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Document raises questions about union influence in school funding issues

Updated March 15, 2023 - 6:44 pm

Staff for the state Legislature earlier this month sent a document to Nevada public school district superintendents outlining questions they must address during an upcoming meeting about education funding.

However, it wasn’t legislative staff or even state lawmakers who drew up the list of questions, but rather the state’s largest teachers union.

The distribution of the unedited document raises questions about the amount of influence the teachers union has over the Democrat-majority Legislature on issues surrounding school funding.

In late February, Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, announced that they would request that the superintendents and the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority appear before legislators to explain how they would use an additional $2 billion in proposed K-12 education funding to improve student outcomes.

Earlier this month, the Legislative Counsel Bureau’s fiscal analysis division sent an email to all school district superintendents with a list of topics to be addressed at that meeting. The Las Vegas Review-Journal obtained a copy of the email through a public records request.

“In order for you to prepare for the meeting, I would like to provide you with the attached summary of the topics Legislative Leadership would like to be addressed at the hearing,” the email read.

The document did not include a letterhead or any indication of who wrote it, but file information inside the document lists Clark County Education Association President John Vellardita as its author.

Yeager said Friday that the teachers union sent him the document, but that he didn’t know who authored it. Yeager said he didn’t make any changes to the document and forwarded it to legislative staff, who is working on arranging the hearing for superintendents.

Yeager said he reached out to the Clark County Education Association, the Nevada State Education Association and members of the Assembly Committee on Education after the announcement last month to ask for thoughts and feedback on what they would like superintendents to present.

He said he sent the Clark County Education Association’s suggestions to staff as a starting point and the intent was to augment it with additional feedback.

Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, a former Clark County School District teacher who has served in the Legislature for over a decade, said he had never heard of lawmakers formally asking outside groups to send in questions for legislative proceedings.

“This is the first time perhaps I’ve seen it where you actually go out and solicit questions from stakeholders in a formal way like this,” he said.

Asked about the document, the district provided a statement from the Nevada Association of School Superintendents saying that any questions about its authorship should be directed to the legislators or leadership responsible.

Document sent to superintendents

The document sent to superintendents questions how districts will use additional money in several areas, including for special education, at-risk students, English language learners and Gifted and Talented Education students.

It also asks how districts will use the funding to address areas such as math, science and reading proficiency, graduation rates and teacher vacancies.

In a statement sent Friday to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Clark County Education Association said that it has been “very consistent and very public when it comes to demanding accountability from school districts as to how they are going to spend the new funding for the next school year.”

Shortly after last month’s announcement from Democratic leaders, the union — which represents more than 18,000 licensed professionals in Clark County — said it supported the move for a joint hearing.

The teachers union has clashed with the district in recent weeks, including over bonuses that district proposed to help attract teachers to work at low-performing schools. The union said it would not support one-time money for teachers and that the bonuses undermined collective bargaining rights.

The union has also said it would support legislation that puts the district in receivership if student outcomes don’t see improvement within the next year.

“We have been very specific on what we believe school districts should be reporting on,” the union said Friday. “We have stated it on the record in hearings in Carson City, as well as directly with the Governor and Legislative Leadership — and we will continue to do so.”

The union didn’t respond to a request to interview Vellardita or answer additional questions about whether he wrote the document sent to superintendents.

A spokesperson for Gov. Joe Lombardo’s office also declined a request for comment.

The Clark County Education Association has carried powerful influence in state legislative sessions, including in 2021 when a last-minute bill was introduced — and subsequently signed into law — to raise mining taxes to generate millions in funding for education.

Then-Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson called it a “monumental compromise” between the teachers union and others. The union agreed to withdraw two previously qualified initiative petitions in return, one to raise sales taxes and another to raise gaming taxes.

Campaign finance reports show Strategic Horizons, the union’s political action committee, donated $100,000 to Yeager’s Nevada Strong PAC and $50,000 to Cannizzaro’s Battle Born and Raised Leadership PAC in 2022.

The union also made a $10,000 contribution to Cannizzaro’s campaign in 2016, and contributed $2,500 to Yeager’s campaign in 2016 and $1,000 in 2014.

Hammond said that informally seeking help from lobbyists and relevant stakeholders is common, particularly for Nevada’s part-time Legislature, which only convenes every two years. “As legislators, we don’t always know what the right questions are,” he said.

He also acknowledged that the questions offered by the union on school funding are ones that many Democrat and Republican legislators are likely mulling over themselves.

“It’s not a question of whether or not these questions are good,” he said. “I just haven’t seen it too often where we’ve asked outside stakeholders to kind of fill our bucket full of questions. That’s the part I’ve never seen before.”

Hearing hasn’t been scheduled

A hearing date with the superintendents hasn’t yet been set, Yeager said Friday, noting there were some complications due to recent inclement weather in Carson City.

He said the aim is to hold a hearing by the end of this month or in early April.

Mindy Pressman, a spokesperson for the Senate Democratic Caucus, said that Cannizzaro wasn’t available for an interview Friday.

Addressing the document superintendents received, Pressman said, “We can’t speak to who distributed them, but they look like great questions and Senate Democrats look forward to hearing the answers.”

The Nevada Association of School Superintendents said in its statement that once a hearing date is scheduled, superintendents are ready to explain how additional funding can “support and improve student achievement and outcomes while enhancing system-wide accountability for all.”

“Our hardworking educators, administrators, and support professionals deserve increased compensation for their dedication to improving education outcomes for our children,” the association said. “We will work with legislative leadership on their narrowly tailored $250 million proposal to understand how this one-time infusion of funding is sustainable to cover recurring salary obligations for all our employees.”

But Hammond said he feels somewhat jaded about the issue of accountability, particularly after the Democrat-majority Legislature opted in 2019 to undo a provision in Nevada’s Read By Three law that would have held back students who were not proficient at reading by third grade.

If his colleagues on the other side of the aisle are asking for more accountability measures, Hammond said he applauds the move and the questions being asked of school superintendents.

“I’m a little skeptical because sometimes we keep giving them more money and we’re not getting those accountability measures put in there, or we’re not living up to that potential,” he said. “That’s what I worry about.”

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter. Contact Lorraine Longhi at 702-387-5298 or llonghi@reviewjournal.com. Follow her at @lolonghi on Twitter.

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