Published Saturday, April 30, 2011 | 2:05 p.m.
Updated Saturday, April 30, 2011 | 4:57 p.m.
About 500 union members marched from Cashman Field to the Grant Sawyer State Office Building on Saturday afternoon while shouting "Save our schools" and "Protect education."
They were led by union organizers who carried a handmade, pine coffin that contained more than 500 letters written to Gov. Brian Sandoval in opposition to his proposed budget cuts to education. Officials planned to deliver the letters to the governor in Carson City.
The march came at the close of a two-hour rally in the Cashman Field parking lot, where state and local Democratic leaders and union activists spoke in opposition to the proposed cuts, which could result in the loss of $400 million from the Clark County School District and an estimated 2,500 jobs.
"The hopes and dreams of our future all rest in here," Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, said while pointing to a coffin meant to symbolize the end of education in Nevada. "We are not to be messed with." He opened the coffin and said, "let's get the message out to Sandoval, and God have mercy on him because (the budget cuts are) totally immoral."
Metro Police stopped traffic at one point and allowed protesters to cross, while some motorists honked their horns in support.
Earlier during the rally, organizers estimate about 1,000 educators, parents and students gathered in the parking lot of Cashman Field to protect their collective bargaining rights while protesting the proposed cuts.
Sandoval has called for an end to what is informally known as teacher tenure, the elimination of teacher pay scales based upon seniority and attainment of advanced college degrees, the extension of probation from one to three years for new teachers and a more aggressive effort on the part of the state's school districts to evaluate and fire teachers who perform poorly.
Rally organizers from the Clark County Education Association and the Service Employees International Union view the Sandoval plan as another push by Republican governors throughout the country to end collective bargaining rights for state employees, with Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker serving as the most visible advocate for the move, prompting weeks of angry protests in his state.
Nevada Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, told the crowd Sandoval's budget is "balanced on the backs of our children, teachers, nurses."
He said he spoke earlier today in Las Vegas with civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund. Horsford said Edelman told him "some budget cuts don't heal."
Horsford said Sandoval and others focus on the pain of the private sector and of big corporations, rather than working Nevadans.
"What about the pain of our children, our teachers? The governor's budget as proposed will not pass on my watch," Horsford said, getting a loud applause.
"We never funded (education) in the first place. We should be embarrassed. I'm mad. I want to know from our governor why our children's teachers are not the priority. The top priority."
The state's Economic Forum will meet Monday to give its budget forecast. Sandoval's proposed budget was based off the Economic Forum's predictions late last year, but Horsford said he expects improvements in Nevada's economy this year could mean a less dire forecast. If that happens, the state's cuts could be less steep.
Protesters held signs that read "Greed caused our problems, not teachers," "Our children are worth it," "Sandoval the cannibal, eating teachers' rights" and "Will teach for food." One woman pushing a baby in a stroller carried a sign that read "Governor Sandoval wants my milk money."
Al Martinez, president of the Service Employees International Union of Nevada, started a chant among the crowd, saying "Show me democracy, we want democracy." He said teachers aren't against making sacrifices, but others need to share in those sacrifices.
"I think it's totally immoral what they're trying to do to our teachers," he told protesters. "We're not afraid to give up something, but we want everybody else to give up something."
SEIU members wore purple shirts with the SEIU logo, while Clark County Education Association members wore red shirts that read "Teachers support the future."
County commissioner and mayoral candidate Chris Giunchigliani, who is a longtime special education teacher, referred to those in the group as "fellow public employees."
"It's about solidarity and support. You deserve a thanks, coming here, working on behalf of young people," she told the crowd. "We cannot cut our way out of this mess. We didn't create this mess. It's global."
The coffin taken to the Sawyer building was near the stage during the rally so people could drop in letters meant for the governor.
"You have taken an extreme position that will do harm to so many Nevadans, Nevadans that you are elected to serve," the letter read. "Public education is a cornerstone of a civilized society, and our children are relying on it as a pathway to their own American dream. Your intransigence suggests that you have given up on the dreams of those children, as though their education is not important."
The crowd also planned to send a letter to state Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, who recently slammed Democratic leadership in the Senate and Assembly for failing to provide a tax plan. Roberson has said Democrats are trying to "demonize the Republicans for not caring about children or the needy or K-12 or higher education."
The letter to Roberson read, "Your vote represents many people. We count on you to make good choices as you represent us. It's a duty you must take seriously."
Eric Smith, a teacher at Faye Galloway Elementary School in Henderson, noted proposals to cut budgets, increase classes sizes and shorten the school year.
"I'm mad as hell because of what they're taking away from them," he said.
Sandoval's proposed changes would alter Chapter 288 of the Nevada Revised Statutes. A pamphlet advertising the rally read: "288 We are not on the menu!"
Saturday afternoon's gathering is the latest in a series of public efforts by parents, teachers and school administrators to mobilize voters in opposition to the expected cuts and personnel changes.
Parents and teachers have met with administrators and school board members throughout the valley to develop strategies to counter the Sandoval initiatives, which have included letter-writing and email campaigns that have targeted Republican legislators who are viewed as potential swing votes on a Democratic-led effort to minimize the cuts by raising taxes.
Republican State Sens. Joe Hardy, Boulder City; and Dean Rhoads, Elko; and Assembly Minority Whip Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, have been targeted in the effort to oppose Sandoval's apparent plans. School district activists are also seeking to hold the vote of State Sen. John Lee, a Democrat who represents rural Clark County and is seen as a possible opponent of any expected tax increases proposed by State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, both Democrats.