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School district declares impasse with teachers union

The bitter taste of an arbitration loss that led to the elimination of 1,015 teacher positions still lingers, but the Clark County School District is taking another stab at the process.

A second loss could lead to additional staffing and program cuts, though.

"There’s always that possibility," said district spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson on Tuesday, shortly after announcing that the district had declared impasse in negotiations with the Clark County Education Association, which represents teachers.

She said that teachers union officials have not responded to district requests for additional contract talks before July 1 to negotiate terms for 2012-13.

"If this thing drags on again," the district could face a deficit as it did last year, Fulkerson said.

Teachers union President Ruben Murillo released a statement Tuesday contending the district’s declaration is "premature." A negotiation meeting was scheduled for July 11.

The sticking point is almost the same now as it was last year – teacher pay raises. Although the union prevailed in arbitration last school year in its bid to continue raises, the cost was high and forced the district to cut 1,015 teaching positions through layoffs and resignations for the 2012-13 school year.

The union is offering the cash-strapped district a one-time payment of $22 million from its health insurance trust to cover the cost of reinstating the 400 teachers who were laid off two weeks ago.

"We’re willing to fund placing teachers back in the classroom," Murillo said Thursday at a School Board meeting.

Fulkerson declined to comment on the particulars of negotiations.

The $22 million payment offered by the union would be a temporary, one-year fix.

By again seeking to preserve pay raises, the union is setting the scene for another round of cuts for employees and students, district sources contend.

If contract terms remain the same and the district’s financial outlook continues to be bleak, Clark County schools will be able to afford only 17,000 teachers instead of 18,000, sources said.

The district had sought to freeze employee salaries to remedy a shortfall in its $2 billion budget.

"That is not our priority right now," Murillo said, referring to the district’s long-term budget woes. "It appears the district is demanding at the table now what it lost at arbitration and is using laid-off teachers as barter."

In May, an arbitrator ruled that the district could afford teacher raises for 2011-12. A second arbitration could result in a different ruling.

"This time around, it’s evident we didn’t have the money for raises last time because we had to do layoffs," Fulkerson said.

Superintendent Dwight Jones is cutting to the chase this time by calling its quits in June after five negotiation meetings. Last year, the union declared impasse in late August after the minimum four meetings, setting in motion a arbitration process that lasted nearly the entire school year.

The district can’t wait that long for a decision again. It has offered to continue meeting with the union though impasse has been declared, according to a Tuesday email sent from the district to the teachers union.

"What I’m not going to do is wait around forever," said Jones, noting that "negotiations have been difficult. But we need an agreement as soon as we can."

Drawing out the process benefits the union, Jones said, because while the contract is being debated, the district must adhere to the former contract and continue to pay raises for seniority and the completion of higher education courses. That’s what happened throughout last school year.

"The arbitrator basically said, ‘You’ve paid (raises) all year. You can pay for two more months,’" Jones said. "It’s amazing how doing a good deed can be punished."

And union leaders seem intent on stalling the process again, he said.

"My guess is we’re back in the same game because they got rewarded for playing it," Jones has said.

In an effort to prevent stalling, the district filed a complaint in April with the state’s Local Government Employee-Management Relations Board, alleging that the Clark County Education Association is "knowingly and willingly" delaying negotiation meetings for a 2012-13 contract.

"Moving to impasse now is imperative to achieving a timely contract and, hopefully, to restoring positions and avoiding further layoffs," Fulkerson said. "Teachers deserve to return to the classroom focused on their students and academics instead of being concerned about contract issues."

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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