Published Wednesday, May 2, 2012 | 9:34 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, May 2, 2012 | 6:34 p.m.
Pink slips may go out to hundreds of teachers by the end of this month after an arbitrator sided with the teachers union on pay raises, the Clark County School District announced Wednesday.
The arbitrator, Philip Tamoush, found in his opinion that the district had the ability to pay salary step and education increases to its 18,000 teachers, according to the arbitration award released early Wednesday.
Tamoush’s binding decision caps a bitter, 10-month contract battle between the School District and the Clark County Education Association. The district — which is facing a $63 million shortfall — had sought concessions from its teachers union to balance its budget.
The arbitrator’s decision forces the district to continue paying salary step and education increases to teachers through this school year — at a cost of $29 million. Because salary and benefits constitute nearly 90 percent of the School District’s general fund budget, the decision will force the district to lay off an undetermined number of positions, said Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones.
“It wasn’t easy for me to propose a freeze for any of our hard-working employees, but keeping people in jobs in these tough economic times seemed like the right thing to do,” Jones said. “As a result of the ruling, some teachers will get increases while other teachers will get a pink slip.”
The district will assess its budget and projected end-of-school-year retirements and resignations to determine how many pink slips it will need to issue, Jones said. The district had warned in the past that up to 1,350 licensed positions may be eliminated if the arbitrator sided with the union. Reduction-in-force notices may be sent out as early as May 16, Jones said.
If the district follows through with layoffs, the reduction in force would be among the largest in the district’s history. Even though the district has cut more than $500 million from its operating budget since the recession began, there have been no teacher layoffs of this magnitude, Jones said.
“We have tried hard to keep those cuts away from the classroom, but when the budget is 90 percent people, at the end of the day, it’s going to be difficult to avoid (layoffs) going forward,” he said, adding that he appreciates teachers and respects the hard work they do.
Jones blamed the union for delaying the outcome of the contract negotiations, which began in August 2011. The district also was hampered in negotiations by the current contract that forces the district to give pay raises to teachers regardless of its ability to pay for them, he said.
The district lost in arbitration in part because the district had paid out salary step and education increases throughout the year, Jones said. But the only reason the district was able to give raises was because it had slashed its budget earlier this year, dipped into emergency funds and received concessions from its other unions representing school administrators, police and support staff, he added.
“It’s amazing how sometimes doing the good deed goes punished,” Jones said. “If the district was flush with cash, I would pay everyone more. But we’re not. ... It’s a difficult time to have folks get an increase when we’re trying to get through one of our most difficult economic downturns.”
Regardless of the arbitration decision, Jones said he was committed to educating Clark County children by graduating more students and improving literacy efforts through professional development for teachers and student programming. The district is not an employment agency — its job is to educate students, he said.
“While the arbitrator’s decisions isn’t what we hoped for, our commitment to providing a quality education for students continues to go unchanged. We will not waver on that,” Jones said. “At the end of the day, this school district must deliver to every parent our promise that their child should get the very best education, and regardless of what the adults are trying to work out, the focus has to be on making sure kids are educated in a very tough economic time.”
District officials said they did not know how the decision would affect class sizes.
Ruben Murillo, the teachers union president, called the arbitration decision a “bittersweet victory.” It’s sweet because the arbitrator sided with the union but bitter because some teachers may face layoffs, Murillo said.
“Our members are absolutely feeling relief that they don’t have to pay back any monies that they have earned through promises made by the School District for salary advancements,” he said. “This is one major distraction that’s out of the way so they can concentrate on finishing the year and graduating students.”
Murillo denied Jones’ allegations that the union delayed contract negotiations. He also disagreed with the district’s contention that because it lost in arbitration, it is now forced to lay off hundreds of teachers.
Although the union understands the tough financial situation facing the district, it believes the district has the money to fulfill its contractual obligations to its teachers while also avoiding layoffs, Murillo said.
He questioned the district’s efforts to recruit more teachers while threatening layoffs. He also added that the district had more than $40 million in its ending fund balance that it could use to offset its budget shortfall. However, district policy states that it must keep 1 percent of its general fund budget as reserve money for emergency purposes.
“We are prepared to work with the district to make sure that no teachers are laid off,” Murillo said.