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Parents, kids mobilize to fight school cuts

Fear larger classes, loss of enthusiastic teachers

Reynolds Elementary teacher Christopher Rodarte, dressed up for a school spirit day, gathers his third-grade class after lunch. Rodarte, who is finishing his third year of teaching, was one of 560 TUSD teachers to receive pink slips in March.

Reynolds Elementary teacher Christopher Rodarte, dressed up for a school spirit day, gathers his third-grade class after lunch. Rodarte, who is finishing his third year of teaching, was one of 560 TUSD teachers to receive pink slips in March.

The cry is the same everywhere: “Save Our Teachers, Save Our Schools.”

Reductions in force at Tucson schools could mean as many as 640 fewer teachers in area classrooms next year, creating pleas from parents and educators petrified about oversized classes.

“I have no idea what next year is going to be like,” said Heather Martin, a worried parent of two children at Reynolds Elementary who is also a teaching assistant in a first-grade class. “Both of my kids’ teachers got RIF’d. My kids are devastated. We’re losing so many really hardworking people.”

Many of the teachers who received pink slips in March are young, bringing a youthful enthusiasm and upgraded knowledge of technology needed for educating 21st-century students.

State law required that teachers be informed by April 15 if districts were not certain they would be able to rehire instructors for the next school year..

Districts are hopeful they can rehire many first- to third-year teachers who got pink slips, but it may be June before it is known how much money will come from the state, which is trying to balance a budget $3 billion in the red.

Parents speaking out

Meanwhile, the potential cuts are so severe that parental grass-roots groups are forming.

“We’ve seen parents groups rise up like we’ve never seen before,” said Superintendent Calvin Baker of Vail Unified School District.

Rallies are nearly weekly. Letter-writing campaigns to the governor and state legislators are in full swing.

Protesters are trying to lobby legislators to bring back the equalization tax – a property tax that could generate $250 million for education. It was suspended in 2006, but was supposed to resume this year. However, legislators – not wanting to increase taxes – are balking about restarting it.

PTAs and school site councils are mobilizing parents.

At Reynolds, 7450 E. Stella Road in Tucson Unified School District, the walls are lined with third-graders’ letters to Gov. Jan Brewer. Scores of other students across Tucson also are writing letters.

Students from Howenstine High, 555 S. Tucson Blvd., have picketed outside the Governor’s Office downtown and met with her representatives here.

Recently, the Reynolds PTA brought all the staff onto a stage and had employees walk off, one at a time, showing the 200 parents gathered what the staff would like next year with 10 percent and then 18 percent cuts.

“You could have heard a pin drop,” said Principal Janet Jordan. “I thing they turned a corner and instead of saying, ‘This is the way it is,’ parents said, ‘This is what we can do.’ They empowered themselves and got excited about effecting change.”

“They sat down at computers in the library to write letters to the governor. They sent postcards to state legislators. They took empty boxes with supply lists to their workplaces to ask for donations of pencils and Kleenex,” she said.

Reynolds would lose five of its 16 teachers. Christopher Rodarte would be one of them.

His third-grade students walked into class last week to find him in a big fuzzy wig and a psychedelic T-shirt. It was “Hippy Day” at school, and Rodarte goes all out.

He also is the teacher who has a tarantula in a terrarium. It is nameless now. Students are writing essays about what to call it. The most well-written essay will win.

Turtles, fire-belly toads and fish also share the classroom, all gathered by the energetic and enthusiastic Rodarte. It is that enthusiasm that Jordan, and principals across the city, are worried about losing.

Many pink-slipped teachers are young. Some are older people who have changed professions and have brought fresh ideas to teaching.

Rodarte said he may have to go back to being a waiter at Janos restaurant here. As a server, he’d make three times as much per hour, but his heart is in teaching.

Wanted: Mix of experience

Almost all the teachers have melded themselves into school communities that do not want to see them go.

“It takes a mix of different-experience-level teachers to really make a school successful,” said Steve Courter, president of the Tucson Education Association, the teachers union at TUSD.

“Some of these newer teachers have technological skills that some of the more experience teachers may not have,” he said. “We’d all lose if we didn’t get most of those people back.”

