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District hires law firm for fray

The Clark County School District has retained the nation’s largest law firm for representing management in labor disputes as it squares off with its administrators union over contracts awarded to top executives.

Littler Mendelson, with an office in Las Vegas, is defending the contracts awarded to five district executives in 2009 by attacking the legitimacy of the union, which criticized the new perks and benefits approved during a time of financial hardship.

The contracts prompted the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-technical Employees to file an unfair labor practices complaint against the district in April.

But the law firm, which is charging the district $250 an hour, argues that the union is not an “appropriate bargaining unit” because it includes “individuals who supervise other individuals,” a violation of state labor law.

Stephen Augspurger, the union’s executive director, contends that the law makes exceptions for a “community of interest,” such as principals, assistant principals and deans.

About five years ago, the district asked the union to expand its membership to include technical employees with college degrees.

Augspurger thinks the district is retaliating against the union because it called attention to the “lucrative” contracts and to the “waste” of $9 million over two years to fund a half-percent increase in teacher pension contributions, a benefit not given to other district employee groups.

“Somebody is getting even with an organization they haven’t liked very much,” said Augspurger, referring to Superintendent Walt Rulffes.

Instead of answering the criticisms, School Board members and district officials “have dug in and brought out the big guns,” Augspurger said.

Rulffes said the “district initiated nothing.” It’s only responding to the allegations made by the administrators union, which resulted in a closer examination of the law.

The district is “absolutely not retaliatory in anyway,” Ruffles said.

While Augspurger notes that the district is hiring a law firm in the midst of budget cuts, Rulffes argues the district would not have needed the firm at all if the union had not filed a complaint with the state’s Local Government Employee-Management Relations Board.

Rulffes said the district is only interested in “fair settlements,” such as the tentative agreements it has reached with its unions for teachers and support staff.

The administrators union is still negotiating a contract for 2010-11 and has offered to have administrators take three furlough days, which is the equivalent of a 1.5 percent salary reduction.

Andy Anderson, commissioner of the employee-management relations board, said no hearing date has been set for the complaint from the administrators union. It might be a few months before the case is heard, he said.

Anderson also noted that there are other administrative unions that include both supervisors and supervised employees, such as unions for the ranking officers in fire and police departments.

Bill Hoffman, the district’s general counsel, would normally handle the labor complaint, but he is one of the five confidential employees awarded the benefits under dispute, with Deputy Superintendent for Support Services Charlene Green, Deputy Superintendent for Instruction Lauren Kohut-Rost, Chief Human Resources Officer Martha Tittle and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Weiler. They received the contract extensions collectively worth more than $100,000.

School Board President Terri Janison was not aware the district had hired a private law firm, but said it was not unusual in cases where there was a conflict of interest.

If the district prevails in the case, it will demand that the union pay the legal fees of Littler Mendelson, which has 48 offices in major metropolitan areas, according to the firm’s website.

Hoffman said that in alleging an unfair labor practice, the administrators union is trying an old argument that failed in a 2003 case: that confidential employees should receive benefits similar to the union they otherwise would join.

Because they negotiate union contracts, confidential employees are not allowed to join a bargaining unit.

There is ambiguity in the law over what constitutes a similar benefit, but in the case of the five confidential employees, their benefits are “not even remotely close” to what other district administrators get, Augspurger said.

He pointed to a generous sick leave benefit that could award $43,000 to one confidential employee.

The district faces a 2010-11 budget shortfall of about $140 million because of state budget cuts and declining revenue from property taxes.

Augspurger also thinks the district has taken other retaliatory action against his union by eliminating 90 school-based administrative positions. The affected administrators still can get teaching jobs, but they are losing their administrative jobs.

Also, the district has announced the elimination of 540 teaching jobs for next year, but those affected are expected to get other teaching positions.

By eliminating assistant principals and deans, the cuts will directly affect the district’s student achievement and reform efforts, Augspurger said.

If the district had not committed
$9 million to cover the teachers’ Public Employees’ Retirement System contribution increase, it could have saved the 90 school administrative jobs, he said.

Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, which represents teachers, has said all union contracts are different, and so the benefits vary.

Augspurger said the teachers’ contract states that the PERS benefit will be covered as “required by law.”

Under state law, increases in PERS contributions are to be evenly split by the employer and employee through salary increases or salary deductions.

Augspurger said the teachers union and the district should be candid: Teachers got a half-percent “salary increase” while the other three employee groups took salary cuts.

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

 

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