'Yikes!': Some Arizona teachers see little from Prop. 123
- Most large school districts plan to divide Proposition 123 money between teachers and other staff
- The spending strategy may run counter to what many voters expected in passing the measure
- The diffuse approach reflects the sense of broad and unmet needs in the public schools
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how much teachers in Peoria will receive every two weeks after taxes and pension deductions.
For months leading up to the vote on Proposition 123, supporters of the public education funding measure pleaded for its passage, saying it represented money for teachers.
But as the first installment of cash has gone out, many teachers may find Prop. 123 is a smaller windfall than they hoped. And voters may be surprised to learn where some of the money is going.
In some cases, teachers will collect less than 20 percent of their district's Prop. 123 funds. Some districts will use most of their money for other purposes, ranging from textbooks to computers to school buses, according to an Arizona Republic survey of district spending plans.
The measure was sold as a way to direct money — significant money — to teachers and classrooms.
In one tweet, for example, the Let's Vote Yes for Arizona Schools campaign noted that Carrie Viers, a language arts teacher in the Tempe Elementary School District "has a second job because she can't live on a teacher's salary. A yes vote on Prop. 123 could change that."
The reality may be less life-changing.
After taxes and pension deductions, teachers in Peoria will pocket an extra $53 every two weeks on average, or about $1,700 per year.
Other districts, such as those in Chandler, Mesa, Tucson and Deer Valley, also plan to divide the money among other, non-classroom employees.
“Yikes," said Lisa Lamb Ballard, a high school science teacher in the Glendale Union High School District who voted for Prop. 123 expecting all of the money to go to teachers.
"It's unfortunate the priorities are so out of whack in some of the other districts. That is just ridiculous for the money to be going outside teacher salaries when we have such an insane shortage right now," she said, adding that she is pleased with her own district's spending plans.
"It scares me because (the public) will be reluctant to pass things in the future that are supposed to help our schools," she said.
Districts decide how to spend the money
With no rules on how the money can be used, each school district has tried to address its own priorities. While many supporters of the measure invoked teachers as the main reason to vote for Prop. 123, others in the public school systems have staked a claim to the money, especially after many went years without raises beginning in the recession.
Those seeing raises include relatively low-paid secretaries, custodians and bus drivers. But it also includes superintendents, principals and mid-level administrators who don’t work in classrooms.
That may not sit well with voters who opposed the measure or with supporters who thought they were doing something more substantive for teachers.
Looming over all the spending strategies is the unanswered question of whether any of it will make Arizona's schools better academically.
Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey, said the governor pitched the plan to voters by saying school districts would have flexibility to spend the money as they saw fit.
"Certainly teacher raises are positive," Scarpinato said. "But we know there are a lot of needs in the school system, and in public schools. But ultimately, those are decisions that need to be made by superintendents and school boards. The governor believes it's important that they make wise decisions if we're going to continue advocating for additional dollars."
"This is exactly what I predicted," said Jeff DeWit, the state treasurer who opposed the measure. "There is no accountability for how this money is spent."
The districts The Republic reviewed stand to collect more than half the money doled out under Prop. 123 in its first year.
Each maintains spending autonomy throughout the 10-year life of Prop. 123. That means districts could change the way they distribute Prop. 123 money next year, giving teachers more or less in the future.
But as a practical matter, it’s unclear what changes lie ahead in education funding. On the night he declared victory for Prop. 123, Ducey stressed an interest on outcomes rather than money.
“You’ve heard me say many times that I don’t believe that spending is the measure of success,” he said. “We started with resources because I was listening to teachers and principals, and we changed our priorities. I said we want to solve this resource question with a first step. That’s what Prop. 123 was and tonight we’re able to celebrate it.”
In some districts, everyone gets raises
Ahead of the May 17 vote on Prop. 123, positive messaging that explained how the state land trust worked gave way to menacing messages. Those ads warned voters what their school districts would lose if the measure failed.
The campaign made an emotional pitch on behalf of hardworking teachers. The fine print — that the money could be spent on anything — became a secondary concern.
The measure's passage put school districts in an unusual position: debating how to spend extra money.
Peoria, for example, weighed different ideas but settled on a plan that gives equal 6.8 percent pay raises to all employees. That means 30 percent of its Prop. 123 money will go to positions other than teachers, areas of the budget known as classified staff and administrators.
Leading up to that decision, board member Kathy Knecht urged her colleagues to set aside more for teachers, who are paid less than school workers making $60,000 a year. But the board’s president, Matthew Bullock, said equal raises for every worker “is aligned with how the business world operates,” according to the board’s records.
