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STEVE SEBELIUS: Time is on union’s side

Once you get past the numbers, the contractual language, the Nevada Revised Statutes and the personalities involved, the dispute between the Clark County Education Association and the Clark County School District boils down to one thing: time.

The union for the teachers doesn’t want to spend the time to go through the regular process for resolving disputes between management and labor, a process that regularly favors the union but can be expensive and drawn out.

John Vellardita, the executive director of the teachers union, says the last go-round with the district took nearly two years to resolve and cost the union $850,000 in lawyers, expert witnesses, audits, transcripts and hearings. “They dragged it out,” he said of the district.

Part of the reason: The 2015 elimination of so-called evergreen clauses in collective bargaining contracts, which generally allows for the contract to renew until a new agreement is worked out. Critics say the clauses give the union an incentive to delay striking a new deal, while the union says the lack of them gives management the same incentive.

Legislative Democrats restored the clauses during the 2019 session, bu the new law won’t come into effect until the next contract.

So for now, we’re stuck with two warring sides.

First, it should be said that public sympathy accrues to teachers — and with good reason: Teachers have one of the most difficult and critical jobs in the country, and they do it under some of the most trying circumstances.

We train teachers to educate students, but their jobs are so much more complicated than that. They have to deal with problems that vex students outside the classroom, including poverty, hunger, language barriers, a lack of parental involvement, a lack of supplies and equipment, social ills, suicide, dysfunctional families, gang issues and much more.

Frankly, promises made to teachers in the past ought to be kept. Teachers were told that, if they would continue their education (on their own time and at their own expense) to become better at their profession, they would advance on the district’s pay scale. Whether you think that promise should have been made in the first place — or whether it should continue into the future — teachers who relied on that policy and sought more training should get what they were promised. That’s only right.

On Friday, Gov. Steve Sisolak laid the blame for the standoff squarely on the district, saying it was “astonishing” that officials had failed to budget properly for the additional pay. He urged both sides to work together to resolve the conflict, but made it clear it was the district’s responsibility to fix the problem — without taking money from raises or health care or increasing class sizes.

We should also understand that even with additional funds from taxes on payrolls, marijuana and sales, Nevada still ranks near the bottom on lists ranking states by education spending. After state lawmakers approve funding, decisions on spending mostly devolve to the district’s administrators and its board of trustees, a source of frustration for state officials.

And therein lies part of the dilemma: Jason Goudie, the district’s chief financial officer, says the more money put into the district’s budget, the more money organized labor groups can negotiate for in collective bargaining negotiations.

This raises another issue: While teachers deserve to be paid for their important work (and more highly than the $60,000 current average salary), the school district is not an employment program. It exists for a reason: to education children, prepare the next generation for useful work and inculcate the values of American democracy. The success of the district isn’t measured by employee pay, but the extent to which those goals are achieved.

And that’s why the threat of a strike is so frustrating — because it’s unnecessary. There is a process in place to deal with labor-management disputes. Both sides engage in negotiations (ideally, in good faith). If an agreement cannot be reached, binding arbitration starts. (In fact, the reasons teacher strikes are illegal in Nevada is because of access to binding arbitration.)

After both sides make their case, an independent arbitrator rules, usually for the union. Teachers receive back pay for the time their contracts were in dispute. Yes, it can take time, and yes, it can be expensive. But it has the virtue of allowing the schools to continue their important mission uninterrupted.

Sisolak’s Friday news conference should go a long way toward fixing the problem.

It would be unfortunate if a strike took place, especially because the union would very likely get what it wants even without a strike.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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