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September 2, 2015

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District crying wolf could hurt credibility in next budget fight

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Justin M. Bowen

Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones speaks during the 31st annual Las Vegas Perspective on Thursday, March 31, 2011, at the Four Seasons in Las Vegas.

During contract negotiations with its teachers, the Clark County School District warned of dire consequences — up to 1,000 teachers laid off — if existing teachers got raises instead of having their salaries frozen.

The district lost at arbitration and ended up issuing pink slips to 419 teachers. But, despite the warnings, all those teachers have been hired back. They didn’t lose any pay. And on top of that, on Friday, the school district said it has hired 281 new teachers.

Although that’s good news for teachers and for students, it’s also a problem for the School District: Given the district’s warning of layoffs, it now has a credibility problem.

“They said, because of unions, people will lose their jobs,” said Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas. “It turns out it was all baloney.”

During budget fights, there are so many cries that the sky is going to fall that it’s a wonder that the Legislature still has a roof. Raise taxes? Businesses will flee the state. Cut government? Might as well give the children lead-laced Slurpees.

The negotiations between the district and the Clark County Education Association became particularly harsh this year. Teachers wanted a pay raise and the district wanted a salary freeze. It went to an arbitrator, who decided the district had enough money to pay for the raises.

“As a result of the ruling, some teachers will get increases while other teachers will get a pink slip,” Clark County Superintendent Dwight Jones said in May.

The district did, technically, lay off more than 400 teachers, and pink slips were sent to the teachers this summer. But a “layoff” in which you get hired back a few months later and don’t lose any pay, while worrisome for those teachers, is hardly the same as the common definition.

The entire episode became a battle cry for Nevada conservatives. They used it to argue for change in the system of how unions bargain with local governments, called “collective bargaining.”

They also argued a union willing to sacrifice junior teachers for pay increases for its greybeards demonstrated just how debased the institutions had become.

“So CCSD’s seven best new teachers will be rewarded with pink slips,” wrote the Nevada Policy Research Institute in May. “All because union bosses succeeded in protecting ineffective teachers that harm the learning of your children.”

Geoffrey Lawrence, deputy director of public policy for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, acknowledged that “there was hyperbole from both sides.”

Throughout the negotiations, the union maintained the School District was misleading the public and unnecessarily frightening teachers.

“We said all along that the School District had the money. The layoffs were unnecessary,” said Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association.

District officials “do have some problems being believable,” he added.

The fact layoffs didn’t ultimately occur is not to suggest that policy doesn’t have consequences. The arbitrator’s decision to give pay raises still hurts the district, school officials said. The district has 300 fewer teaching positions this year than it would have if it had won at arbitration. Class sizes will increase by two or three students, according to the district.

Amanda Fulkerson, lead spokeswoman for the Clark County School District, said Jones made a conscious decision to find positions for the teachers who got pink slips.

“Having teachers in the classrooms is what’s best for kids,” she said. “It’s also best for the community.”

She said the school district did not engage in hyperbole. “We acted responsibly,” she said. “We informed teachers what the situation was, in regards to reality.”

As for Murillo, he said he now wants to focus on improving the revenue stream — getting the Legislature to increase taxes in 2013.

But if schools can pay for raises and not lay off any teachers — indeed, continue hiring teachers — someone credible will have to sell it.

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