In Mesa, the state's largest public school district, expenses other than teacher salaries will claim at least 25 percent of its Prop. 123 funds in the upcoming budget.
A quarter of the extra funds, about $3.3 million, will go to staff including secretaries and custodians. About $2.1 million will go to other purposes, ranging from adding seven elementary deans at an average cost of $65,000 each to adding a security trainer for about $49,000.
Mesa’s administrators will divide an extra $370,000, about 3.4 percent of the overall Prop. 123 funds.
The smattering of raises comes after years of flat pay that lasted until at least 2014. Superintendent Michael Cowan stands to receive $210,000 in the upcoming school year after getting $2,500 from Prop. 123. He turned down bonuses and other extra pay for at least three years while other employees got no raises.
The Tucson Unified School District, the state's second-largest, voted to give teachers $700 each from Prop. 123 funds. Even before the vote on Prop. 123, the district committed to raises worth about $1,300 for teachers in the next school year. Other employees, including bus drivers and administrators, will get extra money worth 1 percent of their salaries from Prop. 123.
Overall, teachers will get 26 percent of the Prop. 123 money. More than half of Tucson's Prop. 123 funds will go to capital needs, such as textbooks, technology and other aids. The district is setting aside $800,000 into a contingency fund.
The Deer Valley School District is using half the $6 million it got in June on one-time purchases including buses, textbooks and other physical needs. The other half goes to seniority bonuses for every returning employee ranging from $300 to $1,200, said Jim Migliorino, the deputy superintendent of fiscal and business services in Deer Valley.
The district plans to use the ongoing payments from Prop. 123 to grant raises to all 3,700 full-time employees. The district hasn't provided meaningful pay raises in eight years. About a quarter of the money will go to non-teachers, while other funds will go to hiring a psychologist and English-language technicians.
"It's not just the classroom that makes us successful in educating our students," Migliorino said. "We tried to honor the intent of Prop. 123 with this. ... This (Prop. 123) is intended as the first step, so we don't want to offend anybody."
All employees at Chandler, Gilbert, Paradise Valley and Phoenix Union will divide varying shares of the Prop. 123 funds.
That's the case in many, if not most, other districts. A more precise answer is elusive because the state is not comprehensively tracking how the Prop. 123 funds are spent.
Buckeye Elementary is granting 4.85 percent stipends to all employees across the board. That means $581,000, or 61 percent, is going to teachers. It also means Kristi Sandvik, the superintendent, will get an extra $6,559.
Nate Bowler, business manager for the district, said the spending is a way of rewarding employees, especially those who have stuck around the longest.
The Cartwright School District is spending its roughly $4 million in Prop. 123 dollars on salary increases for all 2,544 employees — "nothing else," wrote spokeswoman Veronica Sanchez. All employees will get a one-time 6 percent pay raise in November and the funds will be used for a 4 percent base pay increase for all employees starting in the 2017-18 school year.
Buses, debt and technology
The spending plans reflect the needs, sometimes cast in dire terms, for schools large and small. It also underscores the limited reach of the extra resources.
Whitney Crow, superintendent of the Mohave Valley Elementary School District, has proposed to use 85 percent of the money on "returning bonuses" for all employees. The other money would go to other needs.
"When our Legislature chooses to continue to cut our capital funds (cut 86 percent this year down to $75,000 — and a new school bus costs well over $150,000), you end up with a lot of unfunded projects over the past several years," Crow wrote in an email last week.
The Douglas Unified School District plans to put about 14 percent of its funds toward teacher raises worth $400 each. Support staffers get 25-cent hourly raises and administrators get nothing from Prop. 123. About $507,000, or 69 percent of the district's Prop. 123 funds, will go to other needs, such as debt reduction and technology upgrades, according to the district's business manager.
In some cases, teachers won't get anything from the measure. The Seligman Unified School District plans to use its Prop. 123 funds to help settle a lawsuit for overpayment of taxes by Transwestern Pipeline. The district's share of the settlement cost "came to 10 percent of the current budget, an overwhelming amount for a small district," said Diane Pritchett, the superintendent.
Scarpinato, Ducey's spokesman, said educational and political observers will be watching how districts spend the money over the next decade.
"One of the big sticking points for additional money was whether the money would be spent effectively, whether it would be spent for the kids, and for the teachers," he said. "I think people are going to be watching this very closely, and if we're going to be advocating for additional dollars, it's really important that we're able to go back and say, 'Here's how the dollars were spent. They were spent in an effective way, and that we're seeing outcomes from it.' "