leaders of grassroots organization Arizona Educators United pledged that if lawmakers passed a budget by Thursday, they would end a five-day school walkout. To Porter, it seemed like #RedForEd leaders were admitting defeat.

“It sounded good in theory, but once the pressure was applied, everybody folded,” Porter said. “Of course there was going to be pressure. Of course parents were going to be upset. What did they expect?”

She feels that support staff were left out of the budget deal negotiation between AEU, the teacher’s union, and lawmakers. Because she is a counselor, 47-year-old Porter falls into a broad category of support staff who are not certified teachers. As a result, it’s unclear how Governor Doug Ducey's proposed cumulative 20 percent teacher pay raise by 2020 will affect Porter once the Tucson school district receives any new funding that lawmakers approve this week.

“They took a vote on everything else. They should’ve taken a vote on whether we go back to classrooms."

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Moreover, Porter criticizes the decision-making process that led to AEU leaders signaling an end to the walkout. Leaders of AEU and the AEA broke the news with little advance warning at a press conference on Tuesday; at the same time, several large school districts announced that they would reopen on Thursday morning, regardless of the strike's status.

There was no vote of the kind that preceded the walkout, Porter argued. Two weeks ago, 78 percent of 57,000 educators voted that they would support AEU if they chose to initiate a strike.

“They took a vote on everything else. They should’ve taken a vote on whether we go back to classrooms,” Porter said. “They should’ve taken everyone into account.”

Nevertheless, from the #RedForEd team's perspective, they have pushed the Legislature as far as the tax-allergic lawmakers are willing to go.

On Tuesday, AEU leaders stated that the only budget they can support is one that restores the hundreds of millions of dollars that were cut after the 2008 recession. In a video, the AEU leadership team denied that they were giving up.

"We are going to build this for the future, and continue this fight," said Alhambra Elementary District teacher Rebecca Garelli.

"Our team has been deliberating on this all day, all day with these tough decisions," Garelli added. "We went out in the Capitol – we listened to you. We scanned all of Facebook – we listened to you."

In the message to #RedForEd teachers, AEU leader Noah Karvelis referenced a moment at yesterday's press conference when he was asked whether they can truly declare victory in the strike effort.

"It’s not that we’ve won the war, but it’s that we’ve won the first battle in the war,” Karvelis told educators. “And I can tell you right now that my personal dedication to this fight has never been greater,” he added.

But even as Karvelis sounded an optimistic note, in the comments of the video, educators were upset. “DON’T GO BACK,” someone wrote in all-caps. “If we go back, we are quitting,” another wrote.

Another member echoed Karvelis: “Continue the fight in November! We won the first battle! Let’s keep working, and keep building!”

State Senator Steve Farley, a Democratic candidate for governor, told his Facebook followers shortly after 4 p.m. on Wednesday that the budget debate was set to start around 8.

"Looks like we are going all night. Pack the galleries!" Farley wrote.

In response to the rapidly changing budget news, one of the AEU leaders told #RedForEd teachers on their Facebook hub that individual school liaisons will have to decide whether they will return to class or extend the strike in the absence of a budget.

“Our intel is telling us this budget might not get passed until early morning Thursday. We have been out and listening to you, and it is clear that people don't want to come in, until the budget is passed,” AEU leader Brittani Karbginsky wrote. “It is up to you and your sites, to decide to go in or not before the budget is passed. Make sure to communicate your decision with your districts.”

It's been an historic five days in Arizona already. The state that has never seen a teachers’ strike of this magnitude. In late March, AEU leaders presented the Legislature with several demands, including a restoration of approximately $1 billion in education funding that was cut after the recession, increased pay for librarians, bus drivers, and counselors like Porter, and no new tax cuts until Arizona’s per-pupil spending reaches the national mean.

Yet if teachers end the walkout once lawmakers approve the current budget under discussion, AEU will have barely grasped one of its five goals.

Large school districts such as the Phoenix Union High School District and the Chandler Unified School District have said they plan to reopen Thursday. Plenty of rural school districts are open, some of them after abridged walkouts or protests. If the walkout drags on much longer, parents will be under logistical pressure as they continue to find a place for their kids while schools are closed.

Not all #RedForEd supporters are upset with the AEU leadership’s choices.

Dayna Doskocil sympathizes with the leadership team's position. The 34-year-old chemistry teacher at Youngker High School in Buckeye praised the AEU leaders for taking heat in a tremendously uncertain situation.

“I think it’s unfortunate that people feel that they weren’t included in decision-making. But I think when this moves as fast as it does, you have to have people who are willing to make those really tough decisions,” Doskocil said.

Porter, however, says that she won't joining any #RedForEd-style efforts that continue after this month.

"There were those of us who were willing to go all in, and apparently the AEU leadership was not," Porter said. "Had I known that, I never would’ve joined the movement."
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty