July 15, 2012 - 12:59 am
Even though he’s a natural in the classroom, Edward Savarese was just a number.
A month and a day after Savarese was honored as one of seven New Teachers of the Year, the Clark County School District sent pink slips to him and 418 other teachers in a round of mass layoffs.
“When I found out, it was a kick in the chest,” said the 30-year-old from New York, who worked as a substitute teacher for three years at Henderson’s Sewell Elementary School while earning his master’s degree in education. “I thought the award would help me out a little bit.”
Wishful thinking, he now knows.
In August, the rookie fifth-grade teacher at Sewell landed a class of 28 in which only two out of every 10 students were at grade level in math and reading. He had nine out of 10 students proficient by spring.
“There was complete buy-in,” he said of his students. “They knew they had to try.”
But in the end, his number, which represents his seniority ranking in the district, turned out to be all that mattered.
Teacher seniority was the decider in 383 of the 419 June layoffs, Chief Human Resources Officer Staci Vesneske said. Teachers were let go when 1,015 positions were eliminated to cover the cost of pay raises preserved by the teachers union in arbitration with the cash-strapped district over contract terms for 2011-12.
At first, Savarese breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the extent of layoffs. His number was beyond the cutoff, or so he thought. By the time resignations from less senior teachers were tallied and the protected positions of teachers in high-demand areas were factored in, Savarese’s number wasn’t high enough to save his job.
“It drives me nuts how the union protects the mediocrity,” said Savarese, adding that the Clark County Education Association should allow student test scores, parent reviews or anything reflective of job performance to count ahead of seniority in deciding layoffs.
“Good teachers are hard to come by,” he said. “I’m not talking about me, but many others.”
The rules frustrate not only Savarese but also district officials.
“This is an example of why the archaic ‘last in, first out’ seniority rule serves adults, not students,” said district spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson, noting that the district was bound to “union leaders’ rules. It only makes sense to keep our best and brightest in the classrooms, regardless of when they were hired.”
In 2011, state lawmakers tried to prevent the scenario that unfolded in the district last month. They created legislation requiring that layoffs “not be based solely on the seniority of a teacher.” But 91 percent of the Clark County district’s layoffs were solely seniority based. The first 36 to go were teachers repeatedly reviewed as unsatisfactory or suspended.
“Change will not happen overnight. There’s more to be done on the implementation side,” said Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, a co-sponsor of two education-reform bills in 2011. She called Savarese’s situation “tragic.” But, she asserted, the legislation didn’t fall short.
“For now, I think it’s sufficient,” she said. “We need to be patient and allow the teacher evaluation system to happen.”
The Nevada Department of Education is developing a statewide teacher evaluation process that factors in performance, good and bad, into layoff situations.
But can Savarese wait?
AN INSECURE FUTURE
Savarese couldn’t help but question his calling, despite being one of the very few lucky teachers to be rehired by the district.
Another school’s administrator scanned the layoff list immediately after its release and snatched up Savarese, calling him for an interview before the pink slip even reached his mailbox. He was offered a job at Hancock Elementary School before he knew he’d lost his last one at Sewell.
His award likely saved him, he realizes.
But taking the job was a difficult decision.
“I took a walk,” he said.
While meandering, he considered leaving the state and the profession that offered an insecure future. Savarese and his wife had been trying for a child. “Then I was laid off and we put it on hold.”
He decided to stay in the profession for one reason – a move to Hancock offered him protection from any layoffs in the near future.
“Hancock said, ‘By the way, if you work with us, you’ll be protected from RIFs,’ ” he said.
Hancock, near Oakey and Decatur boulevards, is exempt from layoffs as it undergoes a federally funded, three-year “turnaround” to improve its standing as one of the district’s poorest performers. Superintendent Dwight Jones pledged that turnaround schools wouldn’t be touched in layoffs. Hancock receives an annual $393,000 in federal funding for its turnaround on top of usual funding.
But Savarese is still discouraged by a system where his skills are irrelevant when it comes to staff reductions.
NO TEACHER EXODUS
The district and the teachers union that represents its 18,000 teachers are at an impasse again, this time over terms for 2012-13. Teachers like Savarese worry that things could once again end in layoffs.
“Hopefully, I’ll have another year,” said Daniel Cano, a third-grade teacher at Jeffers Elementary School.
Cano, who was also one of the district’s seven New Teachers of the Year in 2012, was not laid off.
If more layoffs happen, he knows the district can’t disregard his low seniority because of his high performance.
“You try to do the best you can,” Cano said, “but it’s always there, doubt.”
Doubt that may persuade some teachers to voluntarily leave the district, he said.
An exodus of teachers hasn’t happened yet.
So far this summer, the district has retained 94 percent of its teachers, about the same rate as the last two years, according to its Human Resources Division.
Cano said he will continue teaching, something he stumbled into while training to be a firefighter.
“My father was in love with the idea of me being a firefighter,” said Cano, who worked as an instructional assistant at Jeffers – “just as a paycheck” – during firefighter training. He shifted careers and studied education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“Now, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else,” he said.
But he knows it may not be up to him, whether he remains employed at the school near Pecos Road and Carey Avenue.
Cano and his wife, both teachers, have backup jobs in the service industry.
“Hopefully, all teachers will have a backup,” he said.
Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at
email@example.com or 702-383-0279.