Teacher layoffs: Lawmakers need to make changes

In the end, the number of pink slips won’t be nearly as high as originally estimated. The Clark County School District mailed layoff notices to 419 teachers on Monday, the brutal culmination of a yearlong labor dispute.

The impact on valley classrooms, however, will be as bad as forecast. Because an arbitrator ordered the school district to provide teachers with pay raises the system can’t afford, 1,015 teaching positions have been eliminated for the 2012-13 academic year, a reduction in force that will be felt on every campus. If not for hundreds of teacher retirements and resignations, more employees would have been let go.

Unlike most of the job cuts that have hit every part of Southern Nevada, these losses were completely preventable. But the massive school district has almost no flexibility in managing its $2 billion budget, leaving administrators, taxpayers and elected School Board trustees with little control over how to deal with this transition.

The Legislature and Gov. Brian Sandoval must act next year to make the school district more limber and give officials more common-sense options in dealing with cuts.

Remember that district Superintendent Dwight Jones wanted to save every last one of these teaching jobs. If teachers had agreed to a pay freeze – as school administrators, police and support staff did – the school district would be hiring right now. But the Clark County Education Association demanded pay raises, and an arbitrator sided with the union. Those pay raises will cost $64 million next year – enough to cover 1,000 jobs.

If Mr. Jones had laid off workers in other bargaining groups, which came to the table in good faith and agreed to concessions, he would have rewarded teachers for their obstinance and poisoned relations with every other union in the district.

Meanwhile, the layoffs overwhelmingly target first- and second-year teachers, some of whom have been high performers. But reforms passed last year that were supposed to get rid of "last in, first out" layoffs were in fact subject to collective bargaining. The result: 36 layoffs based on discipline and almost 400 based on seniority.

Finally, because state law mandates significantly smaller class sizes for grades one through three, the job cuts will mean disproportionately larger class sizes in grades four and five, in middle schools and high schools. This defies common sense.

In Nevada, state employees cannot collectively bargain. This gives lawmakers direct control over salaries and benefits. Throughout this economic downturn, they have preserved positions by reducing compensation. But when it comes to school districts – the state’s largest consumer of tax dollars – officials must sit on their hands and accept decisions no one wants.

The 2013 Legislature must take steps to fix this mess. Jettison seniority-based layoffs. Give school districts flexibility in times of fiscal stress, and let them decide what their class sizes should be. The solutions are simple – if lawmakers have the will.

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