Column: Sympathy for the teachers but also for the taxpayers

Americans deservedly have a great admiration for teachers. We all know teachers who made a huge positive impact in our own lives and in the lives of our children. We also after years of bitter experience have a deep suspicion regarding the public-school system’s ability to siphon dollars away. Arizona policymakers have made a strong commitment to increasing teacher pay, and so far, so good — districts thus far have been sending the additional state funds to teachers. Both the public and teachers, however, need to keep a keen focus on local school boards; their actions had much more to do with the frustration leading to the 2018 strike than is recognized.  Taxpayers are sometimes blamed for the state of low teacher pay in Arizona, but much of the blame lies elsewhere. Taxpayers want to help teachers, but they often find themselves pushing on a string in their attempt to do so.

Arizona has a teacher shortage. The first Baby Boomer drew a Social Security check in 2007, but the first Boomer teacher retired earlier than that. Enrollment in college teacher preparation programs meanwhile dropped 23% nationwide between 2007 and 2015. Demand for teachers is growing, supply of teachers through traditional channels is dropping. Arizona’s rapid population growth makes all of this even more of a challenge.

Christine Marsh, the 2016 Teacher of the Year, recently published a guest column in the Arizona Republic laying out a critique of Arizona education spending. I encourage you to read it before proceeding further into this column. Marsh notes that she has been teaching for 27 years, and makes less money than her 25-year-old son. This is frustrating to teachers but also to taxpayers, who want their resources focused in the classroom. The state has committed major new resources to improve teacher pay, but it will take more than state action to ensure our resources make it to the classroom.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Annual Financial Report reveals that Marsh’s district employs 603 staff but only 257 teachers. 57 percent of the district employees are in non-teaching roles. This puts a ceiling on teacher pay; funds spent paying non-teachers can’t be used to compensate teachers. The district spent $46,153,362 in fiscal year 2018 but only $12,481,997 on teacher salaries. The average teacher salary in the district dropped 5.8 percent between 2017 and 2018.

Prior to last year’s highly public teacher strike, a teacher posted her paystub on social media, creating a firestorm in the process. The teacher, a seven-year 2nd grade teacher made $35,621. I like anyone else want to pay dedicated teachers much better than this. The Arizona Auditor General reports total revenue of $10,143 per pupil in this district in 2017, which is above the statewide average. The average teacher salary in this district dropped from $48,210 in fiscal year 2017 to $40,325 in fiscal year 2018 despite flat maintenance and operations revenues.

In 2017 the voters of this same district passed an override to increase spending. The district’s employee association reported, “We are excited to announce that the November 2017 election results were in our favor and the override was passed by voters. The additional money provided by this override is going to raise the salaries of teachers and staff.”

The teacher who posted her paystub on social media however received an annual pay increase of $131.25 despite the override vote, and average salaries dropped by an average of $7,885 between 2017 and 2018. In addition, the fund balance of this district stood at $52 million on July 1, 2016 according to the Superintendent’s Financial Report but at $173 million on June 30, 2018. One cannot discern what the district plans to do with these balance funds from the report but thus far it does not seem to involve improving teacher pay.

I searched the employee association websites looking for signs of displeasure regarding the drop in teacher pay, or the percentage of funds devoted to teacher salary. I didn’t find any. Not only do teachers have reason to be frustrated with this, so do district taxpayers who supported the override.

Culturally it is easiest for district associations to point a finger of accusation at the state. This avoids the need to discuss tradeoffs in allocating resources at the local level. State lawmakers however face funding tradeoffs of their own- every dollar for instance spent on higher education, roads, health care is a dollar that can’t be spent on K-12 education. Every tax dollar raised likewise takes resources away from those who earned it and have their own competing demands.

If however we are serious about raising teacher pay, we need districts and district associations to make it a top priority. Yes I have sympathy for our teachers. Increasing pay is an important part of modernizing the profession in order to increase our ability to recruit students into the profession. I also, however, have sympathy for Arizona taxpayers. They want more of their dollars helping teachers and their aspirations on this front have been all too often thwarted.

Matthew Ladner

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