Clark County teachers union files appeal after judge declares mass absences an illegal strike
The Clark County Education Association (CCEA) has filed an appeal over a preliminary injunction order against the union yesterday to halt sickouts by teachers that a judge said constitute an illegal strike.
The injunction prohibits continuing the strike and any other actions that amount to a strike. CCEA has denied being involved in the teacher absences that led to eight school closures and forced two other schools to combine classes. The injunction also directed CCEA to communicate the terms of the order to its membership, which the union said it complied with shortly after the hearing.
Attorneys for CCEA argued in an emergency motion filed Thursday that the order “is facially invalid for vagueness, non-specificity, and overbreadth.”
The union is asking the Nevada Supreme Court to halt the order “until an impending emergency, expedited appeal can be resolved.”
“The terms of the injunction cannot be readily understood, cannot be fairly enforced, and must be stayed,” the motion states.
In a response filed Friday, lawyers for CCSD argued that the courts were the only mechanism preventing widespread striking by teachers, which is illegal under state law.
Those district arguments appeared to win out, at least partially, in an order issued by the high court late Friday.
A three-justice panel from the Supreme Court denied the union’s motion to stay the lower court injunction, saying only that “having considered the parties' arguments in light of these factors, we are not persuaded that a stay is warranted.”
The move effectively leaves the injunction in place ahead of a full ruling on the union’s appeal.
Injunction order’s ‘chilling effect’
Under Nevada law, strikes by public employees including teachers are illegal. State law defines a strike as any concerted stoppage of work, slowdown or interruption of operations by public employees, including absences based on false pretenses, such as illness.
Clark County Judge Crystal Eller said in her ruling yesterday that her finding of a strike was largely based on an overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence that cannot be ignored. That included previous statements from CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita, communication from a teacher who allegedly organized a sick-out according to an anonymous whistleblower, and a TikTok video where a CCEA member suggested teachers are fed up and taking matters into their own hands.
Eller also cited an image from a Fox 5 news story that was a part of evidence submitted by CCSD that included a map of four school closures that took place Tuesday. The map showed the schools were in four separate corners of the Las Vegas Valley.
“The idea that it should be ignored that these are separate callouts, and that they are actually due to someone being sick, is preposterous,” she said. “It is more likely an indicator that there is a concerted effort to do exactly what has been threatened to be done by Mr. Vellardita, and other people in public messages, in public comments, and that is to systematically strike."
During a Thursday afternoon interview with The Nevada Independent, Vellardita said he’s disappointed and disagrees with Eller’s decision.
“We've said in the past, we say now, we say moving forward we didn't have anything to do with this, and that's our position and I think clearly we could demonstrate that, but clearly what came out of that court hearing the district couldn't prove that so it was circumstantial evidence,” he said.
In its response to CCSD’s emergency motion filed Monday, CCEA attorneys said of the 165 teacher absences identified by district officials, only 58 percent of them were union members.
“In other words, the district is claiming that individual teachers who cannot even be bothered to join the union are taking secret instruction from CCEA to engage in an unlawful strike that immediately jeopardizes their jobs and their abilities to feed their families,” CCEA attorneys said in their response.
Attorneys for the union referenced the Labor Day holiday and a resurgence of COVID-19 as well as the start of the flu and cold season as possible contributors to the teacher absences.
Vellardita said he isn’t aware of the total number of teachers who were placed under investigation by CCSD officials as a result of the sickouts, but said CCEA has been involved in the process as representatives to both member and nonmember teachers.
As of Thursday afternoon, Vellardita said he’s not aware of any disciplinary action taken against a teacher.
While no fines were issued as part of the Wednesday ruling, he said teachers are worried whether they will be placed under investigation for taking a day off.
“I think this has a chilling effect that now you gotta think twice about whether or not you should call in sick,” he said. “This is part of the unintended consequence of an order that has no clarity if there's a violation.”
Vellardita said the union is advising teachers who are sick and need to take time off to take care of themselves, to communicate with their supervisor, and get a doctor’s note, if possible, for legal protection.
