Union, school district again at odds

If the loss of more than 1,000 teaching positions in this county’s underperforming school district wasn’t enough to alert the public to the state’s political and policy dysfunction, would the loss of 1,000 more do the trick?

That’s the scenario that could play out next summer if parents and taxpayers fail to demand massive changes to a collective bargaining process that discourages good-faith negotiations, rewards union obstinance, ignores the community’s interests and insulates elected officials from accountability.

The Clark County School District starts a new year Monday with about 1,000 fewer teachers in the classroom. That’s because last spring an out-of-state arbitrator awarded teachers pay raises the taxpayers couldn’t afford rather than accept the district’s offer of a pay freeze.

Leaders of the Clark County Education Association gamely try to spin the fact that the district avoided layoffs as an indication its financial distress has been exaggerated. Hardly. In reality, hundreds of teachers who would have been laid off survived only because more than 1,200 others retired or resigned, many of them in the past two months.

The current process – which allows the previous expired contract to roll over during negotiations and allows for a deal to be imposed through arbitration – rewards the teachers union for stalling and offers an incentive for the association to repeat this cycle and avoid agreement.

Indeed, the same games are being played for the new school year, with the same battle lines drawn: a school district administration and School Board that want a pay freeze to save jobs, and a union that wants pay raises that could eliminate more jobs and increase class sizes even further.

The only change: The CCEA’s bad-faith tactics have hit the gutter.

In a last-ditch attempt to strike a bargain, the two sides this summer agreed to put before teachers a proposal to preserve the pay raises but offset their cost through furloughs. In an Aug. 3 email message to the school district, CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita promised the union wouldn’t “organize opposition to it.” The union also declared no vote would take place at an Aug. 20 meeting.

But when the union met that day behind closed doors, Mr. Vellardita held a vote and urged his members to strike down the plan. (The Review-Journal obtained an audio recording of the meeting from a union member.) “If we don’t reach an agreement, we’re on track to go to arbitration. We’re comfortable, confident we can do the same in this one.” The vote was conducted by a show of hands, not ballots, as required by union rules. The union refused to provide the school district with the exact vote totals.

“We just don’t have the money,” Superintendent Dwight Jones told the Review-Journal’s editorial board Thursday. So unless the Legislature significantly increases education funding next year, the district could very well be forced to eliminate up to 1,000 more teaching jobs next summer if the raises are again upheld by an arbitrator.

Regardless of funding issues, however, the Legislature must enact major collective bargaining reforms to prevent this pointless, destructive process from playing out again and again without input from elected policymakers. Open negotiating sessions to the public. Prevent contract terms from rolling forward upon expiration, so both sides have an incentive to bargain in good faith and reach agreement. Force unions to bring a proposal to membership for ratification or rejection via ballot before an impasse can be declared. Eliminate binding arbitration and make elected boards the ultimate decider of labor agreements.

“All bets will be off if we don’t do something to change the system. … At some point, the community needs to make a decision about what they’re willing to tolerate,” Mr. Jones said. “This is one of the defining moments for this community.”

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