Average class sizes of 32 students in the Clark County School District gave the struggling system a rare No. 1 distinction where it would rather be dead last.
"Among the nation's 20 largest school districts, there's nobody who has a higher class size than we do," said District Deputy Superintendent Pedro Martinez, pointing to the district's relatively low per-pupil funding as the reason.
Teacher layoffs are about to push district class sizes higher, sending the average up by three students in high schools, middle schools and grades four and five.
Layoffs that loomed large all school year became a reality Monday, four days after the last day of school, as 419 pink slips were mailed to teachers.
These 419 teachers won't be returning to classrooms in the fall, but schools actually will be making do with about 1,015 fewer teachers next year. In addition to the layoffs, about 600 other positions are being vacated this summer because of retiring or relocating teachers. They will not be replaced by the cash-strapped district, which needs to remedy a shortfall in its $2 billion budget.
Superintendent Dwight Jones said 600 to 800 teachers typically retire or leave each year, so that isn't unusual. But their positions won't be filled, which is unusual.
It must be done, said Jones, "and that's not what's best for our students."
Jones wanted to avoid job cuts by freezing employee salaries in the 2011-12 school year, but he was opposed by the Clark County Education Association. An arbitrator sided with the teachers union in May, forcing the district to continue paying teacher raises at a $64 million cost. Union officials contended the district had the money and wouldn't need to initiate layoffs. Jones repeatedly contended the threat of layoffs was real.
NEW TEACHERS HIT HARDEST
The burden of the layoffs fell on new teachers.
About 383 of the 419 teachers pink-slipped Monday are the newest teachers, with just a year or two in the district, Chief Human Resources Officer Staci Vesneske said.
For them, job performance had nothing to do with being laid off, which wasn't the choice of district officials.
Officials' hands were largely tied by contract terms written by the Clark County Education Association, which were upheld in its May arbitration victory. The terms make seniority the second-highest priority in choosing whom to cut.
In writing, the main factor in determining teacher layoffs is poor performance, but only 36 teachers meet the union's requirements. That means 91 percent of the layoffs have fallen on new teachers.
To meet the association's definition of poor performer, teachers must have been suspended at least five days on two different occasions in the past two years or have been rated unsatisfactory twice within the past two school years.
Only English, math, science, special education and some foreign language teachers were protected from layoffs because of their high-demand, technical positions.
The long-standing practice of "last hired, first fired" was supposed to end this school year in Nevada, according to state lawmakers and Gov. Brian Sandoval, who touted the progress of education reform laws passed during the last session.
But the law lost its teeth in the adoption process.
The law requires school districts and teachers unions to negotiate layoff terms that "must not be based solely on the seniority of the teacher or administrator." But the law doesn't specify what else must be considered and to what extent. It just tells unions and districts to negotiate for something different. In the end, this means newly hired teachers still bear the brunt of layoffs in Clark County.
Layoffs couldn't come at a worse time for the district, which improved its graduation rate to 65 percent this year from 59 percent last year through efforts targeting at-risk students. A step forward may soon be followed by two steps back.
"Programs may be cut," Martinez said, mentioning the northwest valley's Arbor View High School, which is cutting its choir program.
Other elective programs may be on the chopping block, but details won't be known until principals finalize their schedules this summer, he said.
Martinez hopes the district can reach some kind of job-saving agreement with the teachers union this summer. Though the union won pay raises in 2011-12, the parties now have to negotiate a 2012-13 contract.
These meetings are confidential but haven't been promising, according to a district memo sent to administrators Monday.
"Negotiations are continuing today," the memo said. "However, this is to let you know that, unfortunately, negotiations have not yet yielded the hoped for outcome of preserving positions."
Laid-off teachers also received a memo informing them that they will be placed on a maximum two-year leave of absence. If a position opens in that time for which they're certified, they could be rehired, but there's no guarantee of that.
Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.