It could have been a pep rally. But rather than "Go Team," the placards said things like "Big Classes, Little Learning" and "Your Kids Deserve Better." And instead of being carried by the cheerleading squad, they were brandished by teachers,

More than 200 teachers picketed outside the Phoenix Union High School District's governing board meeting last week, but that was nothing new. They've been picketing at various schools in the district since fall classes resumed.

There was a time when picketing teachers were big news. Not anymore. The school board is ignoring them. Few parents are interested. The teachers' demonstrations haven't been reported by the daily papers.

Labor disputes, it seems, have become too commonplace at Phoenix Union. It's not like the teachers are going to strike. That's against state law. And it's not as though there aren't other problems pressing the 21,000-student district. Like the $4 million the district doesn't have. Or the federal judge who is trying to end the district's desegregation program, a move that could pull Phoenix Union--and its desegregation-oriented magnet schools--apart at the seams.

But none of this can diminish that, for the first time in history, the school board has imposed a contract on the teachers, effectively halting negotiations. Veteran employees remember a similar situation in the mid-1980s, but that imposition was rescinded.

Annual contract negotiations commenced in February, broke off at the end of the school year, and started again in August. The negotiating teams emerged with what was considered by both sides to be the district's best offer.

The rank and file, however, wouldn't hear of it, which also was a first. More than 700 teachers--about 93 percent--rejected the proposal agreed to by their bargaining team. But it was the district's final offer. The board imposed a contract and halted negotiations at the end of August.

Teachers say money is not the issue. Everyone--teachers, administrators and staff--got a 1.5 percent increase. But no one got credit for experience or continuing education.

The district increased the maximum allowable sizes of special classes such as English as a Second Language and Special Education by two students, which administrators maintain is not a big deal.

"When you're teaching ESL students, and you've got 25 students and they're speaking six different languages, two more means a lot less effectiveness of what a teacher can do," says Mary Ann Gwinn, head of Phoenix Union's Classroom Teachers Association.

The district also increased the maximum case load of counselors for both regular students and those with special needs. On average, every counselor has 250 to 300 regular students. The increase would allow that to rise to as high as 425 students.

Librarians were cut to one at every school except South Mountain High School, which, with 3,000 students, is the district's largest.

Phoenix Union saw a major reduction in its work force earlier this year. But no one seems certain how many people are actually gone. Initially, the district lost 16 percent of its administrators and 15 percent of its teachers through layoffs and early retirement. But some were called back and more still may be called back before enrollment numbers settle for this school year.

Primarily, however, the tiff with the teachers is all about who's telling whom what to do. Teachers are incensed about having an imposed contract.

The Tucson Unified School Board also imposed a contract on its teachers this year. Last year, Sunnyside School District did the same. Both are large districts in southern Arizona.

Phoenix Union's Classroom Teachers Association is arguably one of the strongest in the state. If the teachers here live under an imposed contract, it could set a trend that other Valley districts may follow.

Administrators and the board are perturbed that the teachers rejected the negotiated contract.

"When the association went out to the members and they voted it down, that's where it stops," says Phoenix Union Superintendent Rene Diaz. "We have a school district to run. We met their offer in terms of 'what we want.' We need to move forward. When they turned that down, it was, 'Hey, wait a minute.'

"It's like saying, 'We signed it, but I really don't believe in it.' I'm extremely disappointed. I think it was bad-faith bargaining," Diaz says.

Now there's a stand-off.
"I have no intentions of going back to the table and doing the same thing that we've done for the last three or four years," Diaz says. "That's a total waste of time."
The labor dispute is exacerbated by political factors beyond the district's control. In its last session, the Legislature voted not to fund an inflation factor in the school finance formula. That cost Phoenix Union about $4 million. New charter schools began cropping up all over town, which left Phoenix Union in the unenviable position of having to sort out whether their students are coming or going. So far, the district has lost about 100 kids to charter schools.

Last month, just as the contract issue was heating up with the teachers, a federal judge ruled to halt the desegregation order that the district has been living under for more than a decade. The district, the plaintiffs who sought desegregation originally and the U.S. Department of Justice have since filed objections.

The district is bound by law to stay within established guidelines of the order, which means not allowing students to leave if it would upset the ethnic balance at a school.

But when classes started, Governor Fife Symington and Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham told parents they were free to take their kids to charter schools, and that everything would all work out just fine.

Throw in a new superintendent and a predominantly new school board and you've got a recipe for turmoil.

"Different people react differently to stress," says Diaz. "It was very stressful throughout the district immediately when the question was posed about the desegregation order. People were saying, 'Are we going to lose the money? Are we going to lose the programs? How are we going to function?'"
The teachers, however, are firm in their fight. Maybe because there is so little in the world of education that they can actually control. Or maybe because the world has stopped listening to them.

"It's about where do you draw the line and how much will you accept," says teacher Dwayne Webb. "Ultimately, we're on a collision course.

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Lisa Davis