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July 2, 2015

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Two generations of teachers say enough is enough

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Steve Marcus

Geoff Walker, an English teacher and assistant football coach at Foothill High School, and his wife, Shelby Walker, a geography teacher at Mannion Middle School, stand outside their home in Henderson Thursday, June 2, 2011.

Teachers - The Walker Family

Geoff Walker, an English teacher and assistant football coach at Foothill High School, looks on as his wife Shelby Walker, a geography teacher at Manion Middle school, plays with twins Colbie, left, and Kenna, 3, at their home in Henderson Thursday, June 2, 2011. Launch slideshow »
Dwight Jones

Dwight Jones

Life in the Walker family revolves around the Clark County School District.

Between retired teachers Bill and Denise, and current teachers Geoff and Shelby, the Walkers have a combined experience of 75 years in the district.

They’ve seen it deal with rapid population growth, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and far-reaching education reforms. With all these tumultuous changes, some are giving up on the district.

The older couple said they had enough and retired early. And the younger couple? They are contemplating not sending their children to Clark County schools -- or maybe moving out of Nevada altogether.

If they stay, this is what the younger couple will have to brace for: The School District faces a record $150 million budget deficit next fiscal year. To bridge the funding gap, officials are seeking concessions from the teachers union: furloughs and pay cuts.

Further, more is expected of teachers under the leadership of new Superintendent Dwight Jones. Teachers are expected to deliver higher test scores and graduation rates under reforms that make student performance a major part of teacher evaluations.

Denise Walker had enough. The 59-year-old Foothill High School English teacher retired this month after 27 years with the School District.

She could have stayed on for 29 years, like her 62-year-old husband Bill Walker, who retired four years ago from Silverado High School. However, with a looming pay cut and increased demands, Denise left the district two years early.

“I just felt worn down by the lack of respect and the way they’re chipping away at our livelihood,” she said. “Teaching has been a really rewarding experience … but I feel it’s my time to go.”

Denise’s 34-year-old son, Geoff, is considering leaving the district as well. The Henderson native is an 11-year English teacher at Foothill High School and an assistant football coach.

Geoff had planned to raise his 3-year-old twin daughters with his wife, Shelby, 32, in the Clark County School District, but with looming pay cuts and education reforms, Geoff is having second thoughts.

“In the back of your mind, you’re thinking, is this the right place to be?” Geoff said. “If it comes to the point where financially, it’s untenable to be here, where we can’t save or make a living, I don’t know what other choice we have.”

Geoff and Shelby are considering moving to the Northwest, where they feel teachers won’t be “under attack.”

“Teacher morale is at an all-time low,” Shelby said. “There’s more and more asked of us, but we have fewer resources, more kids, more standardized tests and curriculum changes.

“We have to do more, but we’re getting paid less.”

Emphasis on testing

When Bill and Denise Walker began teaching here more than three decades ago, Las Vegas was just a quarter of the size it is today. The Northern California transplants moved to the valley, enticed by the prospect of teaching in a growing city.

“There was a flood of teachers at the time in Northern California,” Bill said. “There was no opportunity there so we came down here.”

It was different then. Teachers were given more autonomy with their lesson plans and how they structured the curriculum, Bill said.

“You were told what was in the curriculum, but it was up to you how to teach it and when to teach it,” he said. “Now the measure of a good teacher if whether they can bring home test scores. That wasn’t a factor in the old days.”

The elder Walkers began to see an increased emphasis on testing after the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. The law instituted a standards-based education reform, which tied federal education funding to how students performed on state assessments.

This increased accountability for school districts such as Clark County, which had never kept as stringent records on its students and how they performed as they do today. However, all the new record keeping also meant more work for teachers, Denise said.

“We’re at our computers, double-checking attendance, posting weekly lesson plans with standards, tracking grades … it’s a lot of extra work,” said Denise, who in her last year taught English literature to 180 students. “You’re not just teaching all day — you’re bookkeeping. It’s an overwhelming job.”

For Bill, who taught English at several high schools, the passage of No Child Left Behind changed teachers’ relationship with administrators.

“All that matters now is if kids are passing the test or not, and it’s pitted the teachers more than ever against the administration,” Bill said. “Administrators are pressured to bring in test scores and raise graduation rates, and teachers are trying to enrich kids and prepare them for the future … You can hammer that test day in and day out, but nobody’s enriched.”

