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September 17, 2014

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EDUCATION:

Clark County teachers face peer pressure on furloughs

Washoe educators agree to concessions. Should their local counterparts follow?

Clark County’s teachers, resisting calls for wage concessions, may now start feeling pressure to buckle from an unlikely source: their colleagues in Washoe County, home of the state’s second-largest teachers association.

The Washoe Education Association and other school district employee groups have agreed to salary freezes and furloughs of two professional days in the upcoming school year, saving the district $11 million and possibly avoiding layoffs.

The Clark County School District and its employees have yet to agree to wage concessions, and the Clark County Education Association is expected to declare an impasse on several sticking points and will ask for binding arbitration.

If Clark County worked out a similar deal to the one agreed to by Washoe’s teachers, it would go a long way toward saving jobs, district officials say.

“Hopefully we’ll come to some sort of accord soon,” said Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association. “Our role is to protect teacher jobs and salaries to the best of our ability.”

When asked whether the local union would consider pay cuts or furlough days to help the district close its budget gap, Murillo said “everything is still on the table.”

But he said it’s premature for the union, which represents more than 18,000 licensed personnel, to make concessions.

“Washoe County is not Clark County,” Murillo said. “Not all of our issues, concerns and needs are the same.”

The School Board here on Wednesday approved a tentative operating budget with a $30 million shortfall, which would require cutting more than 1,000 positions to balance.

The district has notified 90 school-site administrators that their positions could be eliminated. Those cuts, along with about 20 central office administrative jobs, would save the district $11 million. Increasing class sizes in grades 1-3 would reduce teacher ranks by 540 positions and save another $30 million.

The teachers are not alone among beleaguered public employee unions. Public workers face increased scrutiny and pressure to make wage and benefit concessions while confronting a deteriorating political environment, with the fortunes of the less labor-friendly Republicans on the rise.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers have called on the local teacher unions to make wage concessions to avoid layoffs. Business groups from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce to large gaming companies have called for reforms of the collective-bargaining process, and have talked broadly about local government-employee pay. (This has led to countercharges from public employee groups that the business lobby is trying to change the subject from badly funded schools, health and social programs.)

The Nevada State Education Association — the umbrella organization for the county unions — has resisted wage concessions thus far.

As state and local governments have dealt with the budget crisis, some local government-employee groups have agreed to adjust their contracts. State lawmakers instituted a one-day-a-month furlough for state workers, who do not have collective bargaining, reducing their salaries by 4.6 percent.

Before February’s special legislative session, teachers union President Lynn Warne rejected the suggestion, calling on legislators to show “leadership and courage.” Legislators wound up cutting funding to education by 6.9 percent. Warne said each district must deal with budget shortfalls in its own way. Carson City teachers, she said, reached an agreement that did not require them to freeze teacher salaries or agree to furloughs.

The Washoe agreement, which was approved by the school board this week, would eliminate two professional development days. Also, so-called “step increases” — pay raises — for years of service will be suspended. Teachers would still get raises for gaining more education.

“To avoid literally hundreds of teacher and employee layoffs, we wanted to go toward salary freezes and furlough days,” said Steve Mulvenon, spokesman for the Washoe County School District. “We are very fortunate here to have much more of a collaborative relationship with those employee groups than lots of other districts around the country.”

Steve Hill, former chairman of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and a member of the group’s government affairs committee, praised the Washoe teachers for making wage concessions. The chamber has, for more than two years, loudly highlighted what it sees as outsized public employee wages in Nevada.

According to census data, Nevada’s teachers are the 19th highest paid in the country, but make 95 percent of the average.

“Saying teachers are overpaid would be misstating the issue,” Hill said. “On the other hand, we certainly feel like keeping employees we have, and adjusting contracts in place, makes more sense to us than layoffs.”

Murillo, with the Clark County teachers association, said that at this time last year the district was looking at a surplus of more than 400 teachers because of projected enrollment declines and a reduction in elective classes to meet a $135 million budget shortfall. But within a few months, nearly all of them had been reassigned, many into positions that opened as people voluntarily retired or resigned.

“Last year we waited and we were able to work through the whole process,” Murillo said. “We don’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction that the sky is falling. Yes, the sky is cloudy — but we survived last year, and we’ll survive this year.”

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