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CCSD vows to keep schools open if teachers strike

Updated August 20, 2019 - 9:55 pm

Teachers may walk out of classrooms on Sept. 10 if their contract impasse with the Clark County School District is not resolved, union leaders announced Tuesday.

The announcement follows a legislative session that did not appropriate enough funding for Clark County schools, the fifth-largest district in the nation, to meet all of the Clark County Education Association’s demands.

“We feel very confident that there will be people that will be engaged in it if we have to take action starting on the 10th of September,” union Executive Director John Vellardita said. The union said teachers would start mobilizing Friday for a walkout if the situation remains unresolved.

Meanwhile, the district announced that it is preparing a contingency plan to continue providing instruction and meals for students in a strike.

“No child will be turned away from our District. All doors will remain open, regardless of any decision by union leadership” Superintendent Jesus Jara said.

Strike would be illegal

A walkout by Nevada teachers would continue a series of strikes by educators in at least six other states nationwide since 2018. Strikes by public employees are illegal in Nevada, carrying a fine of up to $50,000 per day for the union and potential termination of employment for teachers.

The strike threat has tapped frustration among parents and teachers alike in a state consistently ranked near the bottom in the nation in education funding.

A major point of contention between the union and the district is salary raises for teachers who completed enough professional development to qualify for a pay advancement — the type of raise tied to continuing education or other activities that might boost the quality of instruction.

The union estimates that some 2,000 educators qualify for that raise, which it says the district estimates would cost between $15 million and $20 million.

The union also wants the district to address a “step freeze” that prevented teachers from moving up in the salary table during the past school year. The union also wants to discuss reducing an increase in the employee contributions to the Public Employees’ Retirement System that reduced teacher paychecks by 0.625 percent.

The two parties appear to be in agreement on a 3 percent salary raise across the board, a 2 percent step increase and a roughly 4 percent increase in the district’s contribution to health care.

An agreement on those matters and resolution of the professional development raises would be “significant progress” in avoiding a strike, Vellardita said.

It’s unclear how many teachers would strike if given the chance. As of June 25, 2018, roughly 58 percent of all educators paid dues to the association — which might indicate how many teachers are members of the union.

School Board President Lola Brooks did not return a call for comment. It remains unclear whether the district has the capacity to keep schools running if teachers walk out.

Jara said in a statement that the strike must be prevented.

“We agree that teachers deserve more pay, which is why we are offering a 3 percent raise, a step increase and contributing 4 percent toward medical for all their tremendous work,” Jara said.

The total cost of those increases is $69 million, according to the district.

At a meeting with principals on Tuesday, officials brainstormed ways to engage students if a strike occurs, the district said.

Meanwhile, the human resources office is working to ensure there is a pool of qualified substitute teachers available in a strike, according to the district. It also would waive all fingerprinting costs for substitutes.

Mixed reactions

Teachers at Helen Marie Smith Elementary School said they haven’t yet heard vital information about the threatened walkout, including whether the union will be able to offer strike pay.

For reading strategist Stefanie Strimboulis, that has meant added stress, which she has tried to combat by making contingency plans.

“I’m lucky that we have savings, that we can make these plans, but there are teachers who have to work,” Strimboulis said.

William Fisher, a math teacher at the High Desert State Prison Adult High School, said he spent over $5,000 on four UNLV courses and volunteered for 600 hours to earn his professional development credits and earn a pay raise.

He said he definitely supports the strike, although he and his fellow teachers at the prison probably won’t strike themselves as they are in a unique position with a prison population.

“I think it’s the only leverage we have to get what I feel we deserve,” he said of the strike. “It seems like a broken promise.”

Meanwhile, groups affiliated with the Nevada State Education Association — the organization from which CCEA disaffiliated last year — are either opposed to or neutral about a strike.

The Education Support Employees Association, which has fought with a rival union to maintain its representation of district support staff, said in a news release on Tuesday that it does not support an illegal strike.

“We expect to settle a contract with the district via the bargaining table and not in the streets,” Virginia Mills, the group’s president, said in a statement.

The group said it has set three negotiation dates with the district to discuss the pay and benefit increases. The remaining two sessions will be held Sept. 3 and Sept. 10.

“We will not put our kids in harm’s way and walk away from our classrooms, our lunchrooms and our buses,” Mills said.

The National Education Association of Southern Nevada, a smaller rival of the CCEA, is not taking a position on the strike but is educating members on repercussions and the best options for them, said treasurer Karlana Kulseth..

But Kulseth said she personally opposes the strike because it is illegal and she is the main income earner for her family.

“I have kids and that’s my biggest thing,” she said. “If I were single and had no other care in the world but my own perhaps it’d be a different story.”

State funding comes up short

Though the Legislature pushed through a few last-minute bills this session that helped the district cover the 3 percent raise promised by Gov. Steve Sisolak, the district announced shortly after the session in June that it faced a $17 million deficit for this year and another $17 million for the next school year.

To close the deficit this year, middle and high schools cut roughly $98 per student from their budgets.

The union initially threatened to strike in the current school year if the Legislature did not provide sufficient education funding.

As the district awaited final figures from the state, the union also threatened to pressure the governor to call a special session of the Legislature to reconsider education funding levels.

But despite the subsequent budget cuts, the beginning of school came and went without a strike.

The union later said it could still strike if any cuts were made to classrooms — specifically classroom teaching positions — and if an amenable contract was not approved in a timely manner.

Vellardita said the union has been consistent with its messaging and noted that the union didn’t strike at the end of the session because in the district indicated it had enough funding to get by.

Legislators react

Sisolak on Tuesday encouraged both parties to remember that the issue is about students and parents.

“I think everybody needs to step back and keep in mind that the most important things that we’re dealing with here are teachers and the kids that they’re educating,” he said. “And when you put that in perspective, I’m hopeful that they’ll be able to come to some type of agreement.”

Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, who chaired the Senate’s Education Committee, said it’s up to the district and union to work it out.

But he said the strike threat is a symptom of inadequate education funding. Despite increases in funding during the recent legislative session, he said, the state is short of where it needs to be.

“We don’t fund education at the level that we need to,” he said.

Contact Amelia Pak-Harvey at apak-harvey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4630. Follow @AmeliaPakHarvey on Twitter. Reporters Aleksandra Appleton, Bill Dentzer and Colton Lochhead contributed to this story.

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