Las Vegas Sun

October 15, 2019

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Clark County teachers voting this week on whether to strike

Teacher's Union Rally in Downtown Las Vegas

Miranda Alam/Special to the Sun

Attendees during a rally held in support of more education funding by the Clark County Education Association at the Lloyd D. George U.S. Court House in Las Vegas on Saturday, April 27, 2019.

Absent a plan from the state to deliver promised teacher raises and additional resources to the Clark County School District, teachers are voting this week on whether or not to strike at the start of the 2019-20 school year.

The Clark County Education Association, the largest teachers union in the district, sent a poll to union members at midnight last night asking them if they would authorize the union to move forward with a strike. The poll will be open until midnight Saturday to the more than 11,000 members, said John Vellardita, the union's president.

At least 50 percent of voters must say they would support a strike in order for one to move forward. Vellardita said the union hopes to get as close to a consensus as possible.

“My expectation is that there’s got to be a significant amount of support one way or the other,” he said.

The main demands of the union and of teachers, as expressed at a CCEA rally last weekend in Las Vegas, are for teacher raises and more resources for students. School district teachers started this school year and the last one with a pay freeze, Vellardita said. Overcrowding in classrooms and lack of school supplies are common, students and teachers say.

The strike would be the first associated with Clark County schools since 1969, when teachers fought for collective bargaining rights and the right to join a union, Vellardita said. In response to that controversy, Nevada made it illegal for public sector workers to strike.

But as Vellardita noted, similar laws against strikes in Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona did not stop teachers there from striking last year to demand better pay and more resources in schools. Some of the strikes led to substantial gains for teachers and districts, such as a 20 percent pay increase for Arizona teachers by 2020.

“And not one educator lost their job as a result,” Vellardita said of the strikes.

The strike vote comes less than a month before the official end of the Nevada legislative session, scheduled for June 3. Educators, union representatives and school district officials had high hopes that the Legislature — firmly controlled by Democrats for the first time in years — would produce concrete plans this session to increase funding for education; Nevada spends less per pupil on education than the majority of states in the county.

In particular, school district officials and the union have been pushing for changes to the state’s funding formula, which was established in 1967 and which critics say is outdated, especially for a district like CCSD that has grown and changed dramatically since then. They say the state should move to a weighted formula, whereby schools and districts with more high-needs students, including English-language learners and special education students, would receive more money.

Democratic state Sens. Mo Denis and Joyce Woodhouse are expected to release a bill for weighted funding any day, school district officials said last week at a board of trustees special meeting.

“We’re hopeful that a new funding formula emerges that addresses the adequacy and equity issue that our schools face here in Clark County,” Vellardita said.

But even with an anticipated bill that could pave the way for more funding, district officials say Gov. Steve Sisolak’s proposed 2019-20 school district budget isn’t enough to cover 3 percent pay raises and a 2 percent roll-up salary increase for teachers, as previously promised by the governor himself. In an interview with the Sun last month, Superintendent Jesus Jara said the district would need an additional $100 million from the state to give out those promised raises.

While the district has expressed a desire to compensate teachers at a higher rate, Jara emphasized that resources for students remain a top priority absent additional funding. In the event of a strike next fall, Jara said he would take action through the school board to ensure that students aren’t adversely affected.

“I’m going to tell you that I’m going to protect our kids and make sure our children have a classroom with educators there,” he said in April.

In response to a question about whether teachers could be fired for striking, Jara said he hoped to avoid that scenario.

Vellardita, for his part, believes that the state and the district would have limited legal standing to penalize teachers, given that the district is obligated to provide resources to teachers that enable them to carry out their responsibilities.

“By them cutting back and making it problematic, that would have an adverse impact on (teachers’) ability to perform what they’re required to do,” he said. “We believe the district would not be fulfilling its end of the contract.”

Although results of the strike vote won’t be publicly released until next Sunday or early next week, an informal poll conducted by the union four weeks ago pointed to strong support for a strike. Of the approximately 5,000 union members who participated in that poll, 94 percent said they would support a strike.

For Vellardita, a strike would be a long time coming in response to years of budget cuts.

“Anyone that’s not taking this seriously is in a different time zone,” he said. “This is a systemic issue. This is not something that’s happened over the past year.”