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April 20, 2014

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Education:

Local battles on teacher pay cuts will follow action in Carson City

The Legislature can order pay cuts for state workers, but local schoolteachers are a different story.

Although Gov. Jim Gibbons proposed months ago that teachers take a 6 percent cut to help the state close a yawning budget gap, the reality being voiced in the halls of the Legislature last week is that the state cannot force pay cuts on school districts. That means any pay cut legislators recommend for teachers could end up coming from other parts of the districts’ budgets.

The real power over teacher salaries lies with the state’s 17 county school boards. Some unions that negotiate labor contracts with those boards as well as the state teachers union have expressed confidence recently that they can protect members’ salaries.

If pay reductions for teachers are part of a grand budget compromise that emerges from Carson City over the next few weeks, stay tuned. School districts might preserve salaries but they would have to make other cuts to compensate. The state does have ultimate say over the amount districts must cut, even if it can’t dictate the form reductions take.

Union contracts are a major factor in those school districts.

Clark County School Superintendent Walt Rulffes said that the existing collective bargaining agreements are binding. “That’s a major obstacle to get over,” Rulffes said. “Just because the Legislature says ‘cut’ doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk.”

Earlier this year, for example, Rulffes approached the school administrators’ union to gauge its willingness to “consider some form of compensation adjustment,” Rulffes said.

One possibility was having administrators take a one-day unpaid furlough. The suggestion was rejected.

The district is back in negotiations with the teachers union. “Nothing is off the table,” Rulffes said.

Legislators say that if unions don’t bend on pay, school districts will have to cut jobs and find other savings.

“Teachers associations have to realize if they don’t agree to work with us, the cuts will come elsewhere,” said Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee. “Teachers could be let go, there could be higher class sizes. There are going to be repercussions.”

Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, said she was concerned that a refusal to reduce salaries could force layoffs.

Both the Nevada State Education Association and the Clark County Education Association have said they will fight any pay reductions.

Teachers are already underpaid and asking them to make additional sacrifices is wrong, said Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association.

“We are prepared to go to arbitration to protect our contract,” Murillo said. “There will be no cuts and no changes — not without a fight.”

He added that Nevada could reap more than $200 million in additional revenue thanks to the passage of a hotel room tax this legislative session. Support for the tax was spearheaded by the statewide teachers union.

Sources say that the pay reductions are likely to be more like 3 percent.

Given that personnel costs account for 89 percent of the district’s budget, and the depth of the cuts that have already been outlined, “some tough choices” lie ahead, Rulffes said.

Joyce Haldeman, associate superintendent of community and government relations for the Clark County School District, said, “People think because we’ve gotten the $120 million in cuts behind us, we’re safe.

“The reality is we don’t know what’s going to happen, or if the revenue is going to continue to fall.”

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