Wave of teacher absences forcing Vegas-area school closures deemed an illegal strike, judge finds

Sep 12, 2023, 9:13 PM | Updated: Sep 13, 2023, 3:34 pm

FILE - A student waits to get off a bus on the first day of school at the new Hannah Marie Brown El...

FILE - A student waits to get off a bus on the first day of school at the new Hannah Marie Brown Elementary School in Henderson, Nev., Aug. 9, 2021. Ongoing staffing issues in Las Vegas-area schools reached a critical point in September 2023, with classes being cancelled or combined to address teacher absences at campuses across the nation's fifth-largest school district, Clark County School District. (Yasmina Chavez/Las Vegas Sun via AP, File)

(Yasmina Chavez/Las Vegas Sun via AP, File)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A judge on Wednesday found that the teachers union in Las Vegas is behind a wave of absences and ordered an end to what she said is “very clearly a strike” during a bitter contract battle in a state where it is illegal for public employees to walk out on the job.

Since Sept. 1, the unexpected staff shortages have forced eight schools to cancel classes for the day and two others to combine classes, according to the Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas. The district said one of those schools had 87% of its teachers call out sick on the same day.

“The idea that this can be ignored, that these are sick call-outs, and that they are actually due to someone being sick is preposterous,” Clark County District Judge Crystal Eller said. If the teachers union fails to stop the strike, penalties could include a fine of up to $50,000, as well as jail time or termination for striking members and union leaders.

The Clark County Education Association — which represents about 18,000 teachers — has said it isn’t responsible for the recent wave of absences. Executive Director John Vellardita said after the hearing that they “respectfully disagree” with the judge’s order. They will appeal to the state Supreme Court, the union’s attorney said.

The tense contract negotiations are unfolding at a time when labor unions across the country are challenging how workers are treated — from Hollywood’s ongoing writers strike and Detroit ’s auto production lines to the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Las Vegas Strip.

The judge said Wednesday she was “extremely sympathetic to how difficult the situation is,” but said the law is clear that public employees in Nevada cannot strike.

“Obviously, we want our students to have good teachers. We want our teachers and our office staff to be fully and completely compensated, to have the benefits that they deserve,” Eller said, while also urging the school district to put in what she called a “good faith” effort to reach a deal with the union.

In addition to being one of the largest school districts in the U.S., with about 295,000 students, the Clark County School District is the largest in Nevada. It is facing more than 1,100 teacher vacancies.

The education association, however, says vacancies are almost double that if you factor in the open positions that substitute teachers are currently filling.

Contract negotiations have been underway since March over topics such as pay, benefits and working conditions.

Negotiations resumed this week, but ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, the school district announced it had declared an impasse with the union, saying arbitration was now “the only way” to resolve the ongoing fight after 11 unsuccessful bargaining sessions. It called the union’s demands “budget-busting.”

Union leaders said they welcome “a third set of eyes” to look over a new contract during arbitration but expressed frustration over what they say is likely to be a lengthy process before an agreement is reached. In the meantime, teachers will be covered by their existing contract.

The union wants 18% across-the-board pay raises over two years. It also wants additional compensation for special education teachers and teachers in high-vacancy, typically low-income schools, as well as an increased pay rate for teachers working extended-day hours at certain campuses.

The district said its final offer before declaring an impasse included a 9% salary increase during the first year of a new contract, a new pay scale that it says emphasizes college education and years of experience, and other incentives for special education teachers and hard-to-fill positions.

Negotiations became more contentious this summer when the union threatened to take action if a contract wasn’t reached before the start of the 2023-24 school year. Those actions included teachers refusing to work more hours than their contracted work day.

“It is simply not believable that Defendants would threaten targeted work actions for months and have no involvement when those work actions come to pass through their own members’ conduct,” the school district said in its motion filed this week asking the judge to halt the strike.

Meanwhile, thousands of students have already been affected by the wave of teacher absences.

Andrea Brai, whose son was diagnosed with autism, told KVVU-TV last Friday that students’ needs shouldn’t fall by the wayside amid the contract disputes. According to the district, 72% of licensed staff members at Sewell Elementary, where Brai’s son is a student, called in sick that day.

“When you become a teacher,” she said, “you should go into this profession with that in mind.”

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Wave of teacher absences forcing Vegas-area school closures deemed an illegal strike, judge finds