Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Teacher unions across Nevada are refusing to make concessions in contract negotiations and lashing out against politicians who were once their allies. The source of their anger? Budget cuts and changes to education rules.
For the first time in at least a decade, both Clark and Washoe county school districts began the school year without a new contract with their teacher unions.
On Monday, the first day of school, the Nevada State Education Association, the umbrella group for all the county teacher unions, issued a scathing report card in which it gave the 2011 Legislature an F for its education policy, and many leading Democrats a D for their work.
Only a few of the state’s 17 school districts have struck agreements with their teacher unions, according to education and union officials. Among those with new contracts are districts such as Eureka County, which is flush with money from gold mining and can afford to offer pay raises.
None of the counties asking for concessions from teachers — salary freezes, larger contributions to health and retirement benefits — has reached an agreement with its union.
Hundreds of Clark County teachers could face layoffs unless teachers agree to concessions, the district warned. The last offer before arbitration was a salary freeze, foregoing so-called “step increases” — based on years of service and education — and contributing more to their retirement, according to a district statement in August.
The district is not asking teachers to take a 2 1/2 percent pay cut as the Legislature recommended in June, when it passed the state budget, including funding for schools.
But teacher unions are, in part, reacting to what they see as a broader effort to blame them and educators for problems with school systems in Nevada and nationwide.
The tough fiscal times come at a difficult time politically for teachers.
A policy trend, bolstered by President Barack Obama’s administration, is prompting lawmakers nationwide, including Nevada Democrats, to demand more accountability from educators, including evaluating them based on student test scores and making it easier to fire “bad” teachers.
During the debate at the Nevada Legislature, the state teacher union said it was painted as a anti-reform villain.
Still, some see peril in the unions’ hard line, coming as the state struggles with historic rates of unemployment. Teachers risk appearing out of touch with economic realities as they refuse to give on their demand for pay increases.
Losing step pay increases is “draconian to our teachers,” said Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association. Some schoolteachers have lost pay with the elimination of year-round schools, and step pay increases were suspended last year.
“We believe the district can pay,” Murillo said. “In the end, we don’t think there will be any layoffs.”
He said rank-and-file members are behind union leadership.
“Teachers can’t afford to give more,” he said, noting that although there have been no teacher layoffs in Clark County, many teachers’ spouses have suffered in the bad economy. “Even first-year teachers have told me even if they have to take a layoff for a year, they’d rather do that and not earn less money when they get back.”
Craig Stevens, government affairs director for the Nevada State Education Association, said the stalled contract negotiations and union’s poor grade for the Legislature were prompted by lawmakers’ failure to adequately fund education.
“The uncertainty can be laid at the feet of the Legislature,” he said. “If they funded education properly, we wouldn’t be in this mess. It’s easy to come up with a deal so they could leave Carson City on time ... The Legislature did not do (its) job.”
He said some Democrats tried to “scapegoat” the union as anti-reform, when they supported many of the changes to the education system, such as changing the tenure period from one year to three years for new teachers.
(Stevens said the state education association does not get involved in local negotiations, but provides local negotiators with information.)
A proposal by legislative Democrats to raise $1.5 billion in additional revenue failed to gain any Republican support. Although Democrats control both the Assembly and Senate, Gov. Brian Sandoval had promised to veto any tax increase and new taxes, requiring a two-thirds supermajority to pass.
In the end, the Nevada Legislature extended taxes passed in 2009 that were scheduled to expire in June.
Dale Erquiaga, senior adviser to Sandoval, said agreements should guarantee no layoffs.
“It should be possible given the level of funding agreed to at the Nevada Legislature,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the teacher unions still refuse to make concessions.”
Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, who authored some of the education bills and received a D on the state union’s report card, said her bills passed after a lot of consultation with teachers.
“I understand that as an organization they ... protect working conditions and pay and benefits, first and foremost,” Smith said. “My job is to look at all of education, and what’s best for the kids. I think our Legislature ended up passing something very balanced, and very meaningful.”
Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, who got a B minus from the union, said he understands why the unions are hesitant to make concessions.
“There’s a lot of anti-union stuff going on nationwide,” he said. “I think they feel like they’re personally attacked. People blame teachers for all the problems with education.”