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August 31, 2015

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Teacher pays for advanced education only to face possible pay cut

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Christopher DeVargas

Andrew Slocum and his wife Natalie, both teachers at Greenspun Middle School, are upset CCSD will not honor education increases under a new contract being arbitrated in courts, Tuesday April 16, 2012.

Andrew Slocum: CCSD Teacher

Andrew Slocum, a teacher at Greenspun Middle School, is upset CCSD will not honor education increases under a new contract being arbitrated in courts, Tuesday April 16, 2012. He will be stuck with $10,000 in students loans for additional certification if the district wins its arbitration battle with it's teachers union. Launch slideshow »

These days, Andrew Slocum feels duped by the system to which he has devoted his entire life’s work.

Last year, the Greenspun Junior High librarian shelled out nearly $10,000 on an advanced teaching certificate to further his career.

Slocum scrimped and saved — forgoing vacations and even borrowing money from his in-laws and his 4-year-old son’s college fund — to complete the Center for Teaching Excellence’s continuing education program.

Completion of the courses qualified Slocum, 37, for an “education increase” of about $3,000 under a contract between the Clark County School District and its teachers union.

However, that raise may be revoked if an arbitrator sides with the district in its nearly yearlong contract dispute with teachers. Facing nearly $64 million in budget cuts, the district has asked teachers to give up raises for earning master’s and other advanced teaching certificates.

About 2,180 teachers — or about 12 percent of the district’s teachers — would be affected by this potential concession, their raises gradually and retroactively retracted from their paychecks in the coming months.

But teachers also face a “double-whammy,” Slocum said. Not only will their raises be retracted, but teachers also would be saddled with thousands of dollars of student loan debt in pursuit of a degree or certificate that didn’t pan out financially.

“I feel betrayed and sad they’re going back on their promise to us,” Slocum said. “A lot of us took that bait, and now we’re in a lot of trouble.”

•••

When Slocum moved from his native New York to Las Vegas in 1997, it was a completely different era.

Las Vegas was one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions and the district was bursting at the seams. As its population nearly doubled, Clark County scrambled to build more than 100 new schools and attract thousands of teachers to address the massive influx of students.

Slocum was just one of many teachers heavily recruited to Las Vegas.

“I was really happy for the opportunity to teach here,” Slocum said. “I felt like I could make a difference.”

Slocum started at a $27,000 base salary. To move up the pay scale, Slocum knew he needed to bide his time and further his education.

After 14 years with the district and earning his master’s degree in arts education, Slocum commanded a $60,000 base salary at the start of the 2010-2011 school year. To continue moving up, Slocum had one option: to earn an advanced teaching certificate through the Center for Teaching Excellence.

The center was founded in 2006 after a memorandum of understanding between the School District and the Clark County Education Association. Originally union affiliated, the center was created to increase the supply of highly qualified teachers in the district.

Operating like Expedia.com, the Center for Teaching Excellence would connect teachers with accredited colleges with teaching programs. Teachers would get a bulk discount for taking these courses through the center, and they would be rewarded with higher compensation for completing them.

Slocum dished out $9,900 for three courses, spending more than 500 hours outside of work to earn 54 CTE credits. For completing the program, Slocum’s base salary was raised $3,146 this school year.

However, as the school year started, Slocum was notified that the district was considering freezing salary step and education increases. Slocum was stunned.

He would be losing about $800 in step and about $3,100 in education increases. His wife, Natalie — a Greenspun eighth-grade science teacher who makes $38,652 a year — would give up a $1,500 step increase.

And because of the way the district’s pay scale operates, lost wages from the salary freeze would be compounded for the rest of their careers, Slocum said. He reckons his family would be losing $60,000 over the course of their careers.

“I understand the district is in a tough situation and sacrifices have to be made,” he said “But at least they could have sent out an email warning us they were going to do this retroactively, or at least grandfather people in. Anything that’s more fair than this.”

•••

Slocum, visibly upset, aired his grievances at a recent School Board meeting. He talked of his sacrifices: vacations, hard-earned cash and perhaps the most valuable — time with family and friends.

All of it was for naught, Slocum said. Although he received his education raise this school year per the district contract, Slocum said he’s been wary about spending any of it. Instead, he’s been saving it, just in case he’d have to give it back.

Slocum is still saddled with $25,000 in student loan debt from his undergraduate and master’s degrees. He’s underwater on his $200,000 home. The salary step and education raises would have given him some breathing room in his already-tight budget, Slocum said.

“This is the first time I’ve felt embarrassed to be a teacher because I have to beg for the salary I deserve,” he said, addressing School Board members.

As hundreds of teachers like him sit in limbo waiting for the arbitration decision, lives are being placed on hold, Slocum said. His plans for a second child are being postponed. His wife is putting off getting a master’s degree in counseling.

“We’re very confused and very scared,” Slocum said. “We love the School District, but we feel so betrayed now. We’ve given everything to this district.”

Staci Vesneske, the district’s chief human resources director, said teachers were warned over the summer about the possibility the district would not honor education increases. By fall 2011, the union had informed its members, as well.

Everyone has had to make sacrifices, Vesneske said. Because salaries and benefits account for nearly 90 percent of all district expenditures, that’s where some of the cuts will have to come from, she said.

“I understand the frustration teachers feel, but I also understand the frustration the district feels when faced with our terrible budget situation,” Vesneske said, noting the district has cut more than $535 million from its budget since 2007.

When the economy rebounds, Vesneske said the district hopes to unfreeze salary step and education increases. At that time, the 2,000 teachers who earned master’s degrees or advanced certificates last year once again would receive their raises, she said.

“We all believe teachers deserve to be paid more,” Vesneske continued. “I know how hard this is, and we know teachers are disappointed, but this is what’s best for our students at this time.”

•••

Slocum doesn’t buy it.

As the district contemplates expanding its technology budget by $65 million, asking voters for a $5.3 billion capital program and ramping up professional development and new reforms, Slocum says he sees a lot of money spent on things other than teachers.

“We see money spent in a lot of other areas besides salaries,” he said. “I don’t believe they don’t have the money.”

Natalie Slocum agreed.

“There’re a lot of mixed signals,” she said. “They’re basically penalizing us for pursuing higher education. What kind of message does that send to the kids?”

As the arbitration decision looms, teachers understand they’re in a lose-lose proposition, Andrew Slocum said.

If the district wins, teachers would lose their salary step and education increases — and some of them would be left hanging with thousands of dollars in additional student debt.

If the union wins, nearly 1,400 teachers may lose their jobs as the district struggles to find a way to balance its budget.

Regardless, the Slocums said they planned to continue working hard for their students.

“We love our jobs; we love our work,” Natalie Slocum said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else. But this makes it harder and harder to enjoy what I do.”

Teachers aren’t opposed to the district, Andrew Slocum said. They want students to succeed, but they also want to be compensated fairly and for the district to uphold its promises, he said.

“They should have known they didn’t have the money. They should have told us before I took these classes,” he said. “The budget is, of course, a numbers issue, but in reality, it’s a people issue. I hope the (School Board) considers its people first: teachers and students.”

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