Teachers union, school district nearing contract agreement

Amid layoffs and cuts in student programs caused by a deep recession, a contract deal preserving teacher pay but eliminating cost-of-living increases is nearing approval by the teachers union and the Clark County School District.

If endorsed by negotiators and then the Clark County Education Association’s members and the School Board, which balked at early suggestions that the school districts reduce teacher pay, the agreement would extend the teachers’ contract one year.

The deal also calls for the school district to cover an increase in PERS retirement contributions, which would have affected teachers’ pocketbooks, teachers union Executive Director John Jasonek stated in making his announcement on the union’s Web site.

Jasonek said the contract deal is quite an accomplishment “given that layoffs are occurring all around the state, even with many employees in the Clark County School District, and pay cuts (for) state workers.”

He acknowledged today that the deal comes with a price. Some classrooms might have to add more students.

“There will be a lot of places where people are hurt,” Jasonek said. “There’s suffering along the way.”

Because some details are still under negotiation, school district Superintendent Walt Rulffes declined to talk about any tentative agreement today, saying only that “we are close to a contract settlement with the teachers union.”

While the state’s education budget was based on a 4 percent salary decrease for teachers, discretion was left to Nevada’s 17 county school districts on how to manage the equivalent of a $192 million cut. Most of the districts’ funding comes through the state.

The Clark County School Board early on chose to use savings and cuts totaling $120 million in programs, staff and administrative expenses rather than ask for pay cuts.

School Board member Sheila Moulton said creating a budget has been a “painful process” this year, but said teachers are the “most important” factor in “determining success in the classroom.”

School Board President Terri Janison said community input guided the board on deciding the $120 million in cuts, which resulted in the elimination of 854 positions, early retirement incentives, permanent substitute teachers, school programs like block scheduling and some elective classes, such as theater arts and language arts, for next year.

Salaries account for 89 percent of the district’s budget. They were not going to be affected unless absolutely necessary, Janison said. “Fortunately, we didn’t reach that point,” she said.

Janison said “community support for teachers has been huge.”

“Teachers don’t make a lot of money,” she said.

The salary schedule ranges from $35,083 for beginning teachers to $70,060 for teachers with 14 years experience and advanced certification, including doctorate degrees.

Teachers get about 2 percent to 4 percent annual raises based on their qualifications and years of service. After teachers work 13 to 14 years, they are no longer eligible for longevity-based pay increases.

Jasonek estimated that 6,000 teachers are “topped out” as far as longevity pay raises, but most them are still getting some pay raises based on their degrees and certifications.

The school district employs 18,715 teachers or licensed personnel.

To afford next year’s $2.1 billion budget, the school district must dip into cash reserves and one-time savings from this year, which won’t “be there for 2011, and more cuts will be necessary,” Rulffes said.

Despite the economic hardship, Rulffes said he does not know of any school district in Nevada that is cutting teachers’ salaries for the 2009-10 school year.

Teacher union contracts are protected by “evergreen clauses” which keep current terms in place until a new deal is reached, making it difficult for school districts to force salary and benefit cuts.

William Roberts, the superintendent for the Nye County School District, said his school board would be subject to litigation if it tried to break a contractual agreement.

The Clark County School Board could ratify its union contract at its June 25 meeting. The teacher union members would probably vote on the one-year extension in August when teachers returned from summer vacation, Jasonek said.

Still, not all teachers are happy with the proposed deal.

Some employees using the patriotic names “Samuel Adams” and “George Patton” sent out a districtwide e-mail blasting the union for a salary-increase schedule that has been “frozen” because it doesn’t include a new cost-of-living increase. Teachers this year got 4 percent pay raises or COLAs, which were worth about $62 million.

The e-mail also said the teachers union has not been as aggressive as the Clark County firefighters’ union in fighting for more pay. Unlike many other public employee unions in Southern Nevada, the firefighters have not agreed to any contract concessions.

Andrea Awerbach, a special education teacher at Priest Elementary School, discredited the e-mail because the authors chose to remain anonymous.

Rather than worry about pay, Awerbach said she is mostly concerned about the working conditions for next year.

“How will the job get done? Will we be written up for too many ridiculous things? Will there be too many kids in the classroom?” she wondered.

Jasonek said he and school district officials must come to a final agreement on the proposal on Thursday.

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