Under Jones’ new reform proposal, teachers would be evaluated less on seniority and more on their students’ performance on standardized tests. Teachers such as Geoff and Shelby said they generally support new education reforms, they are unsure how this particular change will work.

“There’s a lot of anxiety there. How are you going to evaluate an art teacher versus a science teacher?” said Shelby, a world geography teacher at Mannion Middle School. “You can’t hand a kid a test, and then have our livelihood, our mortgage, our families riding on it.”

“That’s the kind of thing that’s scary to all of us,” Geoff added. “You have absolutely no control what’s going on with these kids.”

Pay cuts

Geoff Walker was drawn to teaching “because it allows you to have a nice family life.” The 1995 Cimarron-Memorial High School graduate grew up watching his father teach English and coach track and field at his alma mater.

“My parents were always there for all the things that I did, and I’d like to do the same for my kids,” Geoff said. “You’re always on the same time with your kids. That was one of the most important things for me” when choosing a profession.

Click to enlarge photo

Geoff Walker, an English teacher and assistant football coach at Foothill High School, looks on as his wife, Shelby Walker, a geography teacher at Mannion Middle School, plays with twins Colbie, left, and Kenna, 3, at their home in Henderson on Thursday, June 2, 2011.

Following in his parents’ footsteps, Geoff started teaching in the School District soon after he graduated from UNLV. He began with a $26,000-a-year salary, but between working more than a decade in the district and getting his master’s degree in education, Geoff is earning about $58,000 annually teaching English to seniors at Foothill High.

Combined with his wife’s salary of about $56,000, the younger Walkers are making a comfortable living. They don’t drive luxury vehicles or splurge on expensive vacations, opting instead on camping trips at nearby national parks.

But like many families in the recession, the Walkers have had to scale back as they pay down their mortgage on a $225,000 Anthem home they bought through foreclosure in 2008. Their monthly mortgage payment is $1,800.

The Walkers’ twins, Colbie and Kenna, were born four months premature, and although the teachers’ health trust saved the family from bankruptcy, they are still shelling out thousands of dollars in doctors visits and procedures for their children’s residual health issues.

“They shouldn’t be alive, but they are,” Geoff said. “We shelled out $10,000 last year in co-pays for medical expenses. If you’ve got little kids, they get sick and if you’ve got twins who were born premature, they get even more sick.”

Next year, the Walkers want to send their daughters to preschool, which costs $1,300 a month for both children. “It’s almost like a second mortgage payment to put your two kids in preschool,” Geoff said.

This summer, the School District plans to negotiate with the teachers union for concessions to plug the $150 million budget hole. The concessions might include a combination of freezing step increases, establishing furlough days and having employees pay more for their retirement. If an agreement isn’t reached, 800 district positions could be in jeopardy, officials said.

Click to enlarge photo

Geoff Walker, an English teacher and assistant football coach at Foothill High School, and his wife, Shelby Walker, a geography teacher at Mannion Middle School, at their home in Henderson on Thursday, June 2, 2011.

It’s the worst financial situation Bill and Denise Walker have seen for teachers in Southern Nevada, they said.

“We didn’t have to worry about missing out on our step increases,” Denise said. “We got what we were promised. Now the district is reneging on those promises for longevity pay, step increases and increases for advanced degrees. They have chipped away at all those negotiable elements of our contract.”

The younger Walkers are feeling the financial squeeze. They are looking at household budget cuts of about $700 a month next year, they said.

“We didn’t get into this profession to make a mint,” Shelby said. “We knew we would have a modest salary, quality health care and a decent retirement plan, but now all three entities are under attack.

“For the first time in my career, I’ve thought of what else would I want to do,” she said. “I love my job and it’s not that I want to do anything else, but I feel as if there may come a point financially where I have to look for another job.”

The younger Walkers are also considering moving to Oregon, where they hope to find stable teaching positions. Moving out of state is an option other teachers are thinking about as well, Geoff said.

“If you make it to the point where it’s sort of unlivable to be here, what sort of person is going to be in the room teaching your kids?” he said, explaining his worries about the future of his profession. “Who’s beating down the door to get in?”

Seeing his son — whom he raised in Clark County — move out of state would be bittersweet, Bill said, adding he would miss his grandchildren.

“It makes me sad,” he said. “I hope he doesn’t leave but I understand that people have to do what they have to do.”

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