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STEVE SEBELIUS: Why did Clark County teachers almost strike?

Of the myriad questions that still surround the aborted Clark County teachers strike, one stands out as unanswered: Why?

Why did the Clark County School District fight with its teachers union, the Clark County Education Association, over the issue of extra pay for teachers who put in the work to get graduate degrees or other training? Why did the negotiations get to the point where the union began to take steps to stage an illegal strike?

And given the relative ease and rapidity with which the district suddenly found the money to meet the union’s demands, why wasn’t this dispute settled long ago, without acrimony?

The district’s explanations point to happenstance and gimmickry. Officials found the extra money from savings in unfilled “front office” positions, from shifting some jobs from the district’s budget to budgets paid for by federal or state grants and —surprise! — interest earnings.

The Review-Journal’s Aleksandra Appleton also reported the district was unaware it even had the extra money, until a review of actual income and expenses conducted through an antiquated “manual” process revealed the funds were there.

Why weren’t those reviews done sooner, as the controversy over the pay was building? And does this show that the cynics who suggest we’re shoveling money into the school district’s coffers like coal into the fiery maw of a steam locomotive (to virtually identical effect) have a point?

There’s no question the district was playing hardball, however.

When the deficits were first announced, Superintendent Jesus Jara announced the unilateral termination of all deans throughout the district, sparking howls of protest and a lawsuit from the administrator’s union. In declarations filed with that lawsuit, union officials quote two district trustees saying Jara intentionally sought a fight with the governor and wanted to create an outcry that would upset parents who in turn would direct their anger at Gov. Steve Sisolak.

“We have to do something to get the governor to give us more money,” Jara is quoted as saying.

But in an interview with the Review-Journal editorial board last week, Jara flatly denied saying anything of the kind. “I never said those words,” he said.

As the union prepared the strike, the district not only shut down a board of trustees meeting at which teachers were protesting, it also sent its lawyers to court with a request to seek a speedy injunction against teachers, ordering them not to engage in an illegal strike. You might think it was a fool’s errand to do so — if teachers were willing to violate the law by striking, why not a court order, too? — until you read the statute and learn that an injunction is the first step in levying fines against the union and discipline against striking teachers.

It was only after Sisolak and legislative leaders called out the district for failing to properly budget for the extra pay, and more negotiations, that the district reached what it called a “compromise,” although it’s apparent they mispronounced the word “capitulation.”

It was a just resolution, to be sure: Teachers had been promised the extra pay for the extra work (done on their own time and at their own expense). Whether the program actually improves student performance, whether it was a good idea to make the promise in the first place and whether it’s a policy that needs to be changed going forward is beside the point. The district was always going to have to pay, whether as a result of a strike, an arbitration proceeding or even a court battle.

That’s what makes the denouement so perplexing and anti-climatic: The entire drama easily could have been avoided.

So why wasn’t it? We still don’t have that answer, and maybe never will.

The worst part of the ersatz crisis is that it’s distracted us from the real issues that everyone — union, district officials, the governor and legislative leaders alike — agrees are the systemic problems facing schools, especially in Clark County.

Issues such as intensive reading instruction for kids in kindergarten through third grade, when learning to read is most critical. The Legislature voted to devote extra resources to that cause this session, but unfortunately killed a provision that would have held back students who didn’t meet the standard before they move on to fourth grade.

Issues such as boosting performance on tests designed to measure student progress, and to identify students who may need additional attention in order to get into college and avoid having to take remedial classes once they get there.

Issues such as increasing teacher pay commensurate with the importance of their jobs, not only to the community, but to the country. At the same time, however, we have to link to better student outcomes, in a way that’s fair to educators but also effective in ensuring schools do what they’re supposed to do.

We may never get answers to why the Great Schools Standoff of 2019 happened. But now that it’s over, we need to work to resolve the issues that made it a thing in the first place.

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

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