Monday, May 7, 2012 | 7:20 p.m.
About 100 parents and students rallied at a local elementary school Monday afternoon to protest impending teacher layoffs and budget cuts.
Hoisting signs that read “Education First” and chanting “Don’t let our teachers go,” the group marched in front of Vegas Verdes Elementary School, located less than two miles from the School District’s administration building.
The protest comes less than a week after the district announced an undetermined number of teacher layoffs in response to an arbitrator’s decision that sided with the local teachers union on contract negotiations. The decision forces the district — which is facing a $64 million budget deficit — to not freeze salary step and education increases this school year.
Parents at the protest said they were concerned School District and Vegas Verdes leaders are cultivating an atmosphere that is forcing teachers to leave, raising concerns about burgeoning class sizes.
Fifteen of 47 licensed educators at Vegas Verdes have announced they plan to leave the school after this school year, and an untold number of teachers may be laid off if the School District follows through on its threat of layoffs.
“That’s terrible for my children’s future. It makes me fear my kids won’t be educated the right way,” said Teresa Sandoval-Salazar, a parent of three children at Vegas Verdes and the self-proclaimed organizer of the protest. “I don’t know why (the School District) is playing with the future of our children. I don’t think that’s right.”
Although the parents were seemingly self-organized, representatives from the Clark County Education Association were present at the protest, handing out water bottles and providing signs for the parents and students. Union spokeswoman Letty Elias said the parent group requested the union’s help in promoting and supporting the event, which follows on the heels of a smaller protest that occurred three weeks ago at the school.
The union’s executive director John Vellardita said parent protests might become more common if the School District begins to lay off teachers. He maintains the district has the finances to prevent teacher layoffs and overcrowding of schools.
“What you’re seeing today is that parents are frustrated by what’s really going on in CCSD,” Vellardita said. “They don’t want class sizes increased.”
The School District contends, however, that teacher layoffs are inevitable after the arbitrator’s ruling. Because payroll accounts for nearly 90 percent of its budget, the district cannot make further budget cuts without layoffs, district officials have said, adding that there is no extra money in its budget.
“The district wholeheartedly agrees with parents — we want to keep teachers in the classroom,” said district spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson in a prepared statement. “We join with parents in their dismay that union bosses were successful in pushing through raises for some at the expense of pink slips for others.”
Former School Board member Jose Solorio — who was at the protest representing the Latino political group Si Se Puede — said the budget cuts so far have disproportionately hurt Hispanic students, who make up the majority of students in the district. English Language Learner facilitators were cut last year, which hurts schools like Vegas Verdes that serve a majority minority population, he said.
Solorio added that the School District should take a closer look at its budget instead of blaming teachers, who he said were attracted to the profession because of the annual step increases. Solorio is worried about teacher retention at a time when the School District is facing many academic challenges, he said.
“Teachers shouldn’t be lambasted because they got to keep their salaries,” he said. “The real issue is the lack of education funding from the state. Teachers shouldn’t bear the brunt of the blame.”
Protesters also lobbed their complaints at the Vegas Verdes principal, who they said created a stressful environment for teachers as part of the School District’s new emphasis on teacher evaluations and lesson plans. Parents complained Alice Roybal-Benson has not communicated well with the community, and one teacher complained the school environment is pushing experienced teachers out of the profession.
Fifth-grade teacher Joseph Portilla, who has been with the district five years, said the 15 teachers who are leaving Vegas Verdes have been “forced out” to seek refuge at schools where he said they would feel respected. The tumultuous and tenuous teaching profession is also forcing teachers to rethink their careers, he said.
“They’re trying to get rid of experienced teachers through intimidation and evaluations,” said Portilla, who is a member of the local teachers union. “The conditions here are just miserable for students, parents and teachers.”
First-year Vegas Verdes Principal Alice Roybal-Benson rebuked the protesters’ claims, saying that she regularly meets with parents at school functions and is readily accessible to the community. Although she was on campus during the rally, she did not speak with protesting parents, saying that her work and routine duties kept her from addressing parents at the rally.
Roybal-Benson, who has been with the district 15 years, said she has instituted a number of changes at the school — including teacher evaluations and lesson planning — that has been met with some teacher opposition. She contends the parent protest at her school was a political move by the teachers union in response to the district’s announcement of teacher layoffs last week.
“I am asking teachers to raise the bar, and some teachers are uncomfortable with what I’ve asked of them,” she said. “I’m asking teachers to put a little bit more effort for the benefit of our children. I’m not asking for anything unreasonable.”