Teacher friction emerges as layoffs loom

Friction.

Nathan Warner can’t help but notice it building between Clark County School District teachers. It brews in brief moments between classes and in the teachers’ lounges. It started early Wednesday morning after the district sent a mass email to staff about layoffs needed to offset the cost of teacher pay increases.

"It serves the district right. How dare they take away the money I’ve earned," he has heard senior teachers say in reaction to the district’s loss of a nine-month battle with the teachers union over raises.

An arbitration verdict announced Wednesday orders the district to continue paying raises to teachers for seniority and continuing-education credits.

"I understand their joy," Warner said of his celebrating colleagues. "But, at the same time, myself and the younger teachers are worried."

The union’s win will come at a cost, warned Superintendent Dwight Jones, who sought the pay freeze to resolve a budget shortfall and avoid layoffs.

Newly hired teachers, like 24-year-old Warner, will find out between May 16 to 30 whether they have jobs to return to in August. While some gloat, he frets.

"It shouldn’t be dividing teachers like this," said Warner, a fourth-grade teacher finishing his second year at Lake Elementary School, near Sahara Avenue and Maryland Parkway. "Everybody’s trying to be polite about it, but there’s nothing to really gloat about. We all lose."

Even senior teachers have reason to worry. District classes, already crowded, will swell, Jones said. How much the average class size will grow remains uncertain, but it won’t be by more than a couple of students, he said.

That is the main concern of a 24-year-old high school teacher whose classroom is already popping at the seams with 35 to 39 students per period.

"I wasn’t ready for that," said the first-year teacher, who was hired at a district high school after he graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "The students in the back seem miles away. Making that number even a little bit larger is a scary thought."

The teacher, who asked not to be named, teaches math, which should shield him from layoffs though he lacks seniority. Jones said Wednesday the district can’t afford to lose math, science and special education teachers. Schools are already short on them.

That’s why first-year teacher Eddie Ortega took a special education job at Mendoza Elementary School, near Sahara Avenue and Nellis Boulevard. He moved here from San Diego for the job. Ortega’s principal assures him his job is safe.

Clark County Education Association President Ruben Murillo has maintained that all teachers are safe. He has claimed the layoffs are a bluff by Jones to force a pay freeze.

Although a new Nevada law requires school districts and teachers unions to negotiate terms to consider more than just seniority in layoffs, not much has changed. In the district’s looming layoffs, teachers who have been repeatedly suspended and rated poorly will be cut first, according to the teachers’ contract.

But newly hired teachers will bear the brunt of layoffs. That is because the district will quickly run through the short list of teachers who meet the union’s precise requirements for identifying poor performers. That includes those who have been suspended at least five days on two different occasions in the past two years and teachers who had been rated unsatisfactory twice within the past two school years.

The next factor in determining who will be laid off is seniority.

Affected teachers will receive pink slips by the end of May, Jones said Wednesday. It’s the consequence of having to pay raises the cash-strapped district can’t afford, he said.

Murillo also has led rallies scolding officials for rumors that class sizes will increase next year.

But the union is the reason class sizes will increase, Jones said. "The union asks for class sizes to remain the same but – in the same breath – it demands pay raises that would force layoffs and increase class sizes."

Caught between the bickering sides are teachers confused about what to believe, said a 16-year Clark County teacher who wished to remain anonymous. She doesn’t want to anger either side.

"I pay my union dues," said the elementary school teacher, who has picketed at School Board meetings this year.

But she doesn’t know whom to support.

"I stand right in the middle. There are a lot of teachers like me, just working and holding our breath all year."

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

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