District wins teacher arbitration, raises awarded this school year rescinded

Pay raises given to about half of Clark County’s 17,000 teachers and licensed personnel at the beginning of the school year will be rescinded today , sending teachers back to their 2011-12 salary levels, according to an arbitrator who ruled Thursday in favor of the Clark County School District.

Superintendent Dwight Jones said he was “relieved” with the decision concerning teachers’ 2012-13 contract, which will allow him to put more teachers into classrooms. The district will be able to bring back about 415 teacher positions that were cut last year, said district Chief Financial Officer Jeff Weiler in arbitration hearings.

The district would be able to hire some of those teachers this school year, according to a written proposal to the arbitrator. Last school year, the cash-strapped district cut 1,015 teaching positions to offset the cost of teacher pay raises forced on the district by a different arbitrator’s ruling on the 2011-12 contract.

Those automatic raises – for seniority and professional development credits – continued through this school year because the district and its teachers union, the Clark County Education Association, couldn’t agree on the 2012-13 contract. When that happens, teachers continue working under the previous contract, which in this case allowed for raises.

In its arbitration proposal, the cash-strapped district sought to freeze teacher salaries this school year, though teachers have been paid raises for five months, totaling $11.5 million.

The district, the fifth-largest in the nation with 311,000 students, won’t force teachers to repay raises already paid out.

Nevertheless, the district will save about $11.5 million from now through the end of the school year by taking away raises, district spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said. It will also save $23 million next school year even if automatic raises are put back into place. That is because future raises would be based on the lowered salary amount.

Until a new contract says otherwise, teacher salaries will remain frozen.

Teachers union officials now appear to be pinning their hopes on more money from the Legislature.

“No matter how the arbitrator ruled today, nobody wins because the real decision that needs to be made is by our legislators in Carson City,” a union statement released Thursday said.

Union officials did not return calls for further comment.

So, why did this arbitrator go one way when another looking at similar terms just a school year ago went the opposite way?

This year’s arbitrator, Jay Fogelberg, seemed to place a higher priority on educational quality rather than looking solely at the district’s ability to pay raises, Fulkerson said.

Fogelberg said as much in his ruling. He wrote that the larger class sizes, which resulted from his predecessor awarding teacher pay raises, adversely affected student performance.

“By law, I am required to examine not only the district’s ability to pay in matters such as this, but to also consider their requirement to provide education to the students in their care. In this instance, it is the second stated obligation that has had the greatest influence on my decision,” Fogelberg wrote.

But, Fogelberg emphasized, the decision is being made with the assumption that the district’s stated goal of hiring more teachers was “made in good faith and will now be put into effect.” The union also made note of this condition from Fogelberg’s ruling in its statement Thursday.

On the bright side for teachers, they will all be receiving $360 more a year because the district eliminated a union-imposed paycheck deduction that fed $6 million annually into its Teachers Retiree Health Trust. Also, the district no longer will give $4.1 million a year to the retiree trust.

“The trust is flush with cash reserves. A break from teacher payments will not impact the wellbeing of the trust,” the district reported.

The retiree trust has $34.6 million in assets, according to the organization’s most recent IRS report for the 2010-11 school year.

The retiree trust is separate from the union’s struggling Teachers Health Trust, which provides working teachers with health insurance but is facing bankruptcy in 60 to 90 days, according to union Executive Director John Vellardita. He made the statement in an executive session of a union meeting two weeks ago.

Although Thursday marked an end to a lengthy legal process for teachers’ 2012-13 contact terms, the parties will be coming back to the table this summer to work toward teacher contracts for 2013-14 and 2014-15.

And it’s not just teachers but the support staff, administrators and police unions that need new contracts, having agreed to pay freezes the last two school years when teachers wouldn’t.

Fulkerson said it’s uncertain whether the district will request continued pay freezes for these 30,000 workers. A lot of that will depend on how the state Legislature funds education.

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