TUSD, the second-largest district in Arizona, has reduced teacher rolls by 560 for next school year. Its superintendent, Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, said she didn’t want to, but had to because of the state law.

At Cholla High Magnet, 2001 W. Starr Pass Blvd., students just beginning the International Baccalaureate program – the first at any local public high school – worry whether it will continue. Several of the teachers specially trained for IB were pink-slipped.

The numbers of layoffs at other districts are substantially smaller than at TUSD. Some districts cut no teachers at all.

• At Marana Unified, where 30 teachers are to be cut for next school year, spokeswoman Tamara Crawley said the district saved full-day kindergarten and other student programs.

The community said it wanted full-day kindergarten and the programs during forums in March, she said.

But with the reduction in teaching staff, the district will have to increase class size. Marana has historically had smaller class sizes, so this is a big adjustment for the district and community, Crawley said.

• Thirteen teachers received pink slips at Catalina Foothills Unified School District. Five are certain to be rehired, however, because of resignations or increases in enrollment for next year, said Associate Superintendent Terry Downey.

But some class sizes will increase, she said. “We were at a 21-1 (students-to-teacher) ratio in high school English, but there is a proposal to increase that to save expenses.”

• The $30 million budget at Flowing Wells Unified – where 40 teachers were told they may not have jobs next year – may be cut by $3 million, according to Superintendent Nic Clement.

“We know we’re going to have attrition,” he said, “so that should save some jobs.” In previous years, all cuts were done through attrition or retirements.

“And we hope the budget the state came out with in January isn’t what it will finally be and we’ll be able to rehire more teachers,” Clement said. “But we worry some will be looking for other jobs. We are working with each of them individually, but we can’t make false promises.

“The last thing we want to do is lose someone we’ve invested in, who has bonded with kids. There’s a reason we hired the teachers we do and to lose them is counter to our culture, to what’s good for kids.”

He said research shows the well-trained teacher makes the most difference in student performance. The more connected the teacher is to the school, the higher the achievement.

Alternatives to dismissals

Sunnyside Unified’s governing board didn’t lay off anyone for next year, saying it would rather implement furloughs, if necessary.

And in Sahuarita Unified, a possible reduction in salaries, not a reduction in force, is being considered. “We are putting a contingency into our contracts that says, if necessary, we might reduce everyone’s pay up to 5 percent,” Assistant Superintendent Manny Valenzuela said.

At two far East Side school districts, superintendents also balked at laying off teachers.

Tanque Verde Unified cut no teachers, but Superintendent Tom Rogers cut his own salary by $15,000 for 2009, from $105,000 to $90,000. One administrator, a curriculum director, was laid off.

And at Vail, Superintendent Baker chose not to plan based on the worst-case scenario.

That means if the worst does happen, Vail, by law, will have to rehire all its teachers because it didn’t give them notice.

Baker said Vail would just have to deal with it, but he doesn’t think it will happen. He said there are points in Vail’s favor.

• “We are growing, so instead of hiring new staff for those new students, we’re moving teachers to them. We’re eating our growth.”

• “We had some reserves,” a luxury, he acknowledged, that most school districts with declining enrollments don’t have.

• “We chose to take a risk. Our legislators are telling us they’re working very hard to be reasonable about funding education – and there will be some stimulus money.”

The risk is one Baker is willing to take.

“We’re not preparing for the absolute worst case because we want our teachers to be sitting around talking about what they can do for kids, not talking about who has a job or not.”

Reynolds’ principal wishes TUSD had that option. Still, she is glad district human resources officials said they would try to get rehired people back to the same schools. But no one knows how that will work.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, a founder of Tucson Unified Schools Supporters, is trying to get more people mobilized. “Parents are the majority demographic in this state – and we vote,” she said. “Elected officials must listen to us. . . . I think everyone’s efforts are making a difference, but we need to keep up the pressure on legislators and the Governor’s Office.”

Reynolds Elementary teacher Christopher Rodarte (middle) works in the school's garden with students. District officials worry that laying off so many newer teachers may diminish the enthusiasm that many of them bring into the schools.

Reynolds Elementary teacher Christopher Rodarte (middle) works in the school's garden with students. District officials worry that laying off so many newer teachers may diminish the enthusiasm that many of them bring into the schools.

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