Published Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013 | 2:04 p.m.
Updated Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013 | 6:08 p.m.
An arbitrator ruled Thursday in favor of the Clark County School District in its contract dispute with the local teachers union, saving the district about $38.6 million over the next two years.
Since the summer, the School District has been fighting the union over concessions to bring back more than 1,000 teaching positions that were cut last year. The district wanted to freeze teacher salaries and stop paying into a health trust for retired teachers.
Arbitrator Jay Fogelberg's decision means salaries for the district's 17,000 teachers will return to 2011-12 levels, saving the district $11.5 million this year and $23 million next year.
The district said it would enact the salary changes beginning with paychecks going out on Feb. 25.
The decision is expected to affect about half of the 17,000 teachers who received pay raises last year; many teachers already were at the peak of the salary step schedule and were not eligible for raises. Teachers are not obligated to pay back any salary step raises they have already received.
Fogelberg also ruled the School District payments into the Teacher Retiree Health Trust were not required this year. The district currently pays an annual fixed allotment of $1.4 million into the fund, along with an additional $12.76 per month per teacher. The decision will save the district about $4.1 million. The district said the trust, which administers health care benefits for qualifying retired teachers, had ample cash reserves and was used by fewer than 200 people.
In addition, Fogelberg waived teachers’ contributions to the retiree health trust for this year. Teachers have been required to pay about $360 annually, or a total of $6.1 million. It is not known if the trust will refund contributions already made this year.
In his decision, Fogelberg argued that budget cuts brought on by the recession have had an adverse impact on Las Vegas students, a statement that "cannot be truly disputed." Staff reductions through the years have caused the district's student-to-teacher ratio – already among the highest in the nation – to climb.
"The budgetary constraints have created teacher-student ratios in Clark County that, by most any form of measurement, have resulted in an evisceration of quality education," Fogelberg wrote in his ruling.
His decision is predicated on the School District's intent to hire more teachers, Fogelberg added.
"This decision is being made with the assumption that their stated goal of hiring more teachers was made in good faith and will now be put into effect," Fogelberg wrote.
Thursday's ruling is binding on both sides and cannot be appealed.
In May 2011, another arbitrator sided with teachers, finding the district had the ability to pay salary step and education increases to its 18,000 teachers. Shortly afterwards, the School District eliminated 1,000 teaching positions to bridge its budget shortfall.
The School District is analyzing how quickly the savings from the arbitration decision will materialize in its books to determine how soon teachers could be hired. It is unknown how the looming federal deficit talks, legislative funding actions and yearly cost increases, such as for fuel, will impact how many teachers will be hired in the end.
"We will make (hiring back teachers) our top priority and make it happen as swiftly as possible," said School District spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson. "That is our intention."
The district estimates it could reinstate about 415 teaching positions – less than half of those cut last year – as a result of the arbitration ruling, according to the district's chief financial officer Jeff Weiler. Only about 40 percent of the teaching positions lost will be coming back because pay raises that were awarded to teachers cannot be retroactively pulled.
That's the primary reason why this arbitration decision is unlikely to reduce average class sizes districtwide. Additionally, the ruling comes too late in the school year to have any immediate impact to valley class sizes.
The new teachers would go to schools most impacted by the staffing cuts, Fulkerson said.
Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones said he was relieved with the arbitrator's decision, which he said would "help us balance our budgets."
"This decision supports the district's priority to put more teachers back into classrooms," Jones said in a statement. "Over the past few years, our teachers have shown that they can do more with less. … I am proud of the perseverance they have shown in difficult economic times, and I know they do it because they love our students and want them to succeed."
The Clark County Education Association said it accepts the arbitrator's decision, but argued it does not address "a more systemic problem."
"As long as the Legislature doesn't adequately fund public education, school districts will continue to have challenges to meet the needs of the student population," Vikki Courtney, the union's vice president, said in a statement. "This ruling is a wakeup call for teachers, and it should be one for CCSD and the community. We must work together to ensure legislators take the necessary steps to adequately fund our schools."
Courtney argued the arbitrator's ruling will help the teachers union make their case before the Legislature for its tax proposal, which would levy a 2 percent margins tax on businesses making more than $1 million a year, after deductions for payroll and other expenses.
While the union was defeated in arbitration, it may ultimately win support for its tax initiative in the Legislature. Lawmakers have fewer than 40 days to vote on the margins tax; if it fails in Carson City, the proposal will head to voters in 2014.
"This is a chance to look forward," Courtney said. "We are ready to take this to our members and fight for more funding for education."
The School District is also advocating for more funding but has not made a public statement about the union's margin tax proposal. The district is pushing this legislative session to change Nevada's formula for funding its 17 school districts. Historically, Clark County has received less than its fair share of per-pupil funding, officials said.
"At some point, less just becomes less," Jones said in a statement. "Our state has some difficult funding decisions ahead to continue improvement of student achievement in the Clark County School District. We cannot continue to cut and ask employees to do more with less."