Las Vegas Sun

October 13, 2015

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Teachers union angling for leftover federal money

But with looming deficit, district — or state — could call dibs new superintendent will have to address matter when he arrives

When Congress approved $10 billion in aid for states to save or create education jobs, about $54 million went to the Clark County School District. Now it turns out, because of bad timing, $20 million may go unspent. And the district and the teachers union seem headed toward a squabble over the money.

The Nevada Education Department administers the federal funds but wants to stay out of any fray. So it is clear that the new school superintendent and the state Legislature, which holds the district’s purse strings, may have to untangle the matter.

The money runs out in two years, and Nevada must use it or lose it.

The quandary started with Congress eager to create jobs and the district strapped for cash.

Lawmakers approved the Education Jobs Bill and President Barack Obama signed it Aug. 10. Good news for the district, which wanted the money to keep or create more than 900 jobs, including 500 teachers.

But it was too late to hire everybody for the Aug. 30 start of the school year.

Even though there is a waiting list of teachers and others — in contrast to the boom years when Clark County had to recruit teachers from out of state and abroad — candidates must still be interviewed and their backgrounds checked, including fingerprints to exclude criminals.

That can take six weeks or longer, so the start dates for some hires are being delayed until November or December.

The result, according to Walt Rulffes, the outgoing superintendent, is that by the end of the school year next year, $20 million or more may be unspent because not all new employees will be paid a full year’s salary. Since teachers are hired throughout the year, hiring levels haven’t been reached yet.

The Clark County Education Association wants the money to repay teachers who agreed in May to a $16 million giveback to help the district deal with its budget problems.

“The bottom line is instead of giving any unused money back to the state,” said Ruben Murillo, head of the union, “I would like for them to use it for the reinstatement of any salary or benefits that were cut back to help balance the budget.”

The union covers 70 percent of the district’s 17,000 teachers, who earn $35,000 to $70,000 a year. The average salary is $55,000.

Murillo has twice publicly asked School Board members to consider the union’s proposal, but Rulffes is resisting.

He speculates that state budget officials, facing a possible $3 billion deficit next year, will be tempted to further cut elementary and secondary education. Rulffes said the state might justify such cuts because the temporary federal money could be used to help operate the district. The result? The district would have to lay off administrators hired with the federal money. Administrators are usually laid off before teachers.

“Either way, whether the state takes it or the unions get it, we’re left with elimination of hundreds of jobs, including those of the 60 administrators we just rehired — talk about a bittersweet position for the district to be in!” Rulffes wrote in an e-mail.

The Education Department may want some say over the unspent money (although it says it does not), Rulffes said.

The issue will be waiting for Dwight Jones, the incoming superintendent, when he starts Dec. 15 and the Legislature when it convenes in February. Jones declined a request to comment on how he would settle the surplus money issue.

There’s also some confusion about how and when the money can be spent. A senior state official says there’s no emergency.

Gloria Dopf, deputy superintendent of public instruction for the Education Department, said the money doesn’t have to be used all in one year, “although the feds encourage that.” The money just has to be spent by Sept. 30, 2012.

She added that the teachers union is within its rights to ask for givebacks to be restored.

Dopf just wants the district and union to resolve the spat.

No matter what, the money runs out in two years, and there is no guarantee Congress will approve more funding.

That means, given the precarious state of Nevada’s finances, some or all of those newly hired are likely to lose their jobs.

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