In May of last school year, the Clark County Educators Association (CCEA) held a strike vote. In the course of five days, over 5,000 teachers participated and voted by a 78% margin to authorize a strike. This set the stage for a months-long battle with the school district over pay raises, benefits, and above all, the mantra of “no cuts to the classroom.”
After a rally in April and the subsequent strike vote, tensions continued to rise. The first aim of CCEA was to make sure that the district was funded enough by the legislature to meet their demands. After some tense votes in the legislature, the state did more or less fund CCSD. They could now meet the demands of a 2% step increase, 4% district healthcare contribution increase, and the 3% cost-of-living raise promised by Governor Sisolak.
Of course, things are never that straightforward in CCSD. Over the summer, the district needed to cut $18 million, as a result of still not being funded enough. Superintendent Jesus Jara made the decision to cut the dean position as a way to make up this money, which lead to public outcry. That decision was eventually reversed, but the stage had been set for the conflict to come.
The union eventually settled on four demands, a 3% raise, a 2% step increase, a 4% health insurance, and a column payment. As the school year started, the negotiations continued and the threat of a strike loomed over the district.
The Friday after school started, the district made a proposal to CCEA that included the money that was guaranteed by the legislative session (3% raise, 2% step, and 4% health insurance). However, because it didn’t address the column payments and a few other things on the periphery, the union began preparing for a strike.
Let’s take a quick break from our timeline to explain how column movements work. The column system is how CCSD incentivizes teachers to participate in professional development. Column movements are broken up into contract units, or “CUs.” A CU is defined as three hours of time, and a teacher must complete a minimum of 225 CUs. This means that a column movement (and the pay raise it’s supposed to entail) equal about 675 hours outside of the normal work a teacher does. These CUs can be attained in a variety of ways, from professional development courses, to teaching summer school, to getting a second or third graduate degree, all on their own dime. This system, and CCSD’s refusal to pay the raises it promised teachers who achieved column movements, was at the heart of the strike threat in the final weeks.
On one side, the district argued that they hadn’t been fully funded by the state legislature and therefore couldn’t meet the requirements the union had set. CCEA took the position that the school district did indeed have the money, and moreover, had promised these raises to teachers.
On Thursday, Aug. 22, two weeks before the chosen strike date of September 5, CCEA held a rally outside of Liberty High School before the school board meeting set to take place there. About 1,200 educators and supporters turned out for the show of force before heading inside to the packed auditorium for the school board meeting. This was, according to CCEA, the last chance the district had to meet their demands before the strike.
Many teachers attended in support of their coworkers, like Robin Bigda, a teacher at Rancho High School.
“I got my column raise last year but there’s five of my friends right now that haven’t got them and they’re teaching night school so they can’t be here. I’m here for them because in order to make ends meet they’re at school right now,” she said.
Others were there as a way to show the district the strength behind this effort to get column raises.
“I feel like I have to be here so they’ll know that we’re serious about them honoring our contract,” said Imelda Suppe, from Helen Herr Elementary School.
Tensions were high within the auditorium, to put it lightly. The crowd was told the public comment would be cut off after 30 minutes at the start of the meeting, but when the stream of teachers wanting to be heard was cut off and the trustees attempted to move on to the next agenda item, the teachers and supporters in the room refused to let the meeting continue. About 15 people had been able to speak, but 26 more were still on the list.
After a few minutes of this chaos, the trustees retreated off the stage away from the prying eyes of the public. During this time, the crowd began alternating between chants and listening to speakers give their public comment to the crowd anyway. Soon thereafter, board President Lola Brooks came back out on stage, alone, and informed the crowd that the meeting was being canceled indefinitely.
Teachers were even more angry coming out of the meeting than they were going into it.
“They cared more about keeping order then they did about listening to us. They were not going to let us speak and rather than allow the speaking time that had already started, they walked out. They couldn’t even handle public comments,” said Joe Sedlak, a teacher at Sig Rogich Middle School. “People have to remember we didn’t want to have to do this but they’ve pushed us to the point where we have no choice.”
CCEA also came out of the meeting with new resolve, but exasperated at the actions of the trustees.
“I think it was very disrespectful that they walked out and didn’t do their jobs because a teacher cannot walk out of her classroom. They can’t just say ‘I can’t take this, it’s too much pressure,’ and leave their students there. They should not have done that because what they’re saying is that this isn’t important enough for us to debate over and talk about it,” said Lourdes Esparza, School Organization Team Organizer.
The trustees did not initially provide a reason for the cancellation, but later explained it was due to safety concerns. After being told of the cancellation, the crowd renewed its chanting and left the auditorium for an impromptu rally directly outside until eventually being asked to leave the school grounds.
After all this public conflict, how did the school district and the union reach an agreement to avoid the strike less than a week later? That’s a mystery to all but those in the negotiations. Regardless, on August 28, Governor Steve Sisolak, Superintendent Jara, and CCEA President John Vellardita all got together for a press conference where they professed how pleased they were to have reached an agreement. As for where the money eventually came from, no one really knows.
“It was there. It was always there, they just needed to find it. And that’s why we never backed down because we knew the money there,” maintains Esparza.
So where do things stand now? The teachers union did eventually get what they were demanding (3% salary increase, 2% step increase, 4% health insurance increase, and column payments for people who completed the requirements for this year and for next year), and while the timeline on when these will actually be paid out (with back pay) isn’t clear (probably the end of September), it seems this chapter has ended.