Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Like all government entities in Nevada, the Clark County School District was forced to make tough decisions in the wake of the recession.
As the housing market tanked and property values fell, so too did the district’s tax revenue. At one point, the nation’s fifth-largest school district faced a record $400 million deficit – the budget of some medium-sized corporations.
In response to declining state funds, the School District has slashed more than $500 million from its operating budget since 2007. The most recent cuts resulted in some staff reductions as well as cutbacks in school supplies and bus transportation.
Last year, the School District said it could cut no more.
Instead of decimating more programs and services, the School District sought major concessions from its four unions representing administrators, police, support staff and teachers.
Employees – more than 36,000-strong – were asked to pay more into their pensions and accept a salary freeze. Despite some pushback, the administrators, police and support staff unions all made concessions.
The teachers union did not.
Thus began one of the most contentious labor disputes in Nevada, one that pits the state’s largest public employer against the state’s largest public union.
The contract battle – waged primarily in backroom negotiations – spilled out into the public. District officials traded barbs with union leaders in the media and filed suit against each other over allegations of bad-faith bargaining.
District emails pointed to an outside campaign that urged teachers to leave the union. Union members picketed outside the district’s administration building and packed School Board meetings to deride what they saw as an anti-union fervor sweeping the nation.
After an arbitrator ruled the district had the money to grant pay raises to teachers, the cash-strapped district followed through on its warnings and laid off 1,015 teachers, raising class sizes by three students.
Simmering tensions between the district and union exploded at the following School Board meeting on May 16 as union members flooded the public forum in protest.
Unruly members heckled speakers who crossed them and cheered on those who aired their grievances. School Board President Linda Young – visibly angry – shouted over the din, trying in vain to call the meeting back to order.
After one too many disruptions, the School Board walked out of the room. The sea of red T-shirts followed suit, chanting “We’ll remember in November.”
That level of discord is likely only to intensify this year as the district and union continue their latest round of contract negotiations – this time amid an election season and legislative year. The fate of Nevada’s low-performing education system – its funding and reforms – hinges on the successful resolution of the state’s biggest labor dispute.
The Clark County School District and Clark County Education Association didn’t always fight.
During the boom years, Las Vegas was awash with money. The district built new schools and hired thousands of new teachers, enticed to the desert with generous incentives and wages. Disagreements were resolved quickly, sometimes with a simple phone call, said John Vellardita, the union’s executive director and chief negotiator.
“We had a relatively good relationship with the School District,” said Vellardita, a 37-year veteran negotiator. “But when the economy tanked and there was a change of guard at the district level, disputes became much more difficult to resolve and the relationship evolved into more of a contentious one.”
Eddie Goldman, the district’s chief negotiator and 32-year veteran educator, echoed Vellardita’s comments.
“There were always disagreements,” he said. “But there was a give and take.”
Despite the public haranguing on both sides, negotiations are professional and cordial, Goldman and Vellardita said. Although there are no screaming matches, the mood in negotiation meetings is often tense and definitely “not warm,” Goldman said.
There are usually four members in the district’s negotiations team and about 10 members in the union’s negotiation team that meet, often in the conference rooms at either the School District’s Vegas PBS building or the union’s nonprofit Teachers Health Trust headquarters. These negotiation sessions can last anywhere from 10 minutes to upwards of four hours.
Unlike some states, public employees cannot strike in Nevada. However, Nevada law allows either side – the public employer or the public employee union – to declare impasse in negotiations after four meetings and move the contract debate into binding arbitration.
Teachers have gone without a cost-of-living increase since the recession began and were forced legally to pay more into their pensions, Vellardita said. That’s why the union fought back when the School District proposed teachers accept a one-year freeze on salary step and education increases, he said.
Although Vellardita says he understand the district’s financial bind, he remains adamant the district has money for teacher raises defined under their current 64-page contract. Those pay raises – based on how long a teacher stays in a district and how much education they have – reflect the district’s value of recruiting and retaining teachers, Vellardita said.
“What the School District is doing by tampering with (the salary schedule), they are preventing its ability to be competitive in the marketplace to recruit teachers at the level they need,” he said. “This is a strategic mistake of the district and the superintendent. They’re shooting themselves in the foot.”
But the School District can’t close a $64 million budget deficit without teacher concessions, Goldman said. Contrary to what the union says, there’s no money for teacher pay raises, and that’s why contract negotiations are necessary, he said.
“Unfortunately, we can’t make our own money,” Goldman said. “We have to focus on academic achievement and live within our means.”
If the lack of money is the cause of this disagreement, the School District should be lobbying the state for more education funding, Vellardita said. The Nevada State Education Association, the umbrella union of CCEA, is working on a tax initiative and plans to lobby the state for more K-12 funding, he said.
Funding is a problem, but the School District is concerned about its current “return on investment,” Goldman said. Before asking for more state funding, the district is interested in making sure the money it currently spends is going to the right areas, he said.
“We want to be sure every dime and penny is being used to raise student achievement,” he said. “We want to be smart with the money we’re using.”
Instead of just raising more money, the School District is looking at new education “reforms,” that include teacher evaluation and pay-for-performance systems, said district spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson.
Although the bulk of contract negotiations have focused on wages, these “reform” proposals will require discussions with the union, she said. Without consensus on salaries, education reforms such as a longer school day or “school turnarounds” won’t come to fruition.
“When our labor unions can’t negotiate with us in good faith, our kids suffer,” she said.
Vellardita said the union was not opposed to reforms. Teachers just want a voice at the table, and the union will continue to advocate on their behalf, he said.
“When we’re talking about education reforms in Carson City, teachers need to be at the table,” he said. “Teachers are the frontline educators and their voices will be heard.”