Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2019

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Clark County school board shuts down tense meeting

Teachers Rally At Liberty

Steve Marcus

Teachers applaud a speaker during a Clark County School Board meeting at Liberty High School in Henderson Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. The Clark County Education Association teachers union has scheduled a strike for Sept. 10 if it doesn’t reach an agreement with the district.

Teachers Rally Ahead of Possible Strike

Teacher Jennie Biesinger, center, pickets with other teachers and supporters outside Liberty High School in Henderson Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. The Clark County Education Association, the largest teachers union in Clark County, has scheduled a strike for Sept. 10 if it doesn't reach an agreement with the Clark County School District. Launch slideshow »

The Clark County School District Board of Trustees abruptly ended Thursday night’s school board meeting after board President Lola Brooks attempted to cut off public comment from educators and supporters demanding fair pay for Clark County teachers.

The Clark County Education Association, the largest teachers union in the district, has threatened to strike Sept. 10 if a contract between the district and the union isn’t reached by Friday. Members of the union and supporters showed up en masse for the meeting at Liberty High to drum up support for their demands, although there was no agenda item concerning ongoing contract negotiations.

Trustees initially gave no reason for ending the meeting, but the district said in a press release that evening that it ended the meeting due to safety concerns.

About 1,200 educators and supporters were in attendance, starting with a rally outside the school before the board meeting.

Brooks told the noisy, frustrated crowd at the start that the board was capping the public comment period to 30 minutes, allowing the first approximately 15 scheduled speakers two minutes each to address the board. Others could speak at the end of the meeting or submit comments in writing, she said.

When Brooks told the crowd that the public comment period was over after 30 minutes, some educators still demanded to be heard. Twenty-six others had signed up for public comment, school board vice president Linda Cavazos said.

Some booed and chanted, “Shame on you!” and “Honor our contract, or we walk.”

After attempting to silence the crowd, school board members and Superintendent Jesus Jara exited the stage for what they initially said was a break. Within about five minutes, Brooks returned to the stage, announcing the meeting would be held at a later date without specifying when. She then left the stage again.

Exasperated attendees filed out of the building and gathered in the school courtyard, chanting and holding signs until all were asked to leave the premises.

“They walk out, we walk out,” educators chanted, referring to the impending teacher strike.

CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita said the board’s decision to end the meeting early showed “thin skin.”

“What do they expect — screw somebody on their pay and they’re not going to come and be angry?” he said.

Contract negotiations ongoing

CCSD has offered teachers a 3% pay raise, a 2% step increase and a 4% increase in health insurance contributions for the 2019-2020 school year, as provided during the 2019 Nevada Legislative session. That amounts to $69 million for the district’s 18,000 educators, Jara said.

“When you look at the mathematics in the past, this is probably the largest (offer) we’ve seen on an annual basis,” Jara said.

But CCEA has additional demands, the biggest sticking point being a salary advancement for teachers who went through professional development over the last three years. The union also wants the district to address a step payment freeze implemented last year and a .625% salary reduction announced this year associated with contributions to the Public Employment Retirement System of Nevada, Vellardita said.

Union leaders and teachers say the district has broken a promise it made in 2016 to give teachers a $5,400 salary advancement after having completed three years of professional development. An estimated 2,500 teachers took advantage of that offer, Vellardita said.

Facing a $35 million deficit over the next two years, the district says the state didn’t allocate money for that professional development to Clark County during the 2019 legislative session.

“To me, we’re complying with the contract. We’re giving above and beyond what’s in the current agreement,” Jara said.

Nonetheless, some teachers say they completed professional development or obtained an additional degree expecting to be compensated for their efforts or given a “column” movement to a higher pay level.

“Over the last four years, I’ve earned an education specialist degree in the hopes of receiving a column movement that I was promised by the school district,” said Jeff Hinton, a history teacher at Advanced Technologies Academy. “Now they’re telling me, ‘Hey Jeff, thanks for the time, the energy, the effort, the time away from your family (and) the money out of your pocket, but we’re not going to honor that contract.’”

West Career and Technical Academy Spanish teacher Diane Ortiz said she completed 225 “contact units,” equivalent to 675 hours of professional development and the requirement for a column advancement, hoping to progress to a higher pay level.

“I waited three years, and now I’m being denied,” said the 29-year-veteran of the school district. “And I’m going to tell that to the board when I go up and talk.”

Ortiz did not get a chance to speak during the 30-minute public comment period. Both she and Hinton said they plan to participate in a teacher strike Sept. 10 if the district and the union do not reach an agreement.

It is illegal in Nevada for public sector employees to strike. CCEA could face fines of $50,000 per day in the event of a strike.

Teachers who do strike will not be paid for the days they are absent, Jara said. The district plans to keep schools open and is trying to increase its pool of substitute teachers in the event of a strike.

“But I’m hopeful that we can get to an agreement,” Jara said.

Leaders from the district and the CCEA plan to meet Friday to continue negotiations.