Friday, Jan. 27, 2012 | 2 a.m.
About 150 Clark County School District teachers picketed the School Board meeting Thursday afternoon, protesting proposed pay freezes and potential layoffs.
Local teachers union members — wearing their trademark red T-shirts — have packed School Board meetings in recent months, but Thursday was the first time this school year that members rallied support for teachers outside the Edward Greer Education Center, near East Flamingo Road and McLeod Drive.
Hoisting signs that read “Honk for Teachers” and yelling slogans such as “Let us teach,” educators sought public attention to what they perceive as poor working conditions: being “overextended, underpaid and underappreciated.”
The union chants could be heard at times from within the meeting room where dozens of more teachers sat.
The cash-strapped School District and its teachers union are currently undergoing arbitration after contract negotiations failed in August. To plug a $39 million budget gap this year and another $39 million next year, the School District is seeking concessions from the Clark County Education Association.
Proposed concessions include freezing salary and step increases, lowering salaries to pay for pension cost increases and changing teachers’ health insurance provider from the nonprofit Teachers Health Trust to a private insurer. Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones warned school principals last month that 1,000 teacher jobs could be shed if the union wins in arbitration. (Layoffs may result in increasing class sizes by three to four students, school and union officials said.)
On Monday, the Washoe County teachers union announced it prevailed in its arbitration hearing against the Reno-based school district, which sought a 2.5 percent pay cut to bridge a $10.5 million budget gap. The decision may force the Washoe County School District to cut staff or dip into emergency funds, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.
This northern development seemingly emboldened its southern counterpart. The Clark County teachers union asserted during a news conference Thursday that the School District has the funds “to balance its budget without layoffs, increased class sizes or concessions from teachers.”
“A close analysis of the district’s $2 billion budget shows the district has hidden money in other budgeted line items, creating an illusion of a budget shortfall,” said union President Ruben Murillo in a prepared statement to media. “The Clark County School District has refused to be transparent and financially responsible, and is gambling with the lives of hundreds of thousands of students by making a false case that it cannot balance the budget without either concessions or layoffs.”
Murillo pointed to an analysis of the district’s budget by Beth Kohn-Cole, an accountant hired by the union and a member of the Nevada Local Government Finance Committee. The accountant claimed to have found three sources of funding that could potentially balance the budget without teacher concessions.
School District spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson disputed all the claims.
“We still contend it’s a difficult situation, but we remain committed to finding a sustainable solution,” she said. “We do not want to cut salaries. We just don’t want to give out raises when we can’t afford it.”
The union identified $16 million in federal stimulus money from the Education Jobs Fund that could be used to pay for teacher salaries.
Not so, Fulkerson said. The two-year funding allocation expires later this year, and the district cannot spend one-time funds on recurring expenses like teacher salaries, she said.
The union also identified $10 million to $27.5 million in district savings from keeping positions vacant and another $11.6 million in the Food Services fund that has been reallocated to the general fund. Fulkerson said both those funds have already been diverted to other needs to keep the district afloat, and thus aren’t available.
Finally, the union claimed the district used general fund dollars — which are used to cover operational costs — to pay for items that should have been paid for from the Bond Fund — which is used to pay for capital expenses such as building renovations and school construction. The union asserts that the district used $5.8 million in general fund money for what they see as capital projects: new school sound systems and classroom visual presentations.
An arbitrator will ultimately determine whether the union’s funding analysis is accurate, and whether the district’s proposed concessions are warranted.
In the meantime, Murillo called for a districtwide audit to determine if there are still budget-line items that could be trimmed. In November, the School District’ annual audit found revenues falling $113 million while expenses rose $13 million.
Teachers raised their concerns again during an hourlong public comment session, ranging from fears about the cost of changing health care providers and teaching students “to the test.” One teacher bemoaned the lack of adequate state funding for K-12 education in Nevada.
“Nevada politicians don’t want any new businesses here, only gamblers,” said Centennial High School English teacher Carolyn Myers, a 37-year veteran educator. “Nevada politicians don’t want an educated populace. They only want people to wait tables and count to 21.”
A new concern raised by teachers on Thursday involved the School District’ decision over the summer to lay off about 50 English Language Learner facilitators, who coordinated remedial English programs for non-native students. Union officials said the layoffs have caused the district to abandon its efforts to reach out to this challenging student population.
Clark County Schools Deputy Superintendent Pedro Martinez said the district was forced to cut the facilitators — who while licensed, do not necessarily teach students — to maintain class sizes amid multimillion-dollar budget cuts from the state. Superintendent Jones announced earlier this month during his State of the School District address that he plans to redouble efforts to reach out to English Language Learner students.
Perhaps the most poignant statement came from two young elementary school students toward the end of the public comment session. Madison Flick, a fourth-grader at Smalley, and Emily Huber, a third grader at Sandy Miller, went up to the lectern and asked, “What would happen to us if you took away teachers and supplies?”
“We are asking you to invest in teachers, schools and in our future,” they told the School Board to a standing ovation from teachers. “Because we are worth it.”