Friday, Dec. 9, 2011 | 12:19 a.m.
The Clark County School District approved a contract with its support staff union on Thursday that would avoid outsourcing union positions for three years and save the district $34.7 million.
Meanwhile, about 200 teachers rallied at the meeting in group solidarity to air their concerns over the School Board's proposed concessions and working conditions for them.
The finalized agreement with the support staff comes after four months of negotiations between the School District and the Education Support Employees Association, which represents more than 11,000 custodians, bus drivers and office, maintenance and kitchen workers.
“We started out pretty rough and it didn’t seem like we were going anywhere, but slowly we advanced,” said Brian Christensen, the union’s executive director. “The $34 million provided to the district, that’s no small amount of money. We hope that’s appreciated and never forgotten.”
The union — which numbers about 6,000 members — ratified the contract on Saturday by a vote of 183 to 56 members, or a 76 percent approval rating by those present at the meeting.
Thursday's School Board vote was 5-0, with board members John Cole absent and Deanna Wright abstaining because her husband is a union member. The contract takes effect immediately, and will run through the 2013-2014 school year.
“I commend the Education Support Employees Association for being a partner while we all manage the constraints of a downturned economy,” Clark County Superintendent Dwight Jones said in a prepared statement.
Under the contract, support staff employees will continue to pay half of their pension rate increase in exchange for a no outsourcing guarantee from the district.
The union was worried about the district replacing in-house employees with private workers since the Gibson Consulting Group recommended in September to outsource custodial and transportation services as a “measure of last resort” to balance the School District budget.
The Austin-based consultants estimated that outsourcing 1,500 custodians would save the district $10.4 million each year, and outsourcing 1,500 bus drivers would save about $11 million per year.
Dozens of union members lobbied the School Board for months, urging the district to keep in-house employees. Concerns were raised over the quality of work and safety to children posed by hiring outside companies to drive school buses and clean classrooms.
“Our support staff employees can celebrate the holidays knowing that when they come back, their jobs will be there,” union President John Carr said. “I’m satisfied. We prevailed.”
The contract also allows the union to pay for a portion of the pension rate increase as well as employee step increases for the next two years by pulling $30.2 million in leftover funds from the union’s defunct health trust. The district moved its support staff employees over to a private health insurer in 2001; the district is advocating the same for its teachers union.
The money will fund union raises up to June 2013, after which salaries would revert to June 2011 salary levels unless additional money is found, according to School District spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson.
Carr said he was confident that by that time, the economy will have improved and that more state funding would be allocated to the School District.
“It will get us through this economic crisis,” he said.
Although the School District has finalized contracts with its administrators and support staff, it is still seeking a contract with its teachers union, which declared an impasse in August after four negotiations. Since then, the district and the Clark County Education Association met four more times and are currently going through the arbitration process, whereby a third-party judge will decide the outcome.
The cash-strapped district is seeking $39 million in union concessions this year and an additional $39 million next year to close its budget gap. Proposed concessions include freezing salary and step increases, lowering salaries to pay for pension cost increases and moving teachers away from the Teachers Health Trust to a private health insurer.
“We want to come to an agreement that keeps teachers in the classroom as well as lets us live within our means,” Fulkerson said.
Last week, Superintendent Jones warned school principals to prepare to shed nearly 1,000 teaching and other licensed positions should the teachers union win the arbitration. Schools could lose up to seven teachers, depending on how many students they have, according to a memo from the district’s human resources department.
“If the teachers union prevails (in arbitration) and we’re forced to give raises, we have to find savings somewhere and those saving, unfortunately, are going to equate to jobs because that’s where we spend the most money,” Fulkerson said. “The bottom line is, if we win, salaries stay the same and everyone gets to keep their job. If the teachers (union) wins, some teachers get raises, while hundreds of others get pink slips.”
CCEA President Ruben Murillo doesn’t see it that way. He said the School District should look at other ways to plug the budget gap, notably an estimated 20 percent increase in sales tax revenue — which accounts for 30 percent of the district’s budget — and an additional $111 in per pupil funding allocation from the state next year.
“I think (the School District) has more than enough to get by,” he said, adding union members were “taken aback” by the superintendent’s warning about potential layoffs last week. “Being told they were going to lose their job, teachers were upset by that. A lot of them were angry.”
About 200 teachers wearing red CCEA T-shirts packed the School Board meeting Thursday to air their concerns over the proposed concessions and working conditions. About 25 teachers spoke collectively during an hour-long public comment session about being “overworked, underpaid and underappreciated” and urging the district to “invest in teachers.”
“Our members are under a lot of pressure, working their tails off,” Murillo said. “They feel overwhelmed, tired and pushed to the edge.”
One by one, the teachers came up to the podium, some with angry tirades and others tearful outbursts. At times, School Board President Carolyn Edwards had trouble keeping the audience from clapping and speakers from talking beyond their two-minute time limit.
“This is not about teacher greed,” said teacher Stephanie Swain. “We want to do what’s right by students ... (but) I need you to have my back.”
Several teachers lamented paying thousands of dollars to receive master’s degrees to qualify for higher salaries. They are afraid their efforts would be for naught should the district freeze salary increases for education.
Gretchen Byers, a second-grade teacher at Glen Taylor Elementary School, said she shelled out $6,000 for her master’s degree. The single mother of two children said she “scrimped and scraped” for tuition and is in the process of purchasing a house in anticipation of the pay raise.
“I will assuredly lose the home if you take away my raise,” she told School Board members. “I earned this raise and I have a right to keep it.”
Others took issue with pay cuts, “70-hour work weeks” and mounting workloads from additional testing and curriculum changes.
“Why are teachers expected to do more with less?” a teacher asked the board.
After the hour-long public comments, Edwards thanked teachers for their input and work.
“We know you make great sacrifices for our children and we know you are the core of what we do,” she said. “We still value you and recognize the hard work that you do.”