CCSD lawyers: ‘No evidence’ sickouts will stop without courts
In a 10-page response filed on Friday morning, attorneys for CCSD called for the Nevada Supreme Court to reject a motion from the union for an emergency stay that would block the district court injunction aimed at stopping additional teacher sickouts.
Casting the union’s arguments in part as “ludicrous,” the district’s response argues that the union’s lawyers “manufactured this ‘emergency’ to enlist this Court to wipe out the district court’s injunction before the District had an opportunity to respond” to the original lower court injunction.
The response also argues that ruling against a stay would do little to harm CCEA’s broader appeal, and that granting such a stay would in turn cause “immediate and ongoing irreparable harm” for CCSD.
“There is no evidence that the strike will cease without court intervention,” the response says. “To the contrary, a stay of this injunction would open the flood gates and essentially sanction Appellants’ and their bargaining unit’s ability to strike with impunity. The injunction is the only thing maintaining the status quo of teachers not striking.”
CCEA’s initial request for the emergency stay called for action as soon as Thursday, though a late-afternoon ruling gave the district until noon, Friday, to respond. The expedited ruling could come within a matter of hours or days, ahead of a full consideration of the union’s appeal at a later date.
Vellardita said he expects a hearing will be scheduled as early as next week on the union’s request for a stay of execution of the injunction.
In the meantime, he said CCEA is focused on its arbitration process moving forward with CCSD. Now that CCSD has declared an impasse and triggered the start of the process, he said one of the first steps will be for the union and the school district to select an arbitrator from a panel.
CCEA demands in its contract negotiations with the school district have included:
- An 18 percent salary increase for all licensed educators over the next two years
- An additional $5,000 salary increase for all educators at certain schools with high numbers of vacancies and hard-to-fill positions
- A 5 percent increase for special education teachers
- An increase of 1.5 times a teacher’s salary for all hours worked after contract time and a salary increase for coaches
- That the district address class sizes
- A sick leave buy back proposal
- An increase in the district’s contribution to teacher health care costs
- Adjustments to teachers’ salary schedule.
CCEA has said those proposals are essential in addressing the school district’s ongoing teacher vacancies. Meanwhile, CCSD said the union’s requests are “unaffordable, budget-busting and inequitable.”
CCSD said in a Tuesday statement its latest offer for teachers included a 9 percent pay increase in the first year of the new contract, slightly higher than its previous offer. The district said it also proposed a $10,000 bonus for certain special education teachers and teachers in hard-to-fill positions.
The school district has previously stated that it has offered a 2 percent increase in the second year of the new contract. The Tuesday statement does not specify whether CCSD is still offering that amount, but Vellardita confirmed the district’s 2 percent offer hadn’t changed.
Vellardita said although CCSD’s latest proposal is slightly higher than what the school district has previously offered, he said it's still not enough given that a recent increase in retirement contribution for all state employees resulted in a 1.875 percent decrease in teachers’ paychecks.
CCSD has said the union refused its proposal “to provide an increase at that time in lieu of a future pay increase.”
Vellardita said the union is not only pushing for an 18 percent increase over the next two years, but also pushing for a “restoration of the 1.875 (percent).”
Vellardita said the union is planning other efforts, such as rallies at individual school sites, and teased a mass event that he wasn’t ready to formally announce yet.
That includes sending thousands of postcards from voters to Clark County School Board officers, including President Evelyn Garcia Morales, urging them to support teacher pay raises. Stacks of postcards were scattered around a conference room at the CCEA office where the interview was conducted.
He said these postcards were the type of action that CCEA was referring to when it said it would target a trustee one district at a time.
“So that has been our selective trustee targeting,” he said. “We're going to continue to do it.”
Updated Sept. 14, 2023, at 6:03 p.m. to add comments from CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita.
Updated Sept. 15, 2023, at 1:24 p.m. to add details from CCSD's response to the union's request for an emergency stay on the district court injunction.
Updated Sept. 15, 2023, at 4:26 p.m. to add details from the Supreme Court order denying CCEA's request to stay the district court injunction.
Reporter Jacob Solis contributed to this report.