The Phoenix Union High School District retroactively applied teachers' leave days to the three days they missed because of the #RedForEd strike, angering educators.
The PUHSD administration closed campuses across the district starting on Thursday, April 26, when educators around the state walked out of schools to protest low teacher pay and school funding. But even though schools were closed, the district is deducting unused leave days so that teachers meet their contractual time obligation before the end of the school year.
In a statement obtained by Phoenix New Times, on Monday the district administrators explained the decision to employees by saying that they faced a quandary: The district is on track to meet the instructional time requirement for students in spite of the walkout, but teachers would have to forfeit leave days in order to meet their contractual number of required teaching hours.
“This new information leads us to believe that we may not have to make up time with students but creates a situation where certified employees have been paid for their time, but not been present at work," three PUHSD administrators wrote in the letter. "This would constitute a gift of public funds.”
The letter was signed by Resha Gentry-Ballance, PUHSD Classroom Teachers Association President; Mary Kober, executive director for finance; and Laura Telles, executive director for talent.
Leave time was automatically subtracted for all certified employees for the three days of the walkout: April 26, 27, and 30. One of the main #RedForEd discussion groups on Facebook erupted when PUHSD educators learned the news.
"Sounds like an attempt to force teachers to return," another group member wrote.
"[T]hey can't close the school and say you don't need to use personal days and then go back and take your personal days away," another member wrote. "That's ridiculous. They're not going to do that if they call a snow day in another state."
Under Arizona law, high school districts must provide at least 720 hours of instruction per year. Depending on how long the walkout lasts, some districts may be forced to add days to the end of the school calendar if they have not met their instructional requirement.
According to PUHSD educators, the administration's decision to take their leave days will fall hardest on working parents, who might need leave days to take care of their kids in an emergency.
"I haven’t taken off a day this year, but I feel for my colleagues who have and who have families," said Rico Moreno, a 30-year-old economics and government teacher at North High School. "They have responsibilities. They have to take those days for their families. I feel for them — I would be unhappy."
Moreno was at the Capitol on Tuesday, where educators in red were camped outside of the Legislature for the fourth day of protest. His colleague Michael Buster, also a 30-year-old North High School employee who teaches economics and world history, said he expects to see the impact of the leave-days decision.
"On a small level it’s a bummer for us too, because those are three or four days we could’ve had for something else," Buster said. "But we don’t have kids yet, so it’s not hitting us as hard as our colleagues."
Educators who have no leave days left to use during the school year will be forced to take days off without pay.
PUHSD spokesperson Craig Pletenik said that the walkout has been "a tough situation for every district."
"As much as we support the movement, we can’t really say, 'Hey, take as much time off as you want and don’t worry about not using your leave time,'" Pletenik said.
The administration plans to create a "donation bank" of sorts, where educators with unused leave days can donate them to colleagues who no longer have any days left.
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Teachers are particularly upset with the district's reversal, however. Teachers were not told that their leave days would be applied to the first days of the walkout. In PUHSD's letter to teachers, administrators said that they arrived at the decision after working with the Arizona Department of Education.
"As we were consulting with policy and with legal and everything else, it was determined that if we didn’t do that, it would be a gift of public funds," Pletenik said.
PUHSD will open campuses for a "prep day" tomorrow for teachers who want to return to school to get ready for the resumption of classes on Thursday, Pletenik said. He said that PUHSD classes will resume "regardless of what happens with the walkout."
Tempe Union High School District also announced on Tuesday that all seven of its high schools would be open on Thursday.