Friday, Feb. 5, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Teachers, long a popular and protected political constituency, face increasing pressure to accept pay cuts as lawmakers try to decide how to trim $881 million from the state’s budget.
Democratic lawmakers, a longtime ally of the teachers union, and school administrators are urging educators to renegotiate their contracts to avoid layoffs and cuts in the classroom.
Clark County Superintendent Walt Rulffes told the Interim Finance Committee on Thursday that he’s trying to minimize the effect on students and prevent layoffs. To do that, he said, “involves a small sacrifice by everyone.”
Absent that, achieving the required $150 million savings would involve laying off more than 2,300 teachers.
Legislators also heard from a defiant president of the Nevada State Education Association, who said teachers are not willing to reduce their salaries. Lynn Warne, association president, told legislators to show “leadership and courage” and look at raising taxes.
“The choices seem clear and stark,” she said. “You can lay off teachers, shorten the school year or raise revenue.”
It was a speech that caused legislators to bristle, some publicly and some privately.
“I think we all need to demonstrate leadership, and that’s all I’m going to say,” said Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks. “I would say that everything has to be on the table.”
Polls have shown teachers are held in high esteem by the public. Their union contributes to Democratic political action committees and the campaigns of politicians from both parties, but in many respects their power comes from their standing as professionals who care about children’s education and not the bottom line.
It has paid dividends. Despite the state’s financial troubles, last session K-12 saw an increase in general fund money while the rest of state government was cut.
However, teachers are being put in a difficult position. To maintain their reputation as advocates for education, some state leaders argue teachers need to take pay cuts.
“All of the employee groups, in fairness, should have an equal sacrifice,” said Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas. “Without wage reductions or other cuts outside the classroom, we would have to lay off 2,300 teachers in Clark County. We have to do better than that.”
Teacher advocates argue that educators are underpaid.
How well Nevada teachers are compensated depends on how you look at the numbers. A recent survey by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce found Nevada teachers in 2008 made 95 percent of the national average. The same survey found that Nevada’s teachers were the 18th best paid in the country, up from 23rd in 2006.
Per-pupil funding in Nevada ranks 49th or 50th.
Certainly, teachers have so far been spared the pain felt by other public employees.
The Legislature last session ordered all state employees to take 4.6 percent pay cuts through once-a-month furlough days. Although lawmakers cut funding for the university and school districts by 4.6 percent, employees who work under union contracts could not be forced to take furloughs. Instead, the funding came from other parts of school districts’ budgets.
This time, any cut to teacher pay depends largely on whether unions agree to renegotiate contracts. Shortening the school year would save the state about $13 million a day. But because a shorter school year would mean lower salaries for teachers, those savings could only be achieved if teachers agreed to them.
Rulffes told legislators he is close to entering arbitration with the teachers union, which has so far refused pay concessions.
Clark County’s school contract has a provision that allows negotiations to be reopened if there is additional tax revenue. There is no similar provision if revenue comes in below expectations.
Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, broached temporarily suspending collective bargaining, which would be required to nullify contracts and cut teacher pay without the union’s agreement.
“I guess I’m going to be the messenger to be shot,” he said after raising the politically sensitive issue.
Although the teachers union has succeeded in creating a favorable public image, a union’s job is also to represent the interests of its members.
Warne said making the decision on budget cuts a choice between laying off classroom teachers and cutting pay is a false dichotomy. School districts could use money earmarked for new buildings for operating expenses instead, she said.
“There are districts sitting on money available for classrooms,” she said. “I think you’ll find the public discontent is with the district and central office, and the way they managed money.”
Some legislative leaders, meanwhile, are privately saying that school districts might have to do both — cut salaries and sacrifice some capital funding.