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May 28, 2015

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Legislature:

Teacher tenure tug-of-war under way in Legislature

Assembly, governor examine ways to reform teacher contracts

Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas

Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas

When the time comes to lay off teachers and administrators, the Clark County School District wants to be able to consider more than just seniority — including employees’ criminal records, something not allowed by state law.

The Senate Education Committee is holding hearings on two bills this week — Assembly Bill 225 and Assembly Bill 229 — that would change the employee system teachers and administrators function under, commonly called tenure.

Those bills, sponsored by Democratic leadership, are likely to get caught in the tug-of-war over the budget and efforts by Democrats to reduce through tax increases the cuts proposed by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Even with tax increases, Democrats say there are going to be cuts in state services, such as K-12 and higher education. In preparation, the Clark County School District offered an amendment Monday to the education reform package that would allow districts to consider more than just seniority when determining who gets laid off. The districts would consider:

• An employee’s attendance;

• Performance evaluations;

• Disciplinary history;

• And whether they have a criminal record.

Those factors would be considered along with seniority, district lobbyist Joyce Haldeman said. State law allows teachers to be dismissed for “cardinal sins,” including felonies, but it can be difficult to get rid of those with lesser offenses.

Some senators were startled to learn that the district could not get rid of someone with a criminal record.

“We don’t hire people with criminal records,” Haldeman told the committee.

“But you don’t have the ability to dismiss them?” Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, said. “Oh, my.”

The bills would upend a long-held system that critics say has made it difficult to get rid of poor teachers. Under the bills:

• Teachers and administrators would be evaluated on a four-point system of highly effective, effective, minimally effective and ineffective. Currently, teachers are only evaluated as satisfactory or unsatisfactory.

• Teachers and administrators would have three-year probationary periods when hired, during which it would be easier to dismiss them or not renew their contracts. Currently, most teachers get tenure after one year.

• Teachers and administrators with two consecutive years of unsatisfactory evaluations would be placed back on probationary status.

The bills passed the Assembly, but with criticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Some Democrats said they unfairly targeted teachers. Republicans said the changes don’t go far enough.

The bills, sponsored by Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, and Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, represent Democratic leadership’s proposals to reform the state education system.

Such changes have become a bargaining point between Democrats and Republicans.

The law allows tenure, formally called “post-probationary status,” to be granted within two years, but the second year is frequently dismissed. A review of records by the Las Vegas Sun found that, over the past five years, 95 percent of new teachers in Clark County were granted tenure after their first year.

Sandoval has called for the elimination of tenure. Senior adviser Dale Erquiaga said the changes proposed by the bills represent “a good first step,” although the administration has additional amendments it would support, including:

• Elimination of a law allowing teachers and districts to ignore certain provisions of state law if they conflict with their collectively bargained contract.

• Requiring 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be determined by test scores.

Right now, Smith said Assembly Bill 222 would create a committee to develop a teacher evaluation process. “We do not have an epidemic of bad teachers. What we have is a system that needs to be reworked,” she said.

Assembly Bill 555, which contained the governor’s more sweeping education reforms, received one hearing but has not come up again.

Smith and Oceguera have been targeted by the Nevada State Education Association, which represents teachers and support staff, for their proposed reforms. On Monday, teachers union lobbyist Craig Stevens said the union opposed changes for new or probationary teachers because it would make them essentially “at-will employees.”

“You could have a bad day on Thursday and get fired on Friday,” he said.

During the boom, Smith said, Clark County hired 25,000 teachers, recruiting anyone willing to journey here from across the country and around the world. The slowdown in growth offers an opportunity for reform. Smith said she has worked on these reforms with administrators, teachers and business groups for more than a year. But she acknowledged that some Democrats want reforms tied to an increase in education funding.

“There will be people here who would have a hard time supporting major changes when others are not at the table,” she said. “We are at the table. We are serious about cutting budgets. We’re serious about reforms.”

So far, Republican lawmakers have been either unwilling to negotiate on taxes in exchange for reforms or have said that Democrats’ reforms of education, collective bargaining and employee benefits don’t go far enough.

The Senate Education Committee will consider the bills again today.

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