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Ben Shanahan, Arizona Daily Sun 

Coconino HIgh School’s Luke Nelson (21) dives to tag a Buckeye Union base runner Thursday afternoon during play at Coconino HIgh School.

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Gov. Ducey pushes 20 percent Arizona teacher pay hike by 2020

PHOENIX -- Hoping to head off a walkout, Gov. Doug Ducey unveiled a plan Thursday he said will provide teachers the 20 percent pay hike they are demanding -- by the 2020-2021 school year.

The governor said he believes there are enough new tax dollars coming in the state through economic development and simple population growth to immediately bump the average teacher salary in Arizona by 9 percent, to $52,725 by the new school year. That compares with $48,372 currently according to the Auditor General's Office.

There would be another 5 percent hike for the 2019-2020 school year and 5 percent more the following year, bringing the average salary by the fall of 2020 to $58,130.

It's actually only a 19 percent hike over current wages, as the governor is counting the 1 percent raise teachers already got this year.

That infusion of $684 million new dollars, on top of other state aid to schools, would still leave teacher pay in Arizona below the current national average. But it would mean that Arizona would no longer be at or near the bottom, where it is now.

For the moment, the key groups involved are adopting a wait and see attitude.

Most crucial will be the reaction of Arizona Educators United, the newly formed loose-knit group of more than 40,000 teachers and support staff which has been behind the demonstrations that have aroused public support and put the pressure on the governor.

Derek Harris, one of the organizers, said Thursday night members of the organization remain skeptical, particularly as Ducey has yet to identify exactly where he intends to get the money.

"Right now it's just words," Harris said. "He can promise all he wants."

But one thing that's clearly missing, he said, is additional money for support staff.

"We're 'Arizona Educators United,' not 'Arizona Teachers United,'" Harris said. He said there are thousands of people working at schools whose presence is necessary for education.

"They're our teammates," he said. "We can't go back to work and look at the health assistant and the cafeteria worker and say, 'Hey, my pay is great, sorry you're still making minimum wage."

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said he is approaching the proposal with a certain skepticism.

Thomas said even if Ducey can deliver on the immediate hike, there is no guarantee that the money will be there in future years. He said the only way to assure that is to put a tax hike proposal on the ballot, something the governor has refused to do -- and considers unnecessary.

And Thomas, whose organization already is backing Democrat David Garcia to replace Ducey in November, also said he lacks trust that the governor will do what he promised.

"Remember, this is the same governor that offered 2 percent over five years," Thomas said, referring to Ducey's original pay hike plan he trotted out a year ago.

Others also are keeping watch for details.

"It's an idea worth being optimistic about," said Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools. That is the group of teachers and parents which gathered enough signatures to force a public vote on the 2017 decision by lawmakers to spend more tax dollars to help children go to private and parochial schools.

She said her organization intends to watch and make sure that Ducey can deliver what he promised.

"If it really materializes, that's a good enough gesture to keep working on everything else that needs to be done," Penich-Thacker said.

What is clear is that the governor has sharply changed his position.

Just two days earlier, Ducey said he was sticking with his plan to give teachers only a 1 percent pay increase for this coming year. And he accused leaders of both Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association of "playing politics."

But the governor has been overwhelmed by events -- and specifically tens of thousands of teachers staging "walk-ins" Wednesday at more than half of the state's public schools as a show of support for that 20 percent demand. That also was designed to show that, like counterparts in West Virginia and Oklahoma, they would consider a strike.

At the hastily called press conference Thursday, Ducey insisted he has been working on the teacher pay issue "for some time." But the governor also made it clear that he is not operating in a political vacuum.

"I have been paying attention to what's going on out across the state," he said. "I've been listening and I've been impressed."

House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said it's clear that the governor's hand had been forced.

"It's amazing what a threatened teacher strike in an election year can do," she said.

The governor's plan comes on the heels of House Speaker J.D. Mesnard crafting his own proposal for a 20 percent pay hike for teachers.

But Mesnard's plan does not get teachers there until the 2022-23 school year. Potentially more significant, he funds it not with using new money but largely by diverting funds from the "district additional assistance" account, money schools are counting on for other needs, such as computers, books and even school buses.

That, according to school officials, is a non-starter.

"The Legislature's plan is terrible," said Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Association of Arizona School Business Officials. In fact, he pointed out that various education groups are now in court suing over the failure of the state to provide those funds in prior years.

Mesnard, who was at Ducey's press conference, was noncommittal in his response.

