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August 20, 2014

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Teachers accept ‘shared sacrifice’

Union gives OK to freeze pay raises, a deal that defends against layoffs

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Leila Navidi

Educators attend a union-negotiation update meeting last month at Del Sol High School.

The teachers union tentatively agreed Thursday to a one-year freeze on pay increases based on experience, a move that will help the Clark County School District close the remaining $28 million in its budget gap.

Freezing pay hikes normally given to teachers with every additional year of work is expected to save the district about $15 million. With teachers and other licensed personnel represented by the union — 18,000 in all — accounting for 67 percent of the district’s personnel costs, the tentative deal helps to clear a major hurdle to presenting a balanced budget for approval when the School Board meets May 19.

Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, said the proposed deal with the district would preserve teacher jobs with no loss of benefits or pay. Under the terms of the tentative agreement, teachers will continue to earn salary increases based on educational attainment, such as completing master’s degrees.

Murillo emphasized that the proposed agreement, which requires ratification by the union’s members, is a temporary fix. Solving the underlying problem of the state’s revenue shortfall, which required the district to cut $145 million from its 2011 operating budget, is another matter, Murillo said.

The district declined to comment Thursday on the deal. In a prior interview, Superintendent Walt Rulffes characterized ongoing discussions with the Clark County Education Association as “fruitful,” and said he thought an agreement could be reached that would avoid layoffs.

The district still plans to cut about 540 teaching positions in grades 1-3 as a result of class-size increases — also a money-saving move — but expects most of those individuals to be placed in alternative assignments.

The tentative one-year deal comes after seven negotiation sessions stretching back to February.

Several scenarios had been on the table, including requiring furlough days or changing the district’s contributions to teachers’ health and retirement benefits.

The union surveyed its members on two options, Murillo said. The first option would have required teachers to take two unpaid days off, but would allow most of the district’s teachers (from the rookies to those in the upper-middle range of the experience ladder) to move up a half-step on the salary schedule. Only the most experienced teachers, those who are earning top pay, wouldn’t get salary bumps to offset the sting of furloughs.

The second option was to freeze step increases across the board. Of the more than 4,600 surveys returned, 81 percent were in favor of the step freeze.

The largest voting bloc — 35 percent — were teachers with fewer than five years experience. Teachers with 14-plus years accounted for 27 percent of the vote, followed by those with six to nine years (21 percent) and 10 to 13 years (17 percent).

“Our members supported the concept of shared sacrifice,” Murillo said.

As reported by the Sun on Monday, the district has also reached a tentative three-year agreement with the Education Support Employees Association, which represents the majority of the district’s 11,400 custodians, school bus drivers, food service workers, clerical staff and other support employees. The deal calls for freezing salaries, delaying step increases and also using the union’s existing medical contribution fund to cover a half-percent increase in the cost of employee retirement contributions and increased medical costs for current workers.

The deal will mean no repeat of last year’s sizable reduction in force, salary cut or furlough days, ESEA President Belinda “Bo” Yealy wrote on the union’s website.

The two tentative agreements would cover about $25 million of the $28 million budget gap.

Deals have not yet been reached with the unions representing the district’s 1,300 school administrators or the 160-office School Police force, which combined account for 5 percent of the district’s 38,500 employees.

The Clark County Association of School Administrators has clashed publicly with Rulffes over closing the budget gap, criticizing his decision to reduce the district’s contribution to its members’ retirement benefits while preserving a similar perk for teachers. An arbitrator sided with the administrators’ union, the district appealed and the matter is headed to court.

Teachers unions nationwide are facing similar challenges to what’s playing out in Clark County, the nation’s fifth-largest school district, said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“There’s no one right way to do this,” Lichtenstein said. “You’re juggling the expectations and pain of a lot of people.”

Lichtenstein said typically teachers aren’t just concerned about their own salaries.

Public support is also a factor. And with a contentious legislative session expected in 2011, and the district projecting a shortfall of $200 million to $300 million in state funding for each year of the biennium, it might well help teachers to position themselves as having shared some of the pain this time around.

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