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October 22, 2014

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School district police made $1 million-plus in overtime

Campus police officers took home more than $1.37 million in overtime pay last year, a figure the Clark County School District's top financial officer called "a reason for serious concern."

When overtime dollars were added to their base salaries, four patrol sergeants each ended up with bigger annual paychecks than School Police Chief Elliot Phelps, who earns $83,544 per year.

"When we pay a campus officer three times that of one teacher, the system is broken and needs to be fixed," said Walt Rulffes, deputy superintendent of operations for the school district. "The situation is under review and we are going to bring this under control."

School district police salaries range from $36,587 for a new academy recruit to $66,725 for an experienced sergeant. Teacher salaries start just below $28,000 and go up to $56,363 for individuals with a doctorate and at least 10 years in the district. Teachers are not eligible for overtime.

More is at stake than just district dollars when it comes to excessive overtime, Phelps said.

"I'm worried about officers being tired when they show up for their regular duties," Phelps said. "We've got to get this under control, but the question is how do we do that when the district is constantly building new schools and we're not increasing the size of our force."

Phelps said he is instituting a new overtime policy that requires officers have a minimum of an eight-hour break between their regular shifts. Total overtime will be limited to 35 hours a week, Phelps said.

With the $1.37 million spent on overtime the district could have paid 30 campus officers the district's median salary for the position -- $46,280 annually.

Part of the overtime problem stems from the fact that not enough qualified people apply for the school police vacancies, Phelps said. The department currently has eight vacancies for campus officers.

The cost of training additional campus monitors in crowd control and other security measures -- as well as raising the job description's pay scale to match the new responsibilities -- will come from the funds that otherwise would have paid for police overtime, Rulffes said.

Campus monitors currently direct student traffic between classes, write up students for minor infractions such as wearing inappropriate clothing or leaving school without permission. School police are sworn peace officers and carry guns, make arrests and conduct investigations. They can investigate misdemeanor and felony offenses. Investigations involving the most serious "Class A" felonies, including murder, are turned over to either Metro Police or the municipal police department.

Susan Brager-Wellman, president of the Clark County School Board, said she wanted to know more about the potential change in campus monitor job duties and whether it would mean reassigning campus officers from schools to field positions.

"I know having our officers on campus has made a difference in the quality of life for our students and our staff," Brager-Wellman said. "Before we mess with that formula I'd want to know what kind of training they (the campus monitors) would receive and who would be conducting it."

Larry Mason, vice president of the school board, said he understood the district's desire to bring costs under control and applauded the review of police overtime. However, Mason said, any cost-saving measures must not come at the expense of public safety.

"Our parents deserve the right to know their children are safe, and our teachers and staff have that right, too," Mason said. "If that means having school police, and it means expense, then so be it."

Sgt. Phil Gervasi, head of the school district police officers association, earned $86,096 last year, including $28,854 in overtime. Gervasi said Friday he likely worked about 1,000 extra hours, mostly covering the unpopular graveyard and swing shifts.

"I don't have children to worry about, I'm a workaholic and I only need five hours of sleep," Gervasi said. "It's also about loyalty. I won't leave my guys hanging -- if they need a shift covered I'll reschedule my personal appointments and get it done."

The school police department now has 154 officers, including 14 sergeants, the same number of sergeants it had seven years ago when there were fewer than 100 officers total, Gervasi said. That means in addition to working overtime, sergeants are responsible for supervising more officers than is desirable, Gervasi said.

"We've been fighting with the district about this for years," Gervasi said. "Our people aren't asking for overtime, and some of them refuse to do it because they're flat-out exhausted."

He also said the district's efforts to hire additional officers have been haphazard at best, with few advertisements being placed for openings.

"We've been told they're not hiring anymore officers even though we have three high schools opening in August," Gervasi said. "With the overtime the district is actually saving money because they're not paying benefits for new employees. They want us to do more with less."

The district pays 21 percent of all its employees salaries in retirement fund contributions. Police officers receive another 10 percent of their salaries in additional benefits, including uniforms and paid vacation time and holidays. For each police officer the district contributes $4,042 to health insurance costs.

The district's teachers receive the same 21 percent of base salaries in retirement fund contributions and $4,546 a year in health care benefits. Unlike school police, teachers are not paid for vacation time or holidays.

Paying overtime or hiring more campus officers aren't the only two options the district has, Rulffes said.

"This isn't an either-or situation," Rulffes said. "It's not just about cost, it's also about whether we're allocating our resources in the best manner."

Clark County School Board member Denise Brodsky said if the district truly cannot hire the officers needed, it may be time to ask the Legislature to shift the responsibility for policing schools to Metro and municipal police agencies.

"They have a gang unit, they have a drugs unit; why can't they have a school police unit?" Brodsky said. "At this point we really need to ask ourselves whether we're spending taxpayer dollars in the best manner."

The New York City Police Department is responsible for protecting the nation's largest school district. The second-largest, Los Angeles Unified School District, has its own police force.

Clark County has schools in the jurisdictions of Metro, Henderson, North Las Vegas and Boulder City police departments.

Carole Vilardo, president of the Nevada Taxpayers Association, said her organization is working on a list of recommendations encouraging public agencies to examine their books for unecessary overtime spending.

"If there's consistent payments it may be more efficient to hire someone outright to cover those hours," Vilardo said. "Too much overtime is when it is ongoing, week after week, month after month. Overtime should be for special circumstances when extra help is needed, not a consistent pattern."

The school district's voluntarily examination of its own overtime policy and procedures is encouraging, Vilardo said.

"It's sound fiscal judgment to conduct these kinds of reviews, analyze the findings and come up with solutions," Vilardo said.

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