"Obviously I look forward to working with the governor," the speaker said, saying he needs more details of exactly where Ducey intends to get the money. But Mesnard agreed with the governor that the current plan -- a 1 percent raise for the current year -- was not going to cut it.

"We want to get more money into the classroom, more money into teacher pay," Mesnard continued. "And it's always been how we go about achieving that."

That, in turn, comes down to how Ducey, who had until recently insisted he was putting as much as he could into education, says he has suddenly found new cash.

"Arizona's economy is growing," he said. "And with a growing economy comes more revenues."

Development booming on McMillan Mesa private parcels

Surrounded by permanently preserved open space, the privately owned land on McMillan Mesa has become a hot spot for development.

Cavan Companies, a Phoenix-based developer, is building the lion’s share of projects on the mesa, and will soon being pouring foundations for another 132 rental bungalow units, mirroring the 23 Cavan developed and has already leased on the west side of Pine Cliff Drive.

“Phase one of the Bungalows on Pine Cliff are already fully leased,” said Allison Macaulay, the marketing director for Cavan Companies. “The dog park and other amenities, like the outdoor barbecue grills are also complete.”

The next phase, called the Bungalows on Pine Cliff Phase Two, on the east side of Pine Cliff Drive and north side of Gemini Drive, will see pouring start for the concrete pads by the end of the month, and then crews will begin vertical construction. The units will be the same style as the first phase.

“We are taking applications and have a waitlist going for phase two,” Macaulay said. “We are getting a lot of interest, Flagstaff is continuing to grow.”

The second phase will also include a clubhouse and swimming pool.

The company is also in the site planning process with the city for a three-story apartment complex on the mesa on the east side of Pine Cliff Drive, south of Forest Avenue.

“We submitted a site plan to the city for a multi-story apartment,” Macaulay said. “It will be like our other developments, very high end.”

That apartment complex will have garages for residents and will be “integrated outdoor living with the FUTS trail,” she said.

“We really value how much people in Flagstaff want to be outside,” she said.

David Cavan, the founder of the company, said last summer that the company owned the land for about 14 years before beginning to develop it. The company owns several other parcels on the mesa, including portions without any development yet.

Along Pine Cliff Drive, the Cavan properties surround the Flagstaff Senior Meadows, an apartment complex for senior citizens, and the newly opened Welbrook Transitional Rehabilitation facility. The facility provides care for senior citizens receiving post-hospital or post-operative care.

The facility is part of Utah-based Welbrook Senior Living. The Flagstaff location opened in late 2017.

East on Gemini Drive, the Rehabilitation Hospital of Northern Arizona will hold a grand opening celebration May 3. The hospital will provide specialized rehabilitative services for those who are recovering from or living with disabilities caused by illnesses, injuries or chronic medical conditions.

The hospital is a member of New Mexico-based Ernest Health.

Basis Flagstaff is in the middle of an expansion that will nearly double the size of the campus. The expansion will add classrooms, a gym, a new playground and more parking. The construction is supposed to be finished in October.

Cavan Companies is also working on another apartment complex on the east side of Flagstaff near Purina. That project is in concept planning with the city, and is expected to be three stories with a portion of the building devoted to affordable housing. The complex will have a clubhouse, pool and volleyball courts, and FUTS trail connections.

This story has been corrected to reflect the correct location of Ernest Health.

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Zinke backs off $70 Grand Canyon entrance fee

WASHINGTON — The Interior Department is increasing fees at the most popular national parks to $35 per vehicle, backing down from an earlier plan that would have forced visitors to pay $70 per vehicle to visit the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and other iconic parks.

A change announced Thursday will boost fees at 17 popular parks by $5, up from the current $30 but far below the figure Interior proposed last fall.

The plan by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke drew widespread opposition from lawmakers and governors of both parties, who said the higher fees could exclude many Americans from enjoying national parks. The agency received more than 109,000 comments on the plan, most of them opposed.

Most of the rate hikes take effect June 1, the National Park Service said. The $35 fee applies mostly in the West and will affect such popular parks as Yellowstone, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain and Grand Teton parks, among others.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the fee hikes were needed to help maintain the parks and begin to address an $11.6 billion maintenance backlog.

"Every dollar spent to rebuild our parks will help bolster the gateway communities that rely on park visitation for economic vitality," Zinke said.

Zinke thanked those who made their voices heard through the public comment process: "Your input has helped us develop a balanced plan that focuses on modest increases," he said.

The maintenance backlog "isn't going to be solved overnight and will require a multi-tiered approach as we work to provide badly needed revenue to repair infrastructure," Zinke added.

Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Park Conservation Association, hailed the new fee structure.

