Whom to cut? What to cut?
The questions torment Principal Jeff Horn.
Seven full-time teachers may have to go. But each has six classes, and each class has about 35 students. So many students. Such an impact.
"As we're speaking right now, I don't have a plan," said Horn, stress in his voice.
He is struggling to pick even one of seven positions to strip from Green Valley High School in Henderson. They could be any licensed positions -- counselors or nurses -- but the burden is expected to fall hardest on teachers.
Clark County School District's 357 principals are in uncharted waters. They're planning for a rarity that none of them want: midyear teacher layoffs that will leave classrooms full of students in a lurch.
"To take teachers away would be disastrous," Horn said Thursday.
Students would have to transfer to other classes, increasing those class sizes from the 30s to 40s, or even 50s in some cases.
Where to start? It takes all summer to arrange the pieces of a school's master schedule for the year. How can principals eliminate teachers and classes midyear without having their master schedules fall apart?
Principals were forced to confront that question Wednesday by Superintendent Dwight Jones, who is trying to make up a $78 million budget shortfall for 2011-13. Concessions and raise freezes have been sought from employee unions, but a union representing the largest group -- teachers -- won't grant them.
That led to Jones telling all except the smallest schools to form detailed plans for cutting 1,000 licensed staff positions, or up to seven positions from each campus depending on enrollment. Green Valley, one of the district's largest schools with nearly 3,000 students, would be out the maximum seven positions.
The plans are a contingency, but principals and teachers in the nation's fifth-largest school system are taking it seriously. The call could come at any time to enact the layoffs. The outcome rides on what happens in arbitration between officials from the school district and the Clark County Education Association, which represents teachers.
If the arbitrator finds for the union, teachers will continue to receive salary increases for seniority and continued education. That scenario would require the district to immediately initiate layoffs to balance the budgets for 2011-13. State law requires the district to have a balanced budget.
If the district's requested concessions are upheld in arbitration, teachers would have to pay back what they have received in raises so far this year to balance the budget.
There is no middle ground. An arbitrator lacks the leeway to craft a compromise and can only choose one side's proposal over the other.
Pedro Martinez, deputy superintendent in charge of instruction, said school district officials still have faith that the two sides will reach a compromise before an arbitrator resolves the impasse.
"I haven't lost hope that we'll be able to avoid it," said Martinez, who can't recall when midyear layoffs have been necessary. "But we have to be responsible, the same as preparing for a natural disaster."
Midyear layoffs are rare, said district officials who didn't know when -- if ever -- it last occurred in Clark County public schools.
"This is something that occasionally happens in very difficult times," said Chris Reich, general counsel and negotiator for Nevada's second-largest district, Washoe County schools.
Washoe has a fraction of the 309,000 students Clark County serves, but faces a similar dilemma. Washoe also is caught in arbitration with its teachers union and needs to close a $21 million gap in its budgets for 2011-13. The district can't balance its budget until the contract is settled, according to Reich.
Contract negotiations with the Washoe Education Association are stalemated because the district asked teachers to take a 2.5 percent pay cut, but the union will only accept a pay freeze, Reich said. Other Washoe district unions (administrators and support staff) agreed to the 2.5 percent pay cut.
Similarly, other Clark County School District unions -- administrators, support staff and police -- have either officially or tentatively agreed to the district's requested pay freezes, leaving teachers standing alone.
Unlike Clark County, Washoe hasn't decided that it would lay off teachers to balance the budget, Reich said.
'IT'S A MESS'
In Clark County, principals are all focused on one thing, said Principal Lee Koelliker of Henderson's Coronado High School, the largest school in the state with 3,024 students. If it comes to layoffs, how do principals make cuts with a minimal impact on students?
"That's the million-dollar question," said Horn at Green Valley, where some students already have been shuffled between classes once or twice this semester because the school began the year understaffed. "It's a mess."
The quality of education would undoubtedly suffer, said Trent Day, principal at Centennial High School .
"The mathematics say class sizes would have to go up substantially," said the 23-year district veteran, emphasizing that his teachers remain focused on the classroom, doing their jobs.
Classes are already large, acknowledged Martinez, who initiated an unprecedented initiative this year to bolster the district's dismal graduation rate, which was 68 percent for the class of 2010, and reduce the high dropout rate. The deputy superintendent and hundreds of volunteers went door to door this fall pleading with dropouts to return to school.
To keep them there, principals and teachers have been tailoring individual plans and interventions for struggling students, focusing on the district's 20,000 seniors, half of whom aren't on track to graduate in the spring.
"It (layoffs) can't help but hurt growth and graduation rates," Horn said.
Teachers can't be effective with 50 students at a time, said Erik Smith of Galloway Elementary School in Henderson.
"Any reputable teacher would say education is out the window at that point," he said.
That's what concerns state Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, who has been president of the Nevada PTA and chairman of the Senate Education Committee. His son is in fourth grade at Ronnow Elementary School, near Pecos Road and Owens Avenue. His wife is also a second-year teacher there. And sources have said seniority would likely be a factor in layoffs, putting her job at risk.
Layoffs would fling a wrench into the district's gears of progress, Denis said.
"The kids are the ones who'd definitely suffer," he said.
David Maples, a junior at Centennial, is one of those kids. He doesn't want to move into larger classes.
"Less teachers is less teaching."
Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279.