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December 20, 2014

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Political Memo:

Recent rulings in teacher salary disputes put arbitration on Legislature’s radar screen

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A budget is not just a plan to spend money. It’s a statement of priorities — a paper-and-ink manifesto of what an elected official or board believes is important.

In an ideal world, the budget matches a politician’s campaign promises. And if it doesn’t, the public can decide whether to vote the person out.

But what happens when a major portion of a public budget is put in the hands of someone who isn’t elected and isn’t subject to the decisions of an elected board?

Such is the case when a labor dispute heads to arbitration. And in the aftermath of two recent cases in which arbitrators were handed cases with multimillion-dollar implications, some are questioning where the accountability lies.

In Clark County, the school district lost an arbitration battle worth $63 million over teacher salary increases for education level and longevity. The district says the decision will force as many as 1,000 teacher layoffs — unless the state can swoop in with some federal money to reduce that number.

In Washoe County, an arbitrator decided last year the school district couldn’t require teachers to take a 2.5 percent pay cut to help manage its growing budget shortfall.

Both cases came down to the question: Does the district have enough money to afford the salaries at issue?

And in both cases, despite the fact revenues are plummeting, the arbitrator made the binding decision that the school district could afford it.

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She's giving up her safe seat in an effort to save the Democrats' majority in the state Senate. We'll ask Sheila Leslie about her gutsy move. Plus, are your children's teachers making the grade? We'll talk with Washoe County School District Superintendent Heath Morrison about efforts to improve teacher evaluations and much more.

In Washoe County, superintendent Heath Morrison stipulated that the district had the funds but unsuccessfully made the case that the district needed to save the money — about $12 million over two years — to deal with looming future budget holes. Other employee groups in the district agreed to the pay cut, but the teachers decided to fight for their salaries.

“My frustration about the binding arbitration process is it really boils down to one thing, and that is ability to pay,” Morrison said on “To the Point,” the television public affairs show I host. “An arbitrator just looks at, ‘Well, you got the reserves.’ They don’t have to look at next year or the following year. They’re just looking at this year.

“They wield incredible influence, incredible power. There’s no ability to talk about what’s important for the organization in the long term. They make a decision and there’s no accountability for them because they are not elected officials. And we have to live with their decisions.”

So far, few have called for the outright elimination of binding arbitration. Such decisions can cut both ways, and teachers unions have been on the losing side of a fair number of them.

But the two cases highlight a growing call for changes to the arbitration system, giving arbitrators more flexibility to consider arguments beyond the immediate funding question, perhaps, or the ability to “cherry pick” from the offers presented by both sides rather than simply ratifying one of them in its entirety.

Union officials say sour grapes from the losing side isn’t enough to call the entire system into question.

“That the superintendents didn’t get their way and are in a snit over it is not a viable argument against a system that has worked well since the law extended binding arbitration to teachers,” said Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada State Education Association. “Binding arbitration works. It’s worked for a long time, and there’s no reason to believe it didn’t work in this case.”

Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, said using an arbitrator to objectively evaluate arguments from both sides takes politics out of budget decisions that affect lives.

“I don’t believe anything needs to be changed with binding arbitration,” he said. “What needs to be changed is the ability for teachers to have a stronger voice. Give us back our right to strike.”

Dale Erquiaga, Gov. Brian Sandoval’s senior adviser, confirmed the administration had begun considering ways to address binding arbitration in the next legislative session. He pointed out the state was required to backfill local funding shortages to a certain extent.

“They’re now cost shifting to the state,” he said. “We can’t have their collective bargaining agreements cost the state. These (arbitrator) decisions have guaranteed that binding arbitration will be on the radar screen next session.”

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  1. An "all or nothing" approach in binding arbitration is rather limiting, and doesn't always assure the best of outcomes unfortunately. In the case of the districts versus the teachers, if "cherry picking" was allowed, we might see a much better outcome. Having said that, should "cherry picking" with the agreements be allowed, then allowing teachers to strike, should again be placed on the table.

    There are plenty of teachers that do not belong to the union, that would rather their collective voices be heard via striking to send a message, as would those who are in the association. Striking should be put back on the table as a tool considering the feelings of those who are disillusioned with the process. Teachers want to feel empowered, and feel their voices are being heard and acted upon.

    Blessings and Peace,
    Star

  2. Ok, so you didn't like the arbitrator's decision regarding validity of the evergreen clause and the district's ability or inability to pay raises. Did you like the previous one where the District prevailed? That would be the PERS decision.

    What are the alternatives to arbitration? Considering that arbitration and its cousin mediation were implemented as alternatives to [a] smoke-filled back room deals by politicians and [b] out-of-touch judges and lawyers, please detail the methods by which you'd like to resolve disputes.

    Arbitration seems to be perfectly acceptable for almost any commercial dispute. Take a look at you mortgage, auto financing, credit card and any major purchase agreement...it's there in the really, really fine print. Even some smaller purchases have you sign away your rights to legal action and, all the way to SCOTUS, these agreements have been upheld.

    Arbitration works although I would insist on a mediation step prior to submission to an arbitrator. You can also insist that an arbitration panel of three people be used. Either that or act like grown-ups and solve the problems yourselves.

  3. Good article. And it's about time this issue is addressed. What on earth was this arbitrator thinking? Where are the NEGATIVE COLA's--our cost of living has gone way down. The public does NOT have the ability to sustain the compensation packages already in place. Simply because CCSD is not officially insolvent at this time does not mean CCSD has the ability to keep paying. Employees will be laid off / terminated--fewer if the employee groups are reasonable.

  4. I guess the teachers and their union had the best argument before an "impartial" arbitrator, Maybe the school district wasn't being honest in their budget figures and propaganda taking advantage of the bad economy. The media and LVsun certainly did not do any reporting on that important fact.

  5. The binding arbitration should be about whether Nevada gets a State Lottery. Our 'State Industry' is busy filling their own pockets while the populace and community services are hung out to dry.

    A State Lottery would never effect the bottom line of the casino industry and maybe even increase it because people from Utah might just drive over the border to pick up more than a few tickets.