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Denogean: Meeting’s ground rules a disservice to union, GOP

Almost everybody in the small, crowded room raised a hand when the host asked who present was a Republican.

No big surprise there. The event was Saturday’s invitation-only meeting between Republican legislators and the GOP members of the left-leaning state teachers association.

I crashed the Arizona Education Association’s party, unaware until later that it wasn’t open to the public and Democrats were specifically not invited. But, really, in the interest of transparency, I’m not sure that it’s a good idea for public officials to take part in quasi-public forums that are closed to certain people.

It gives the impression that something sneaky is going on, even when, as with Saturday’s meeting, there’s nothing to hide.

John Hartsell, the union’s director of public information, said one Republican legislator said he hears often from union members who always turn out to be Democrats, despite the union’s claims that Republicans account for 40 percent of its membership.

The union hosted the meeting to allow Republican lawmakers, who are considering sizable cuts to fiscal 2010 K-12 funding, to hear from those Republican members of the union, people who share their philosophy of governance.

“There are some teachers and core professionals who are registered Republicans and share the values of the Republican legislators and have the ability to have a conversation with each other about why public education is important and why a continued investment in public education is important,” Hartsell said.

I don’t think the union erred in gathering together its GOP members, but specifically closing it to the odd Democrat who might have attended was a disservice to both the union and the legislators.

The meeting itself – attended by GOP state Sens. Al Melvin and Jonathan Paton, Reps. Frank Antenori and Vic Williams, and Tim Bee of the governor’s Southern Arizona Office – was innocuous and largely nonconfrontational.

Several of the questions focused on charter schools and the observation that Republican legislators have a bias toward charter schools over traditional public schools. One math teacher, who said he was losing his best students to charter schools, asked legislators to address the perception that they are trying to destroy traditional public schools in favor of charter schools.

All the legislators repeatedly expressed their support for traditional public schools. And Paton responded, in a line that got a big laugh, that there’s a perception in the Legislature that the union is trying to destroy Republicans.

He urged the teachers to become more involved with the party, perhaps to run for precinct committeemen, as a way of making sure they have their legislator’s ear.

After the meeting, Tatiana Lown, a Rincon High School French teacher, said she thought the event was productive even though she didn’t get an answer to her question about how schools can attract professionals from outside of teaching if they don’t improve the compensation.

“I heard things about what they are thinking that you don’t always hear in the newspapers,” she said.

Such as?

Lown said she had the impression beforehand that Republican legislators were more interested in taking funding away from traditional schools and putting it into charter schools. She was somewhat impressed by the support they expressed for traditional schools.

“I hadn’t heard that level of commitment,” Lown said.

But, she added, what happens with funding is also important. She said she was affected by statistics presented by the union showing that Arizona is 49th in the country in per-pupil spending, down from being in the top third of states just 20 years ago.

“I still have questions,” Lown said.

Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and adenogean@tucsoncitizen.com. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767.

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