"The public spoke, and the administration listened," she said, noting that the plan to nearly triple fees at popular parks was opposed by a range of businesses, gateway communities, governors, tourism groups, conservation organizations and the public.

The revised fee plan is "a big win for park lovers everywhere," said Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.

"This is a prime example that activism works," Grijalva added. "The American people raised their concerns, participated in the public comment period and made sure that the Trump White House knew the proposal was unpopular."

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she was glad Zinke "abandoned his reckless plan to almost triple park fees on American families," but said the new plan lacks transparency or a full analysis of the impact fee hikes will have on park visitation and local economies.

She opposes "any action that creates barriers to accessing public lands," Cantwell said.

The fee schedule announced Thursday sets a $5 increase for all parks that charge entrance fees. Parks that previously charged $15 will now charge $20; a $20 fee will rise to $25; and a $25 fee will now be $30.

The current $30 fee is the highest charged by the park service and applies to the 17 most-visited parks. More than two-thirds of national parks will remain free to enter.

Trump puts off Syria strike decision, will talk to allies

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday put off a final decision on possible military strikes against Syria after tweeting earlier that they could happen "very soon or not so soon at all." The White House said he would consult further with allies.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned such an attack carried the risk of spinning out of control, suggesting caution ahead of a decision on how to respond to an attack against civilians last weekend that U.S. officials are increasingly certain involved the use of banned chemical weapons. British officials said up to 75 people were killed.

The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a brief statement after Trump met with Mattis and other members of his National Security Council: "No final decision has been made. We are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies."

Sanders said Trump would speak later with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May.

The Security Council scheduled another emergency meeting for this morning at Russia's request.

Although Mattis noted that military action carried risks, he also emphasized that Syrian use of chemical weapons should not be tolerated. And he insisted it remains U.S. policy not to be involved directly in Syria's civil war.

"Our strategy remains the same as a year ago," he said. "It is to drive this to a U.N.-brokered peace but, at the same time, keep our foot on the neck of ISIS until we suffocate it," referring to the Islamic State extremist group.

Mattis' remarks at a House Armed Services Committee hearing followed a series of Trump tweets this week that initially indicated he was committed to bombing Syria but later suggested he was awaiting further advice and assessment. Trump wrote in a Thursday morning tweet that an attack could happen "very soon or not so soon at all."

Later Thursday he was noncommittal. "We're looking very, very seriously, very closely at the whole situation," he told reporters.

Mattis said options would be discussed with Trump at a meeting of his National Security Council on Thursday afternoon. That meant airstrikes, possibly in tandem with France and other allies that have expressed outrage at the alleged Syrian chemical attack, could be launched within hours of a presidential decision.

Meanwhile, a team of inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog was on its way to Syria on Thursday to begin an investigation into the chemical weapons attack that has brought the war-torn country to the brink of a wider conflict, amid Western threats of retaliation and Russian warnings of the potential for "a dangerous escalation."

The fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was expected to head to Douma, where the suspected attack took place and where Russia said rebels had now capitulated to government control. The Syrian government said it would facilitate the mission's investigation, which was to begin Saturday.

Syria and its ally, Russia, deny any such attack, which activists say killed more than 43 people last weekend.

Speaking at the United Nations on Thursday, Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said the top priority had to be to avert a wider war, and he didn't rule out the possibility of a U.S.-Russia conflict. Speaking to reporters after a closed emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Nebenzia said Russia was very concerned with "the dangerous escalation" of the situation and "aggressive policies" and preparations that some governments were making — a clear reference to the Trump administration and its allies.

The U.S., France and Britain have been in extensive consultations about launching a military strike as early as the end of this week, U.S. officials have said. A joint military operation, possibly with France rather than the U.S. in the lead, could send a message of international unity about enforcing the prohibitions on chemical weapons.

Macron said Thursday that France has proof that the Syrian government launched chlorine gas attacks and said France would not tolerate "regimes that think everything is permitted."

After May met with her Cabinet, a spokesperson issued a statement saying it is highly likely that Syria's President Bashar Assad was responsible for Saturday's attack that killed dozens outside Damascus. The Cabinet agreed on the need to "take action" to deter further chemical weapons use by Assad, but added that May would continue to consult with allies to coordinate an international response.

Mattis said that although the United States has no hard proof, he believes the Syrian government was responsible for Saturday's attack. Initial reports indicated the use of chlorine gas, possibly in addition to the nerve agent Sarin. Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told NBC News on Thursday the administration has "enough proof" of the chemical attack but was still considering its response.

Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services