Some teachers in the Amphitheater School District could find their salaries cut by several thousand dollars if a series of proposed budget cuts is passed by the Arizona Legislature.
Career Ladder, a performance-based compensation program for teachers in 28 school districts in Arizona, including Amphi, is recommended to be eliminated in two out of three plans presented to the Legislature by Sen. Ruth Solomon, D-Tucson. Solomon is a retired teacher from Tucson Unified School District, where she taught for 28 years.
Solomon is the chairperson of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is in the process of finding a way to eliminate the state's $1 billion plus budget shortfall.
Originally, Gov. Jane Dee Hull emphatically stated that the Legislature should not touch K-12 funding as it sought ways to balance the state's budget. But after analyzing the budget further, Solomon said the Legislature was forced to look at K-12 funding as a source of funding to alleviate the budget crisis.
"Governor Hull has reprioritized and all of us have to do that as well," Solomon said. "Proposing to eliminate any program was a difficult decision for me to make."
Amphi receives just under $3 million each year from the $35 million program, said Deanna Day, Amphi's career ladder manager. About half of that money is supported by taxpayers, as decided by voters in the district. As a rule, at least some of the program must be supported by taxpayer money in each of the districts that have the program. Even though only 28 of Arizona's school districts participate in the program, they are some of the largest districts in Arizona, which means about 40 percent of Arizona's teachers could be affected.
Day said the program consists of three parts to evaluate teacher performance: the first has to do with evaluating the teacher's instructional skills, which includes both scheduled and non-scheduled classroom visits by district administrators. The second part evaluates student outcomes based on what the teacher does in the classroom. The third and final part of the program allows the teacher to form a research question based on their teaching and its effect on students. The teacher would then write something similar to a thesis paper outlining the results of their study. All of this takes place in one year, Day said. The final evaluation of the way teachers demonstrate the three components determines whether or not they receive money, Day said.
Amphi Governing Board Vice President Mary Schuh, who is also a member of the Pima Taxpayers Association, said at first, she was "not that thrilled" by the program and the fact that taxpayers had to kick in money to help fund it, but said she now sees the program as "an excellent tool for career development."
"I like what Ms. Day has done with the program," Schuh said.
Schuh and governing board president Ken Smith will be heading up to Phoenix at the end of this month to address the board on a variety of issues about education, including, she hopes, career ladder.
"The two old curmudgeons are going to face the dragons in their den," Schuh said laughing. "We'll know more at the end of the month about what we're going to be able to talk to them about."
Amphi Superintendent Vicki Balentine might also accompany Schuh and Smith in Phoenix, depending on what happens in the next couple of weeks.
"This is the only program they're looking at that will reduce teacher's salaries when we've been trying to find ways to raise them," said Balentine, who taught for 30 years. "You bet I'll go if it's necessary."
Balentine said Day has been going up to speak to legislators on a weekly basis about the issue, which is also a comfort to John Lewandowski, the president of the Amphi Education Association.
"It would be devastating to teacher morale statewide (if the program is cut)," Lewandowski said.
Day said if career ladder is eliminated, those teachers who are participating in the program could have their salaries cut by almost 14 percent. Those teachers who have been on the program longer and are at the higher end of the career ladder pay scale could see a $7,000 hole in their salaries. Minimum payment for those teachers starting on the program is $1,000.
Day said of the 950 teachers in the district, 71 percent are participating in career ladder, which the district has had for about 18 years. Catalina Foothills, Flowing Wells, Tanque Verde and Sunnyside school district also are part of the career ladder program.
"Some teachers don't participate because it's a lot of work," Day said, but added that it is very effective in improving teacher performance, and thus, improving student learning.
"Even though only 71 percent are in the program, all of our students are affected by it because they will have a career ladder teacher at some point," Day said.
One of the main arguments for eliminating the plan is that teachers now have two performance-pay options with the recent implementation of Proposition 301. In the Amphi district, teachers who enroll in the Prop. 301 performance-pay option could earn up to $2,000.
But Lewandowski said the intent of 301 was not to replace any other performance-pay program.
"If they're using 301 as an excuse to get rid of career ladder, then they're doing exactly what the voters and the Legislature did not want to happen," he said.
Day, who also manages the 301 performance-pay program, said that the uncertainty of the 301 funds, which comes solely from state sales tax revenue, is of concern to her.
"The 301 monies just aren't up there yet," Day said.
Solomon said the uncertainty of the 301 funds was also a concern to her.
"I'm terribly concerned about that," Solomon said. "I've never liked using a regressive tax for a permanent funding source."
But she added that the Legislature has to look at all options when deciding where to make cuts.
"We have to put everything on the table," she said. "I've put a list of options on the table, most of which I don't support personally. A billion dollars is a lot of money to find."
Solomon said a decision about career ladder will probably not be made for a couple of months.
Schuh said, though, that the Legislature has only itself to blame and should not be cutting money from areas like education.
"They are just swimming upstream finding people to take money from," Schuh said. "If there's a dollar lying around, I guess they want to take it away. But we can't give up a dollar.