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July 30, 2015

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Teachers union refuses to support School District’s Race to the Top bid

The Clark County School District's bid for $40 million in federal funding may fall apart after the local teachers union declined to support its grant application.

Clark County is among nearly 900 school districts across the nation vying for $400 million in Race to the Top funds. The competitive grant program seeks to improve schools through federal recipes for education "reform," such as teacher evaluation systems and data-driven instruction.

The federal grant requires — among other conditions — that school districts receive support from the local teachers union. Applications may still be submitted without a union signature, but their chances of winning grant money is hurt.

In a letter sent last week, the Clark County Education Association, which is embroiled in a contract dispute with the district, informed Deputy Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky that the union will not be signing off on the grant application.

The union's executive director, John Vellardita — who could not be reached Tuesday night — raised several concerns about the district's Race to the Top proposal, which has not been made public.

Vellardita said in his letter that the language surrounding the teacher evaluation system emphasizes getting rid of teachers. He added that a large portion of the grant money will go toward outside vendors, such as consultants, and that he was also "deeply disappointed" the district did not engage the union in developing the grant application.

"Teachers and students need the resourcing opportunities that (the grant) holds," Vellardita said. "However, because the district has not engaged in any genuine attempts at collaboration, we will all miss an opportunity to improve teachers and learning in Clark County."

School District spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson fired back on Tuesday, saying the district was appalled by the union's decision to forgo millions of dollars to help Las Vegas children. She accused the union of using the grant as a political retribution in the arbitration battle over teachers' contracts.

Fulkerson also rebuked several of Vellardita's statements.

Only 2.9 percent of the $40 million grant will go toward consultants providing professional development to English Language Learner specialists, Fulkerson said. Furthermore, blaming the district for a new teacher evaluation system is "ridiculous," she said," because state law and Nevada's No Child Left Behind waiver mandates its implementation by the 2013-14 school year.

"We're absolutely disappointed that the union leadership has chosen to play vendetta politics to block much-needed resources to the classroom," Fulkerson said. "The irony here is we — the district as well as the union leadership — would like to see more resources in the district. This money would have gone directly to classrooms to support teachers."

In a letter to Vellardita sent Tuesday, the School District said the Race to the Top grant would go a long way toward raising student achievement amid budget cuts.

The $40 million could have provided early childhood education, technology tools and literacy training for more than 41,000 students at 63 schools, according to Chief Student Services Officer Kim Wooden.

The district could have hired an additional 22 teachers, plus another 24 support staff members dedicated to individual student education plans, mainly for the district's burgeoning population of at-risk English Language Learners, she added.

"It is unfortunate that CCEA leadership chose not to participate in the formation of the grant," Wooden said. "It is even more disappointing that the association is effectively blocking the district from applying for $40 million … at a time when we all agree that we need more resources for education."

The district took particular exception to Vellardita's assertion that the School District failed to invite the union to discuss the grant application.

Wooden counted seven instances when the district reached out to the union between July and October, with a mixed record on union responses.

Although there were a few emails and phone calls in the two weeks after the School Board voted to pursue the grant in early September, district officials did not contact union representatives between Sept. 13 and Oct. 22, according to the district's letter. After over a month of no communication, Skorkowsky presented the district's grant proposal to Vellardita during a meeting on Oct. 22.

However, Wooden said union leaders did not attend several public meetings between late September and early October when district officials sought public input from students, staff, parents and community members about the grant application.

More than 6,000 people, including 1,616 teachers, attended these meetings, Wooden said. The feedback from some of the meetings approached a 90 percent approval rating, she added.

In light of this development, the School District is now looking at its options, Fulkerson said. The nation's fifth-largest school district can still submit its application before a new Nov. 2 deadline, although it is somewhat weakened without union support.

The federal government will use a minimum 170-point scale to judge its Race to the Top applicants. Support from the teachers union accounts for just 10 points, or about 6 percent of the total possible score.

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