The Prop 123 Conundrum: Peoria Schools Tie Fate Of Teacher Raises On Its Uncertain Future

Published: Tuesday, May 3, 2016 - 8:01am
Updated: Thursday, May 5, 2016 - 10:24am
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(Photo by Matthew Casey - KJZZ)
Peoria Elementary School.
(Photo by Matthew Casey - KJZZ)
C.J. Smith, principal of Peoria Elementary School.
(Photo by Matthew Casey - KJZZ)
Renee Estrella-Chavez, reading specialist at Peoria Elementary School

Before he was principal of Peoria Elementary School, C.J. Smith spent more than two decades as an educator in Washington state. 

“It’s pretty scarce here,” Smith said. “In my previous setting, I had 750 kids and my operating budget I had control over was $72,000. Here I have 620 kids. My operating budget is $29,118.”

Cash isn’t the only thing that’s scarce at Smith’s school, where about 80 percent of kids are eligible for free or reduced lunch. He also needs to hire highly qualified teachers for classes like science and math. 

“It becomes a little more of a challenge to recruit and keep them because the salaries that our teachers make are not significantly high,” Smith said.

Smith may soon get some help. The Peoria Unified School District Governing Board has tied teacher raises to the fate of Proposition 123. If it passes, they get about a 12.14 percent raise next year. If it doesn’t, they get about 4.65 percent.

To put that in perspective, Peoria Unified School District (PUSD) teachers have never received a 4.65 percent raise, and about half of that money would come from last year’s voter-approved $17 million override. 

Teachers can’t advocate for or against Proposition 123. But elected officials can speak their minds, and PUSD governing board member David Jonagan said it’s good step forward. 

“This influx of money will go a long way in helping get things back to where they should be,” Jonagan said. 

PUSD is not alone in tying the size of teacher raises to Proposition 123. The Dysart Unified and Phoenix Union High School districts have taken similar steps. Deer Valley Unified School District will consider it tonight. With budget time approaching, districts have had to plan for the possibility of Proposition 123 passing or failing. 

However, the group opposed to Proposition 123 thinks that pressures teachers to vote for a deal without considering the long-term effects on public education. By connecting Proposition 123 and raises, school boards have unfairly presented it to teachers, said Morgan Abraham, chairman of the Committee Opposing Proposition 123. 

“The only information they’re getting is Proposition 123 equals pay raise,” Abraham said. “That’s just not true. There are a lot of triggers built into it.”

Morgan thinks Proposition 123 is a bad deal for schools because it permanently caps the amount of state money for education and pulls too much from the land trust. He also said voters can’t have faith in the Arizona Legislature to pay a share of it from the general fund.

“They want us to pull money from the land trust — $2 billion,” Morgan said. “Instead of just using the money they already have in a budget surplus. No taxes need to be raised. Nothing needs to be changed about the budget. We just need to spend the money we have.” 

Teacher salaries aren’t the only thing Proposition 123 would affect at PUSD. If passed, a domino effect would free up money for basic supplies like pencils, paper and textbooks.

Peoria Elementary School reading specialist Renee Estrella-Chavez has worked at the school for 16 years. 

“Well, as a reading interventionist, I do a lot of scrambling to find resources for teachers,” Estrella-Chavez said. “They are asking for a lot of nonfiction leveled texts and books because that’s one of the things that state standards has really called for.”

It's common for teachers to spend their own money on classroom supplies, Principal Smith said. And that is one reason why many of them have to work second jobs.

“I have a great teacher in kindergarten who’s amazing with couponing,” Smith said. “She always knows when there are reams of paper on sale for 5 cents a ream. Or she buys a box, she gets $15 dollars back. And she shares it with our staff because she is making sure she has those resources for her classroom.”