After 23 years as a Clark County School District teacher and counselor, Renee Fairless was promoted to dean at Sunrise Mountain High School in October.
But her hard-won advancement may prove to be her undoing. As district leaders consider laying off hundreds of employees to meet a $123 million budget shortfall, newly made administrators fear they'll find themselves on the street instead of bumped back to the classroom as teachers, as has been the district's practice in the past.
"Is there a place for me if I'm not going to be a leader?" wondered Fairless, who is 50. "Do I get to go back to my classroom that I loved, that I was dedicated to? That, to me, is the big issue because there doesn't seem to be a definitive answer."
Jobs in the district are protected by a seniority system, with the least senior employees most susceptible to layoffs. More-senior employees are entitled to take the jobs of less-senior employees when the more-senior employee loses their job.
With layoffs looming, there is confusion in the district in determining the bumping process for teachers recently promoted to administrators.
"That's the crux of the issue," said Joyce Haldeman, the associate superintendent for community relations.
"The administrators' contract is clear that they have the right to return to teaching, if a position is available," Haldeman said. "As I understand it, the big question is how that bumping process will take place -- and will the teachers' union be willing to place displaced administrators in vacant positions ahead of existing teachers.
Stephen Augspurger, executive director of the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional- technical Employees, said the administrators' contract is clear that administrators who lose their jobs in their seniority process shall return to classroom teaching positions.
Augspurger said he is certain that school-based administrators would land jobs in the seniority process because all have a minimum of five years teaching experience
All school-based administrators have teaching licenses. The district has a teacher seniority list that has 22,000 names, including district administrators such as Human Resources Director and former teacher Martha Tittle, who is No. 751, and Deputy Superintendent for Instruction and former teacher Lauren Kohut-Rost, who is No. 925.
Fairless, the new dean at Sunrise Mountain, is No. 1,614.
Augspurger accused Superintendent Walt Rulffes of acting in bad faith and taking retaliatory action against his membership because his union won't accept the district's bargaining terms. He maintains the administrators' contract is unambiguous and Rulffes is purposely misinterpreting it to create confusion and anxiety among his union members.
The administrators who may be cut "were fabulous teachers with years and years of experience, nationally board certified in many cases," Augspurger said. "So you lose the talent pool. Does that make any sense?"
The district has announced intentions to cut 540 teaching positions and as many as 130 administrative positions because of its budget crisis. The district is looking at a maximum of 1,300 positions being eliminated if savings cannot be found elsewhere. School Board President Terri Janison has faulted employee unions for not accepting measures such as 5 percent salary cuts and furlough days, which would make layoffs unnecessary.
Not only has the district taken a $77.5 million reduction in state funding for the coming fiscal year, it also expects to see a decline in property tax revenues.
Rulffes acknowledged the administrators' contract does permit administrators to return to teaching positions, but he says there's a caveat. The superintendent said such moves depend on the availability of vacant teacher positions. It's an issue that is still being negotiated, he said.
"That question is still unanswered in terms of what is the status of that contract," Rulffes said, referring to the administrators' agreement. "I'm not going to talk about internal negotiation issues. It still needs to be resolved, hopefully, with the administrative union. It impacts two unions (teachers and administrators). That's why we don't have a definitive answer."
Administrators who return to teaching would be paid according to the teacher pay scale, Augspurger said.
Fremont Middle School Dean Lisa DenBleyker finds herself in the same position as Fairless. DenBleyker was promoted to an administrative position in October. She previously taught English for 16 years at Basic High School in Henderson. With just a few months clocked as an administrator and her seniority as a teacher now in question, she fears she may not have a job next year.
"It's a little difficult to swallow," DenBleyker said. "It's hard to think a promotion could be the end of an entire career."
The 41-year-old educator said she is willing to return to the classroom. She ranks at No. 4,288 on the district's seniority list.
"All of my teaching boxes are still in my garage," said DenBleyker, who is nationally board certified as a teacher. "I just packed up five months ago. I could unpack and happily hit the ground running."
National board certification is a peer-review process showing a teacher has met the highest standards of the profession.
Augspurger said all school-based administrators such as principals, assistant principals and deans, remain teachers because they have teaching licenses. Since 1990, he said at least 60 district administrators have returned to teaching positions.
Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, which represents teachers, questions how administrators could be transferred to teaching positions.
"There are separate contracts" for administrators and teachers, Murillo said. "You can't mix the two groups."
Both DenBleyker and Fairless noted it takes years of experience to become a good teacher. The district may be throwing away its best staff even as teaching challenges become more complex because of growing class sizes and understaffed schools, they said.
"Is it scary times? It's really scary times," said Fairless, who at Green Valley High School helped establish one of the district's first programs allowing high school students to earn college credits. "I didn't sleep at all last weekend."
Augspurger chided the district for extending a bridge allowing its best teachers to become administrators and then abandoning them. "That bridge should have had a sign: 'Once crossed, don't go back.'"
Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug @reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7914.