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April 19, 2014

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Aging School District workforce requires more accommodations

District has spent millions over the years on ADA compliance

The Clark County School District is spending more time and money to accommodate its steadily aging workforce, including moving people to less physically demanding positions, buying special equipment to help them do their jobs and even remodeling campus facilities.

In 2009, the district made 55 accommodations — up from 39 in 2008 — per the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects individuals with certain medical conditions from discrimination, including in the workplace.

Among the district’s more than 38,000 employees, the most common medical conditions that required accommodations were deteriorating-bone diseases or impaired vision, followed by epilepsy and diabetes.

The data are laid out in the annual report on the district’s treatment of staff, which will be reviewed by the School Board at tonight’s meeting.

The increase in accommodations is the result of the “graying” of the workforce, said Tom Rodriguez, executive manager of the district’s diversity and affirmative action programs office. The median age of the district’s employees is close to 44, and has been creeping upward for the past 10 years.

And as the median age of employees has increased, so has the number of accommodations. There were 20 in 2001 and 30 in 2005.

Rodriguez said he spends about 35 percent of his time dealing with ADA issues, whether it’s requests for more information, complaints or arranging accommodations. Since 2009, Rodriguez said there’s been a steady increase in the number of callers to his office seeking advice or guidance, but who decline to identify themselves or their potential disability.

No one is specifically tracking the total cost of the accommodations, which range individually from “very small to very expensive,” Rodriguez said.

On the lower end of the price range might be purchasing a special desk chair for someone with a bad back, Rodriguez said. On the other end of the spectrum is a legally blind teacher who needs the help of a classroom aide — that runs about $30,000 annually in salary and benefits, Rodriguez said.

The district also buys equipment and devices to help disabled staff do their jobs, such as a viewing station that magnifies text for the visually impaired. Rodriguez said he buys about four or five each year.

“I’m buying one right now,” he said.

In some cases, accommodations require reassigning duties, such as a bus driver who becomes insulin-dependent and can no longer maintain his commercial driver's license.

The district has gone above and beyond what the federal law requires in helping employees stay on the job, Rodriguez said.

Since the ADA’s inception nearly 20 years ago, there have been tens of thousands of court cases challenging employers for lack of compliance, Rodriguez said.

“We haven’t been a part of that,” Rodriguez said. “And there’s a reason for it.”

Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, said the teachers union gets few phone calls related to complaints about ADA accommodations, and the concerns are typically resolved in a reasonable period of time.

In some instances, the district had to make changes to school facilities to accommodate a staff member or student with a disability. Dave Broxterman, administrative manager of the district’s facilities division, said $10 million was a “reasonable ballpark” for the total cost of those modifications in recent years.

When the state’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission receives a complaint about a possible ADA violation on district property, Broxterman said, it’s his job to investigate and make the necessary changes. The state sends out inspectors to make sure proper accommodations have been made.

The facilities work ranges from fixing a grate at Kenny Guinn Middle School that could interfere with a wheelchair to a major overhaul of Chaparral High School, which cost more than $1 million, after complaints about a lack of ramps. The district has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars making buildings and portable classrooms accessible to the disabled.

There are no outstanding requests for accommodations, Broxterman said.

“We really pride ourselves on being able to remove all architectural barriers,” he said.

As for the aging workforce, several programs are aimed at improving the overall wellness of the more than 18,000 licensed personnel, said Brenda Kelley, public relations director for the Teachers’ Health Trust, which administers the union’s health plan.

The Teachers’ Health Trust’s wellness plans focus on health concerns that are exacerbated by lifestyle choices, such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, Kelley said. Participation has been strong in a 10-week program that encourages people to exercise at least four days a week, as well as a group weight-loss challenge modeled after the television program “The Biggest Loser.” Kelley said the programs typically draw 800 to 1,000 participants.

“Some of what our members are dealing with is just the normal wear and tear from aging,” Kelley said. “But a lot of chronic conditions can be managed, and even prevented, with a change in attitude and a healthier lifestyle.”

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