Las Vegas Sun

November 24, 2014

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School District freezes hiring, but 791 more teachers needed

Faced with the likelihood of cutting more than $100 million from its operating budget, the Clark County School District has frozen almost all hiring for the upcoming academic year, leaving it at least 791 teachers short for the school year that starts in August.

The number could go up if teachers retire or find other jobs in the next few weeks. A decision on what to do about those vacancies won’t be made until the Legislature and the governor decide how the state will deal with the budget crisis. But the district figures that it may be forced to cut programs and services, and that would allow teachers who are on special assignment as literacy or technology specialists to be reassigned to classroom teacher positions.

Additionally, specialists working with English language learners and gifted and talented students could also be reassigned. It is even possible, said Superintendent Walt Rulffes, that administrative personnel could be told to cover classroom assignments.

Without the specialists, however, fewer students would get individualized help, and teachers wouldn’t have the same access to training and support for the latest classroom technology and instructional methods, said Bob McCord, associate professor of educational leadership at UNLV’s College of Education.

“That will certainly hurt the district and its students,” McCord said. “It’s a hard decision no one wants to make.”

This isn’t the first time the state’s budget woes have forced the district to freeze hiring. In 2003, when the Legislature went into overtime after failing to approve a budget, then-Superintendent Carlos Garcia announced a freeze. Garcia said the district’s literacy and technology specialists, as well as teachers of gifted and talented classes, would be used to fill the vacancies. The freeze was lifted about a month later, after school funding was approved.

At the time, some lawmakers decried Garcia’s move as a scare tactic. But there’s little question the latest hiring freeze is in response to very real problems.

In a memo to all district employees Tuesday, Rulffes outlined what he described as “the gloomy background.” The district has trimmed about $60 million from its operating budget, with another $50 million to $70 million in cuts projected for the 2008-09 academic year. Additionally, the district could lose $133 million in state funding for the 2009-10 academic year.

“I hope you will join me in working to find alternatives to the devastation this level of cuts would produce,” Rulffes wrote.

Rulffes told the Sun the district is facing a no-win scenario.

If hiring were to continue unchecked, layoffs could be necessary. But the freeze means the district may miss out on some top-drawer applicants who accept other employment, and increases the possibility that schools will be understaffed when students return.

“I have to come down on the safe side to assure a balanced budget, which is legally required,” Rulffes said. “Either way, somebody is hurt.”

The district is lucky in one regard: Enrollment growth predictions have hit a six-year low. Fewer new students means fewer new teachers are necessary.

The district is expecting about 1.7 percent enrollment growth — 5,300 new students — in the fall, bringing total enrollment to just more than 314,000. In recent years, the district’s enrollment growth has regularly topped 4 percent.

Hiring has also been frozen for support employees and administrators.

A few exceptions to the teacher hiring freeze will be made for applicants for highest need areas such as special education and high school math, said Martha Tittle, the district’s chief human resources officer.

Joanie Monroy, principal of Sunrise Acres Elementary School, said Tuesday she is grateful that five of her six teacher vacancies were filled before the hiring freeze took effect.

If the district winds up unable to find a reassigned specialist to fill her last classroom vacancy, Monroy would have to rely on a long-term substitute.

“I’m responsible for our kids learning to read and do math and meeting the expectations the community has for me and this school,” Monroy said. “That would be very difficult for me to do without credentialed teachers.”

She also didn’t relish the thought of losing her specialists, whom Sunrise Acres has to share with another campus.

“We have them for 2.5 days and we are very grateful for that much,” Monroy said.

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