Tempers flare at Arizona school district board meeting amid contract controversy with Christian university
PHOENIX - Some heated exchanges took place at the site of a Phoenix area school board meeting on Mar. 9, after two dueling rallies took place outside the building where the meeting took place.
The meeting involved members of the Washington Elementary School District. The district decided in February to no longer renew an agreement they have had involving student-teachers from a Christian university, because of their supposed biblical values.
Both groups got very heated, and extra security was on hand. One of the groups fought for the board members' rights, as well as supporting the decision to get rid of the partnership and supporting LGBTQ+ students and staff.
The other group, meanwhile, fought for the students from the Christian university.
Here's what you should know about the controversy.
What is the controversy over?
According to information obtained on the Washington Elementary School District Governing Board website, The school board voted on Feb. 23 unanimously to reject a renewal agreement for Student Teacher Placement with Arizona Christian University.
The agreement with ACU, according to information, was one of three affiliation agreements that were approved by WESD's Governing Board on Feb. 22, 2018. The other two agreements were made with American Indian College and Phoenix College.
WESD reportedly has had a working relationship with ACU for 11 years.
Under the agreement, student teachers will be able to get educational experience at WESD schools, which may qualify for ACU academic credit. For the school district, the partnership also helped alleviate a growing teacher shortage.
The agreement approved in 2018 was subjected to annual renewals for five years. The prospective renewal in 2023 would have been the final possible renewal of the agreement.
"This agreement continues to be beneficial to WESD because it increases our ability to recruit new teachers. In turn, the students gain a familiarity with the District to allow a more comfortable transition into teaching," read a portion of the meeting agenda for WESD's school board meeting on Feb. 23, 2023.
The President of ACU said more than 100 students have served the district, and 25 were hired full time by the district after graduation.
While a recommendation was made for WESD's Governing Board to approve the renewal agreement, Tamillia Valenzuela, according to meeting minutes, made a motion to reject the renewal agreement.
The board members, three of whom identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, said that having student teachers with biblical values in the state’s largest elementary school district is too dangerous.
The extended agreement, as posted on WESD's Government Board website, has a term that requires student teachers to, in addition to perform with high standards at all times, comply with "all written policies and regulations of the appropriate department of the facility."
According to ACU's Student Handbook for the 2021-2022 school year, the school states that it believes "God has ordained and created marriage to exist between one man and one woman, with absolute marital fidelity."
"The Bible sets forth specific home and family values, which include the distinct roles of husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and children. It is our firm conviction that we uphold the dignity of each individual as we embrace the unchanging and longstanding principles of scriptural truth. These principles have been consistently taught and enforced since the University was found in 1960, and are essential to ACU’s religious and educational purposes," read a portion of the handbook.
In addition, the handbook states that members of the ACU community should resist and refrain from any and all sexual acts outside marriage. The handbook lists a number of sexual acts that ACU community members should avoid, which includes same-sex sexual acts.
In addition, ACU's handbook also states the college's non-discriminatory policy, which does not cover sexual orientation.
What is ACU doing in response to WESD's decision?
The university has filed a lawsuit against WESD and its board members, in their official and individual capacities.
According to legal documents posted on the website of Alliance Defending Freedom, WESD allegedly violated the religious rights of ACU and Christian students there.
The lawsuit, according to the documents, seeks an injunction for WESD's decision, as well as ordering the governing board to "reinstate and approve" the agreement with ACU for the 2023-2024 school year. The plaintiff is also seeking to prohibit the defendants from "terminating, rescinding, or refusing to enter into any future agreements with Arizona Christian for the placement of student teachers and practicum students because of the religious status, exercise, or expression of Arizona Christian or its students," as well as "pretext not related to the religious status, exercise, and expression of Arizona Christian or its students."
In addition, the plaintiffs are asking for unspecified damages.
In a statement, officials with WESD said they have been served the lawsuit, but have not had time to review it.
What are others saying about the controversy?
During the meeting on Mar. 9, dozens packed into the meeting room, with hundreds waiting and rallying outside from both sides.
"That's your religion. We have clear separation of church and state in this country," said Leda Devileger.
"This isn’t even about religion to me. The contract wasn’t terminated. It was not renewed. The board was voted in by the people, by their constituents. They made a decision. It was a 5-0 decision. There shouldn’t be a controversy. It’s down. It happened. Time to move on," said Raquel Mamani.
Supporters with the other group also spoke out.
During the Governing Board meeting on Mar. 9, it was also revealed that members of the board have received death threats.
"Adults are perpetuating bullying. They are perpetuating hatred," said board member Valenzuela.