Teachers union blocks Clark County School District's bid for $40 million federal grant

The Clark County School District's $40 million Race to the Top ended before it began, pulled off the starting line by its teachers union.

The Clark County Education Association, which has been at odds with the district for two years over teacher salaries and benefits, has refused to sign off on the district's federal grant application. That stops the district dead in its tracks.

Union buy-in was required for the district to seek a $40 million slice of the competitive $400 million federal grant, which is intended to promote data-based and digital tools to meet individual student needs and evaluate school staff. The grant would have benefited 41,000 students at 63 Clark County schools, which would have received high-technology tools and literacy intervention. The district also could have hired 22 teachers plus 24 support staff dedicated to mostly helping students struggling with English.

"It's time to stop playing games with our students' education," said district spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson on Tuesday, calling the union's move "vendetta politics."

"Blocking this funding only hurts staff and students," she said.

The union roadblock isn't unprecedented.

The unions for teachers of Los Angeles United School District did the same there, keeping the country's second-largest school district out of the Race to the Top program, Superintendent John Deasy announced on Tuesday. Los Angeles also was seeking $40 million.

Tuesday was the deadline for applications, but President Barack Obama extended the deadline indefinitely because of Hurricane Sandy. But that's not likely to help Clark County, America's fifth-largest school district.

Clark County Education Association officials, who did not return calls Tuesday, contend the union was left out of the district's application process.

Executive Director John Vellardita wrote Clark County Deputy Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky on Oct. 24, agreeing that "teachers and students need the resourcing opportunities that a Race to the Top holds."

"However, because the district has not engaged in any genuine attempts at collaboration, we will miss an opportunity to improve teaching and learning in Clark County," he wrote, informing the district that it wouldn't receive the union's support.

The district didn't include teachers or the union while drafting the reforms outlined in the application, Vellardita contended.

The union was invited to participate at every turn from July through October but refused, wrote the district's Chief Student Services Officer Kim Wooden Tuesday. She went on to list seven attempts to include the union, including reaching out to union President Ruben Murillo, who said Vikki Courtney would be the union's representative. The district contacted Courtney, who said she would attend meetings. But Courtney never showed, Wooden wrote in her reply.

Despite the union's absence from the process, 1,616 teachers attended the stakeholder meetings, Wooden said. Principals reported that 89.4 percent of stakeholders were in agreement with the application's proposals.


"CCEA chose not to participate in the formation of the grant," Wooden wrote Vellardita. "It is even more disappointing that association is effectively blocking the district at a time when we all agree that we need more resources for education."

Last school year, Vellardita took the district to arbitration over teacher salaries, arguing that the district could afford to pay $64 million in teacher raises for seniority and the completion of continuing education courses. Superintendent Dwight Jones said layoffs would be required to cover raises, but the arbitrator sided with the union. As a result, Jones cut 1,000 teaching positions, which has increased the district's average class size to 35 students.

For this year's contract, the stalemated parties again are in arbitration over teacher salaries.

Vellardita also said the Race to the Top application was unacceptable because of the proposed teacher evaluation system and the proposal to use money on outside consultants.

"Our deepest concerns are that a large portion of the money will be to support outside vendors," he wrote.

But only 2.9 percent of the $40 million would be spent on hiring consultants, such as those who train teachers of English language learners, Fulkerson said.

As for teacher evaluations, those were already set to be changed by the state in its bid for a waiver of No Child Left Behind. The federal government is requiring states that opt out of No Child Left Behind to use more student performance data to evaluate teachers. Half of each Nevada teacher's evaluation will be based on student performance data.

In order to qualify for Race to the Top, districts must establish teacher, principal and superintendent evaluation systems by the 2014-15 school year. That was already the plan in Nevada for teachers.


"The bottom line is any concern could have, and should have, been resolved by coming to the table when invited," Fulkerson said, "not playing vendetta politics with funding that would have helped their own members."

The Los Angeles district tried to work with its union.

"They gave a number of different reasons and every single reason they gave we accommodated," Deasy said of the Los Angeles union, according to Southern California Public Radio.