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June 29, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

With arbitration ruling, teachers union wins battle but comes out a loser

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

A conundrum: Polls show that teachers are some of the most admired people in America. Yet, nearly half of the respondents in a 2011 Gallup poll said teachers unions hurt the quality of education, while just 26 percent said they helped.

Some of this is due to sustained attacks on unions from the conservative movement, but it’s also due to self-inflicted wounds such as we’ve seen this week from the Clark County Education Association.

In a written ruling about education that suffered from poor grammar, spelling and missing words, an arbitrator ruled in favor of the union in its contract negotiation with the Clark County School District, which means raises for some teachers and layoffs for others, according to the school district.

The union is playing right into the hands of anti-union forces, seeming to throw some of its members overboard and accepting increased class sizes in exchange for those raises.

Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, said the union believes the district has the money and should husband its resources better.

“We’re hoping to avert layoffs by working with the district to make sure their priorities are correct,” he said.

He called the arbitrator’s decision “bittersweet” because of the looming layoffs. But this would seem to be a tacit acknowledgement that the union’s victory will indeed lead to layoffs.

Murillo said the district should not have hired 800 teachers at the beginning of the school year knowing that tough negotiations were coming. He also said that once teachers announce they are retiring or leaving the district, the administration will be able leave openings unfilled rather than resort to layoffs.

But this misses the point. Unfilled positions have the same effect as layoffs: fewer teachers in classrooms and larger class sizes. What are parents supposed to think of this? Or rank-and-file teachers who will face even larger classes than the current warehouse conditions besetting many district schools?

The district, which faces a more than $60 million shortfall this coming school year, says 90 percent of its budget is personnel, which means layoffs are inevitable after the arbitrator’s decision.

In previous years — before Superintendent Dwight Jones took over in late 2010 — the district threatened layoffs during negotiations but never made good on the threats. This has union defenders saying the district is again crying wolf.

Not this time, Amanda Fulkerson, a district spokeswoman, told me.

“This is not a game of chicken. This is happening,” she said.

(If they turn out to be empty threats, I’ll be the first to write a column saying the district gamed the media; but again, unfilled positions will amount to the same thing — fewer teachers and larger class sizes.)

Fulkerson said the district has made $150 million in cuts this school year, including a 20 percent reduction in administration.

Murillo said the district has been so busy fighting the union that it has lost sight of the real problem: not enough money for education. “What I didn’t hear (Jones) do was attack the source of the problem, which is lack of proper funding for education in Nevada. We’d like to work with the district to present a plan to the Legislature to have adequate funding.”

Murillo noted that teachers haven’t received cost-of-living increases in several years (welcome to America) and spend a lot of their own money on education materials for their students and pursuing graduate work.

Fair points. According to a 2010 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, among the 20 largest school districts in the United States, Clark County ranked 13th in per-pupil spending. (The data are a little old, and years of budget cuts may make our current situation worse.)

Our district has big challenges — English language barriers, social ills such as poverty, and the difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers in such a tough environment — and we need more resources. Fine, but as of now, we have a zero-sum game. Money for raises means fewer teachers in the classroom.

And so the union has delivered, gift wrapped with a bow, an easy talking point to its critics in the Legislature. The union could have made concessions, as other public sector workers have the past few years, and kept more teachers in the classroom, thus lowering class sizes. Instead, they fought for their raises.

In other words, the union looks less like an education advocacy organization and more like just another special interest group.

Addendum: When I wrote that “The union could have made concessions, as other public sector workers have the past few years, and kept more teachers in the classroom, thus lowering class sizes,” I should have been more clear that I meant concessions in the current contract dispute. The union agreed in May 2010 to forgo raises based on experience.

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