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Gov. Steve Sisolak, left, Clark County School District Superintendent Dr. Jesus F. Jara and John Vellardita, Clark County Education Association executive director, during a news conference announcing that CCSD and CCEA reached a tentative teacher contract agreement on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The Clark County School District and the local teachers’ union announced a tentative contract agreement late Wednesday afternoon that honors pay raises tied to professional development, averting a possible strike that loomed large over the system since the spring.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara and John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association, delivered the update flanked by Gov. Steve Sisolak, legislative leaders, school trustees and union members during a news conference at district headquarters. Vellardita said the union had “suspended all operations” related to the scheduled Sept. 10 teacher strike.

“These negotiations were challenging because they ultimately got down to a question of priority,” he said.

In the end, the union emerged victorious — securing the so-called column pay raises for educators who completed professional development plans. The district’s initial contract offer included 3 percent cost-of-living pay raises, 2 percent seniority raises and a larger contribution toward employee health care plans but left out the column raises, igniting fury among educators and rekindling the strike threat. The column pay raise is worth about $5,400 to eligible educators.

Clark County School District Superintendent Dr. Jesus F. Jara, center, shakes hands with John Vellardita, Clark County Education Association executive director, after a news conference Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019, announcing the district and union had reached a tentative teacher contract agreement. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

During the news conference, Jara did not offer a clear explanation of where the district found the extra money for the column raises, which are projected to cost anywhere from $11 million to $15 million this year. But he doubled down when asked whether the district always had the money, saying “no, we didn’t.”

Shortly after the news conference, district officials released a statement about the funding, saying “projections have been trending positively” with improvements in interest earnings, frozen central office positions and by reallocating appropriate positions from the district operating budget to state and federal grants.

“This doesn’t have an impact on the classroom,” Jara said during the news conference. “This has been one of my priorities, and it’s the biggest challenge that we have as we heard today … We can’t put one more kid in the classroom. We have the largest class sizes.”

The tentative deal reached by both parties, which is subject to final approval from the union’s board and school board, includes the following:

  • 3 percent cost-of-living raise for every employee in the bargaining group this year
  • 2 percent seniority raise (otherwise known as “step” increases) for eligible employees during the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 contract years
  • 4 percent increase in the district’s contribution to monthly health insurance premiums both contract years
  • Column advancement worth about $5,400 for every educator who completed the Professional Growth System requirements for both contract years
  • An agreement between the union and district to form working groups to discuss a new Professional Growth System that “improves teacher practice to improve student achievement”

The district’s chief financial officer, Jason Goudie, said it would cost $37 million for the 3 percent cost-of-living pay raise, $27 million each year for the 2 percent seniority raise, and $4.6 million each year for the health care contribution. The cost for the column advancement won’t be known until the district determines how many educators are eligible. The union has said about 2,500 educators have submitted their documentation, which must be verified for final approval, meaning that number likely will go down.

Earlier in the week, the union had accused the district of trying to abolish the Professional Growth System (sometimes referred to as the Professional Growth Plan or “PGP) and replace it with a merit-based pay system. 

“It’s in place,” Vellardita said Wednesday afternoon. “The parties have agreed to revisit it and to make the appropriate modifications. I think people need to understand that the compass behind the PGP is to improve the practice of the educator in the classroom.”

As for when teachers will see these raises in their paychecks, that’s still unknown. Goudie said the district would start “working on that right away” and release more information after the school board officially approves the agreement, which could happen as soon as Sept. 12.

The parties involved in the negotiations didn’t paint a clear portrait of what turned the tide during negotiations Wednesday. Since May, the union had been threatening to strike if the Legislature didn't appropriate enough money to improve overall public education or if the district made any cuts to the classroom. The strike threat re-emerged and escalated Aug. 16 when the district proposed its initial contract offer that lacked the column pay raises.

“We’ve always been consistent,” Vellardita said. “We wanted to reach an agreement at the table, and today was that day.”

The agreement, however, doesn’t negate the ongoing financial challenges facing Nevada’s K-12 public education system — a point echoed by the elected officials in the room.

School Board President Lola Brooks said the focus going forward needs to be on increasing funding at the state level and implementing the new funding formula. During the last few hours of the legislative session, state lawmakers passed a bill revamping Nevada’s 52-year-old education funding formula by moving to a “weighted” model, although the final version was watered down from its original concept.

“Even though we were able to reach a tentative agreement, we still have a lot of work to do,” Brooks said.

Sisolak said he’s “recommitted” to seeing the state fix its systemic education problems and “refuses” to back down from the challenge.

“It’s not lost on me that issues facing Nevada’s education system go well beyond the specific issue that was resolved today,” he said. “They go beyond Clark County.”

The governor called on parents, students, teachers and community members alike to join him around the discussion table and — much like what occurred behind closed doors Wednesday — work on solutions.

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