Unions protest School District decision to cut pay for pension costs

Teachers and support staff unions are protesting a decision by the Clark County School District to lower salaries by 1.125 percent to pay for an increase in their pension costs starting Friday, the start of the new fiscal year.

Brian Christensen, executive director of the Education Support Employees Association, and Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, both said the district was acting unilaterally before formal labor negotiations have begun.

"I think it sets a really negative tone for negotiations," Murillo said. "We haven't even set a date yet (for negotiations), and they're already arbitrarily cutting teachers' salaries. Not a positive message to send to the teachers of Clark County."

Under state law, increases in contribution rates to the Public Employees Retirement System are to be shared equally between employers and employees. For the fiscal year starting July 1, the contribution rate is scheduled to increase by 2.25 percent to 23.75 percent.

District officials are trying to manage a $150 million budget shortfall for the new fiscal year. Having employees pay half the PERS increase saves the district $14.5 million.

"Unfortunately, this has become necessary due to the continuing economic crisis," Jeff Weiler, the district's chief financial officer, said in a memo.

Christensen and Murillo said they plan to file grievances with the district and complain to the Local Government Employee-Management Relations Board.

Employee salaries are subject to collective bargaining. But state law says PERS increases should be shared by employers and employees.

The district had asked Clark County District Judge Jessie Walsh to clarify whether PERS costs can be passed along to employees if new contracts aren't in place by the start of the new fiscal year, but the judge dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.

Christensen accused the district of stalling, noting that the support staff union has been willing to negotiate since January.

"We're ready to talk. We're not completely ready to give concessions, but at least come to the table and talk to us," he said.

Christensen also said the district tried to arbitrarily reduce the salary schedule in 2009, only to be found in violation of the negotiated agreement.

"I don't know why they're hitting the replay button," he said.

In the past, the district has paid for the PERS rate increases for the teachers, Murillo said. But the cash-strapped district is now under the new leadership of Superintendent Dwight Jones, who took over in December.

District officials were not available for comment Wednesday.

According to Weiler's memo sent out district-wide, the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-technical Employees already has agreed to pay the PERS increase.

Because school police officers have a different PERS contribution rate, their pay will be reduced by 1.375 percent to pay the PERS increase. Phil Gervasi, president of the Police Officers Association of the Clark County School District, said that he understood the district was "in a financial strait" and that he looked forward to negotiations.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.