PHOENIX — A key Republican lawmaker is moving to give legal protections to teachers who say they don’t want to walk out in the statewide strike.
House Majority Whip Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, is telling teachers who oppose the job action to send emails at her official state address detailing that they want to go to work but can’t because the school is closed. Townsend said she will write back — and from her official state email account — to provide proof that they made that claim.
That’s important because state Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas is issuing warnings that she will refer complaints against teachers for abandoning their jobs to the state Board of Education. She said the board can investigate and, if appropriate, rescind the teaching certificates of strikers.
Douglas acknowledged that the odds are against the state board decertifying tens of thousands of teachers, especially with schools already unable to find certified teachers for thousands of classrooms. The teacher shortage has resulted in increased class sizes in some cases and courses being taught by long-term substitutes in others.
But Douglas said the board has other options, such as a censure.
None of this is likely to come into play, however, at least for the rest of the week.
Stefan Swiat, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education, said a teacher runs afoul of the law by abandoning his or her job.
But many of the teachers are instead taking personal days Thursday and Friday, to which they are entitled in their contracts. And that means no breach of contract and no chance of punishment, Swiat said.
Townsend also is working with attorneys to explore the possibility of a class-action lawsuit on behalf of people who might be financially harmed by the strike, she said.
That specifically includes families who might have to reschedule a long-planned vacation or change airline reservations for a planned graduation ceremony that may have to be rescheduled.
Townsend declined to identify the law firms involved, saying they are still planning their strategy.
She also had no answer for the question of who would be the defendant in any lawsuit seeking damages.
Townsend said, though, she would not want to penalize individual teachers.
Douglas said what’s happening Thursday and Friday raises another issue, with some districts closing their schools in anticipation of a walkout.
“I would like to know how a governing board or a school superintendent ratifies an illegal action by just closing the schools,” she said.
Douglas brushed aside the contention that such a move may be appropriate, given that district officials fear not enough employees will show up to open the schools and operate them safely.
“You don’t know that,” she said. “Has every single principal sat down with his staff and said, ‘Are you going to walk out or do you want to be here?’
“I bet you we’re going to find a whole lot of people who want to be at work but can’t be.”
That is backed, at least in part, by the tally of last week’s vote by the Arizona Education Association and Arizona Educators United. They said that of the 57,000 people who asked for ballots — teachers and support staffers — 78 percent voted to strike.
That means more than one out of every five people who voted were against the walkout.
But Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, said the local board members who decided to close schools are doing the right thing.
“You trust that your school leadership has done their homework,” he said, and have looked at contingency plans about what it takes to keep a building open and safe.
“It would be irresponsible to have school if you’re not staffing it appropriately,” Ogle said.