October 11, 2019

TUSD board member resigns, Arizona schools superintendent, unions making waves

Plus, understanding the key differences between NAFTA and the USMCA.

The search began last week to fill a vacancy on the board for the Tucson Unified School District. Mark Stegeman announced his resignation. Voters first elected him in 2008 and he won re-election twice. With 15 months left in his current term, Stegeman joined Lorraine Rivera in studio to explain why this was the time to step down.

“It's partly my family obligations, which have increased a lot,” Stegeman said. “Although I think we’ve made a lot of progress, I think it’s hard to see where we’re going to get to where I envisioned the district. Which is really to be the best district in the country. I’ve always felt that was possible, that we have the assets, and that’s still possible. But the road looks very challenging.”

“The community needs to make a decision ... does it want TUSD to be a strong, really much improved district? And if the community wants that, it’s going to have to elect a strong board with a common vision that gets a superintendent that shares that vision and is willing to break some china,” Stegeman said. “There is not the will in the current management structure.”

After her inauguration in January, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said she hit the ground running. A political newcomer and educator herself, Hoffman shared her priorities in 2020 and reflected on what she views as her biggest accomplishments so far.

“There’s many that I’m proud of, one I’d love to highlight is the focus on the social-emotional supports of our students, because far too many of our students have experienced some sort of trauma in their life and are coming to school dealing with mental health challenges,” Hoffman said. “But I would say as an accomplishment it feels like the stars are aligning. We’re getting lots of federal funding, state funding to support the social-emotional well-being of our students.”

Hoffman said during the next legislative session her office will advocate for more resources for special education.

“I think there’s actually a good amount of bipartisan support. There’s been a lot of working groups around how we can properly fund special education, and that’s an issue I’m very passionate about because we know that our students with disabilities are often some of our most disadvantaged,” Hoffman said.

In a state where union membership falls well below the national average, lately unions have made waves in a number of industries, including health care and journalism. Employment attorney Barney Holtzman offered insight on the role of unions and workers’ rights in Arizona. He began by explaining the difference between right-to-work and at-will employment.

“A right-to-work state means that the employer cannot force the employees to be members of a union to work at their place, so right-to-work really only deals with the union workforce,” Holtzman said. “A lot of people confuse with an at-will state, which Arizona is an at-will state, which means that your employment relationship can be terminated with or without cause, and with or without notice.”

Holtzman also explained how collective bargaining works once a union is established and how the contract negotiated with an employer can alter the workplace. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2018 about 5% of workers in Arizona belonged to a union. Nationally, the rate climbed to 10.5%.

After Arizona’s first nurse’s union staged a one-day strike in Tucson late September, Arizona 360 spoke to registered nurse and union member Christine Valenzuela about her support for unions and a desire to see their reach expand.

“Truthfully, I don’t want to stop at just St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s. I want to work on Arizona and get these hospitals unionized,” Valenzuela said.

Last October, nurses at St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s hospitals voted to join the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United. Today it has nearly 900 members. Valenzuela, a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital, currently serves on the union’s bargaining committee. The union is still in the process of negotiating its initial contract with Tenet Healthcare.

“Something that really appealed to me with the union is the strong patient advocacy that they achieve because of collective action,” Valenzuela said.

Last month’s strike involved 6,500 nurses at a dozen Tenet hospitals in California, Arizona and Florida. Tenet declined an interview, but sent a statement that said in part, “We are disappointed that the union undertook a strike action in Tucson, which in our view was not constructive or necessary. St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s hospitals continued to provide quality, compassionate patient care during the one-day strike called by the labor union representing many of our nurses.”

Valenzuela said the union took all necessary legal steps and gave the hospitals 10 days-notice to make other staffing arrangements.

This week, newsroom staff at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix also voted in support of forming its own union, known as the Arizona Republic Guild. Prior to that vote, Lorraine Rivera spoke to reporter Perry Vandell via Skype about his support for unionizing.

Vandell said talks began at the start of the year after the company laid off two employees. In 2015, he was also laid off by the paper and was rehired two years later.

“I know personally how devastating it can be to be laid off from the paper that you love so much. I had zero notice, I had maybe two weeks of severance and my health insurance would be gone by the end of the month,” Vandell said. “What we’re trying to do is give people more notice, a longer runway and fight against layoffs when they do inevitably occur.”

Concerns about layoffs arose when a merger between the Republic’s owner Gannett and GateHouse Media was announced earlier this year.

“GateHouse is set to buy Gannett and has publicly spoken about $300 million in cuts. And those cuts have to come from somewhere and will likely come from our own newsroom,” Vandell said.

While the future of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement remains unclear, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that more than 700,000 workers in Arizona depend on free trade and keeping trade routes open. The deal the USMCA would replace, NAFTA, remains in effect. Jeff Kucik is an expert in trade law at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy. He explained some of the key differences and similarities between the two trade deals.

Arizona 360
Arizona 360 airs Fridays at 8:30 p.m. on PBS 6 and Saturdays at 8 p.m. on PBS 6 PLUS. See more from Arizona 360.
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