Board Declines Request by AJ Mentor to Seek Greener Pastures
By Daniel Dullum
Content with his coaching and teaching gig at Apache Junction High School, Ray Figueroa wasn’t looking to move anywhere else when Phoenix North inquired about his availability to fill their opening for a baseball coach.
The offer from North – a 6A Metro Division school – not only overwhelmed Figueroa, it forced him to consider a move he wasn’t planning to make. At the AJUSD Governing Board meeting on Aug. 8, the board, following executive session, voted to decline Figueroa’s request to be released from his teaching contract for the 2017-18 school year.
“(Phoenix North) contacted me, they knew who I was and they were excited. They asked if it was possible to get out of my contract,” said Figueroa, who, in two seasons at AJHS, led the Prospectors to an overall record of 48-14, the State Division IV championship in 2016 and a State 4A playoff berth last spring.
“I asked about the salary difference, (North administrator) asked about my current salary, I told him, and he laughed at me,” Figueroa continued. “He said, “We can offer you $20,000 a year more over here.
“I said, ’20 grand?’ it was like ‘Oh my God, I have to try this.’”
Figueroa said the first people he spoke with were AJHS Principal Larry LaPrise and Athletic Director Chad Cantrell.
“They each said ‘we don’t want you to go,’ I don’t want to go; this is a beautiful situation here, everything. Kids are good, and they treat me right,” Figueroa continued. “I talked to them, told them the numbers, and they just dropped their heads and said, ‘You have to try and get out of your contract. That’s just too much money, too big of a difference.
“I talked to everybody else I’m associated with here, and I don’t want to leave them. The people here are good, solid, and they’re good friends. They’re almost like family now. Everybody is telling me I have to try this.”
The Arizona State Retirement System (ASRS) calculates a member’s monthly retirement compensation based on a point system that combines age, years of service, and highest consecutive months of salary.
Figueroa told the board, “I’ve got three years until I retire; retirement is based on your three biggest salary years, and your percentage is based from that.
“I felt I had to ask. I went to the right people and they all said I had to try and get out of my contract. I told the board I have to look out for myself, my future and my family. It’s not the ideal place to go, but the money over there was such a big difference that I had to try.”
The board, which also unanimously approved a tiered contract release guideline at the same meeting, voted 5-0 to decline Figueroa’s request. Board member Mike Weaver said, “I sympathize … It’s true that you have huge value in this district and you would have huge value to Phoenix Union (district). But they acted unprofessionally and irresponsibly in offering someone a contract who’s already under contract to a different district.”
“After they came back (from executive session) they explained why they couldn’t let me go. What surprised me was it was based on teaching – nothing to do with coaching.
“I walked out and asked my colleagues, ‘Did they just ask about coaching this whole time?’ They said, ‘Yeah. Nothing about teaching.’ I’m on a teaching contract, not a coaching contract. That’s what I was trying to get out of.
“(The board) said, ‘No. You have to think of the kids and that kids are staying at this school because of me. They’re not leaving because of me, and they’re not letting me out of my contract.’ So what am I supposed to do?”
Figueroa was told he shouldn’t have signed his contract, but, he explained, “Most baseball coaches don’t know about any openings until mid-summer.
“Coaching is what gets PE teachers into a school district. If I was an economics or math teacher, I could write my ticket. I was asked why I signed my contract, and I said, ‘most openings don’t show up until mid-summer. If I was a football coach, those openings would have been posted way before my contract was up and you’re aware of it.’
“So it is what it is.”
Cantrell said, “Fig let me know when he got the offer, and it made sense for him and where he’s at in his career. He’s done a lot for our program and a lot for our school, and I want to support Coach Fig in where he wants to go.
“I think we had some ideas on making sure we would take care of the team and the students who count on us as a program. We had a plan if the board decided to let Fig out of his contract and we’d make sure we would take care of our students. We would have put something in place to do right by the families.”
Coming to Terms
Figueroa said he has filed an appeal to get out of his contract, “but I haven’t heard anything since.” In the meantime, he continues his duties of teaching Phys-Ed and coaching the Cactus Canyon baseball players this fall, looking forward to the 2018 4A baseball season.
“We’re going to move forward,” Cantrell said. “He’s a great coach and person. He’s not going to quit on our kids – that’s not the kind of person he is. I have complete faith in Fig and what he’s going to do for us.”
Figueroa said that honoring his current contract is “easy to do, because the people here are good – my bosses, my coworkers, they’re solid people. So I’m still coming to a place that’s still enjoyable. It’s ideal and what anyone would look for. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve got to look out for myself and my family. If all was equal, I’d never leave here.
“I don’t want to leave, the people here don’t want me to leave. But if you’re offered that kind of money, whether it’s across the street or across town, most people are going to take it.”