Layoffs looming: An arbitrator sides with the teachers

Bad faith and a broken collective bargaining system paid off for the Clark County Education Association.

An arbitrator sided with the union in its year-long dispute with the Clark County School District because the country’s fifth-largest public education system didn’t bleed enough while the local dragged out negotiations. As a result, teachers will keep raises taxpayers can’t afford, and the district might have to eliminate more than 1,000 positions.

About 300,000 students are the losers in a decision made by California resident Philip Tamoush, a man who doesn’t answer to the voters and taxpayers of Nevada and has no stake in the county’s economy and education system. If this absurd action can’t spur lawmakers and the governor to enact major reforms in the way governments set public employee compensation, what will do the trick?

The impasse was over teacher pay. Superintendent Dwight Jones wanted teachers to accept a two-year pay freeze to bridge an estimated $63 million budget gap through 2013, thereby preserving their jobs. The union wanted teachers to again collect on pay raises awarded for years of service and the completion of advanced training and coursework.

But when the union’s previous contract expired last summer without a new deal in place, the school district had to honor the pay scales that had been negotiated in better economic times. Mr. Jones took other measures to achieve savings in the short term, largely by obtaining concessions from the district’s other bargaining groups. Meanwhile, the teacher union dug in and claimed the district had adequate reserves to cover the pay raises in question.

The dispute dragged into the school year’s second semester before going to binding arbitration. Mr. Jones decided that laying off large numbers of teachers mid-year would be detrimental to students. As it turns out, that act of good faith was a deciding factor in the arbitrator’s ruling.

Mr. Tamoush determined that because the district has met its larger payroll for so long without laying off teachers, the teachers can keep their raises. The decision has the effect of ratcheting teachers’ salaries even higher come July 1 – necessitating even more job eliminations.

Now Mr. Jones must move forward with a budget for 2012-13 based on worst-case scenarios. Other bargaining groups that made the teachers’ raises possible through their own concessions may not feel so generous going forward. And what incentive does the district have to maintain a small reserve fund if it can be raided by intractable unions?

Two things are certain at this point. First, nothing can be off the table as Mr. Jones seeks new savings. Second, binding arbitration must be eliminated as the means of settling contract disputes. Elected officials must be the final deciders. Otherwise the taxpaying public has no control over a structure that lacks transparency and accountability and rewards obstinance. Such reforms cannot wait another year.

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