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School District to lay off 1,015 teachers, literacy specialists

Teacher layoffs

Justin M. Bowen / Las Vegas Sun

In this May 11, 2011, file photo, Arthur Gamboa leads a discussion with students in his Modern Literature class at Palo Verde High School. The School District has announced plans to lay off 1,015 teachers and literacy specialists.

Updated Wednesday, May 16, 2012 | 3:52 p.m.

The beleaguered Clark County School District announced today it will send pink slips to 1,015 teachers and literacy specialists next month, triggering the worst-case scenario in dealing with a $64 million budget shortfall.

Under the final budget plan being voted on at Wednesday’s School Board meeting, the district will lay off 840 teachers and 175 literacy specialists, which include librarians and reading coaches. The layoffs represent about 6 percent of the district’s 18,000 licensed employees.

If approved, the layoffs would constitute the largest actual “reduction in force” in the district’s recent history. The Clark County School District — the fifth largest in the nation — is the largest public employer in Nevada with more than 37,300 total employees.

Upon hearing the news of layoffs, the local and state teachers union immediately slammed the School District’s decision, arguing the district has plenty of money to avert layoffs.

The official layoff announcement comes two weeks after an arbitrator sided with the local teachers union on pay raises, capping a bitter 10-month contract battle between the School District and the Clark County Education Association.

Facing a $63.9 million budget deficit, the School District sought concessions from its teachers union to balance its budget. The May 2 arbitration decision forced the district to continue paying salary step and continuing education increases to teachers throughout this school year.

Because salary and benefits constitute nearly 90 percent of the School District’s nearly $2.1 billion general fund budget, the layoffs were inevitable, Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones said. The layoffs are expected save the district about $60.1 million, nearly the size of the deficit.

“The position reductions are necessary in order to accommodate teacher step increases and education increments,” Jones said in an internal memo to school principals sent Wednesday morning. “We will continue to negotiate with CCEA in an effort to find a way to bring back teaching positions.”

The School District’s 357 schools are staffed at 98 percent at the elementary level and 100 percent at the middle and high school levels. The district’s final budget proposes staffing allocations to 93 percent across the board, according to Jones’ memo.

In November, Jones warned principals to prepare a contingency plan to shed about 6 percent of school staff should the teachers union prevail in arbitration.

Most schools are likely to shed between two and five teachers, depending on grade level and student enrollment numbers.

Elementary schools with fewer than 400 students would have no layoffs, according to the district’s internal memo at the time. High schools with more than 2,635 students could lose up to seven licensed positions, according to the memo.

The teacher layoffs will further stress classrooms already brimming with students. In 2009, Nevada had the sixth highest ratio of students to teachers in the nation, according to the most recent state data available.

As a result of the teacher layoffs, average class sizes are expected to go up between two and three students, according to the district.

Middle and high schools will have average class sizes of 34 and 35 students. Elementary schools will have average class sizes of 20 to 21 in the first to third grades, and average class sizes of 33 and 34 in the fourth and fifth grades.

The School District is trying to identify funding “within existing resources” to provide additional support to the most overcrowded elementary schools in the valley, according to the district. This support includes additional custodians and teachers aides, portable restrooms and cafeterias, and changes in bus transportation and traffic patterns around campus.

If the seven-member School Board approves the final budget, pink slips are scheduled to go out to affected teachers and literacy specialists during the second week of June – within the 30 day notice period required by contract – according to Jones’ memo.

Some teachers will be protected from layoffs because of their specialized knowledge, district officials said.

Math, science and special education teacher positions are expected to be safe, officials said. Positions are also safeguarded at the district’s “turnaround” schools: Chaparral, Mojave, Rancho and Western high schools and Elizondo, Hancock and Kit Carson elementary schools, officials said.

Because of the arbitration ruling, the School District must comply with its teachers union’s layoff guidelines, which follows a new state law that would base layoffs first on teacher performance, and second on seniority.

Under the union’s reduction-in-force proposal, teachers with a five-day or longer suspension for bad behavior during the last two contract years would be laid off first. (Next school year, teachers with two unsatisfactory performance evaluations in two consecutive years would be laid off second.)

Thirty-eight teachers have received disciplinary action in the last two years, according to the district. Therefore, the majority of the 840 teacher layoffs would be based on seniority, which means the brunt of the layoffs will still fall on new teachers.

The School District is now trying to negotiate with the teachers union on the terms of the reduction in force. Instead of seniority, the district wishes to lay off teachers who have been suspended in descending order, from most to least.

“The archaic status quo harms young, outstanding teachers,” the School District said in a comment released Wednesday.

Teachers union President Ruben Murillo said he still contends the School District has the money to avoid layoffs.

"We believe adamantly that the district doesn't have to lay off teachers," he said. "There are several areas we have found in the budget that will bridge the gap."

Murillo pointed to the arbitration decision, which found that the School District has the money to fund step and education increases under its contract with teachers. He also added that the School District is reporting an ending fund balance of $40 million, which, he said, could help offset the layoffs.

Claudia Briggs, the communications director with the National Education Association's Nevada chapter — an umbrella organization of the local teachers union — said the School District is using a scare tactic by using the term "layoffs" to describe what she and Jones called "position reductions."

The School District may lay off fewer than 1,015 teachers, she said, because the 1,015 figure doesn't account for unfilled positions and annual teacher resignations and retirements. These vacant positions, as well as yearly teacher attrition, may nullify the need for actual layoffs, Briggs said.

It is unknown how many vacant funded positions there are in the School District. Officials will not know how many teachers will be leaving the district until the end of the school year. Murillo contends between 500 and 800 teachers on average will leave the district, which may soften the blow of layoffs.

Regardless of the number of vacant positions or teacher attrition, average class sizes will still go by as many as three students, School District spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said.

"Hopefully with retirements, we can backfill some of these numbers," she said. "But keep in mind, classroom sizes will still rise because when you're cutting positions, you can't refill them."

That has Murillo pointing fingers at the state Legislature, which he says has not funded public education adequately. Murillo said he would like to see School Board members take a more active role in urging the state for more education funding.

"The School Board needs to put the money where their mouth is," he said. "Teacher morale has never been lower. Teachers are ready to fight this reduction in force, for better working conditions and for more education funding."

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