Administrators' union tells Jara it's 'time for you to go' in fiery letter

The union representing Clark County School District administrators sent Superintendent Jesus Jara a blistering letter Thursday, attacking his character and asking for his resignation after finger-pointing related to the special legislative session.

The brouhaha stems from a controversial education funding bill that would have allowed the district to redistribute unspent dollars from individual schools amid the ongoing budget crisis. After Jara tried to deflect responsibility for Assembly Bill 2 — which state lawmakers roundly criticized during a legislative hearing Saturday — Gov. Steve Sisolak and state Superintendent Jhone Ebert issued a joint statement earlier this week saying he “blatantly altered the truth.”

The letter from the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees, however, contains even harsher language, including that Jara’s actions make him “look foolish and pathetic.”

The missive also accuses the superintendent of waging a behind-the-scenes campaign to persuade others that he was framed by the AB2 situation and was “sending text messages to a high-ranking elected leader assigning blame to one of your own employees.” 

The letter — written by the union’s executive director, Stephen Augspurger — goes on to allege that Jara went into damage-control mode after the Saturday hearing on the legislation, seeking support from principals, other administrators and the Clark County School District Board of Trustees.

“It is easy to see right through this attempt to manipulate the opinions of your collective bosses,” Augspurger wrote. “Those observing hope that the Trustees see what you are doing. But many are unsure what the Trustees will do as you can be convincing, especially when you are trying to save yourself by not telling the truth.”

The union leader concludes by telling Jara that he has forever lost the trust of his employees.

“Your further presence in the Clark County School District will continue to exacerbate the downward descent of the District and will continue to cause untold harm to the students, parents, and staff who all deserve better,” the letter states. “It is time for you to go!”

Earlier this week, the National Education Association of Southern Nevada — the smaller of two teacher unions that does not have negotiating power — also called on Jara to resign.

The politically powerful Clark County Education Association, however, has not followed suit. The union’s executive director, John Vellardita, labeled it “a distraction from the bigger issue facing our district and that's these cuts and the lack of revenue.”

Vellardita didn’t outright defend Jara, instead saying the superintendent can speak for his own actions. But he questioned where the administrators’ union has been during the special legislative session.

“Jara is a punching bag,” he said. 

This isn’t the first time tensions between the administrators’ union and Jara have boiled over. Last year, the union filed a lawsuit against Jara and the school board related to the cutting of dean positions. 

Still, the renewed tensions come during a fraught time in K-12 education as school districts across the nation try to navigate the crippling financial effects of the pandemic as well as determine how to resume learning for the 2020-2021 school year. 

The Clark County School District’s reopening planning process has been far from smooth. A hybrid model — one of three reopening plans that would have students attending school in person two days a week and learning from home the other three days — met swift public criticism and triggered contentious school board meetings. And it remains an ongoing debate: The school board has scheduled a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the plans again and finalize them.

Jara released a lengthy statement Tuesday saying he regretted the AB2 discussion “deterred the conversation away from education.” He didn’t specifically address the accusations of dishonesty plaguing him but noted his job has been “especially tough” during the pandemic.

“I will continue to work with principals, teachers, parents, support professionals and other community stakeholders to find financial solutions to this unprecedented time in our history,” he wrote.

In Carson City, meanwhile, state lawmakers are starting day nine of a special session dedicated to shoring up a $1.2 billion budget hole for Fiscal Year 2021. Progress has been sluggish, and the outcries over proposed cuts to K-12 have been consistent.

Jara did not immediately return a request for comment. He has been superintendent of the nation’s fifth-largest school district since June 2018.

This story was updated at 7:37 p.m. to correct a word in a union name.

Jara seeks principals willing to transform one-star schools in exchange for greater autonomy

Students participate during a morning ceremony

Wanted: high-achieving principals with fresh ideas and a willingness to take on a new challenge.

That’s the gist of a memo the Clark County School District sent to principals last week while announcing a new initiative aimed at transforming underperforming schools. Labeled as a “request for proposals,” the memo asks principals interested in turning around a one-star school to submit evidence of their success at other campuses and an action plan for boosting student achievement at a chronically struggling school.

“Ensuring all CCSD schools are rated three stars or higher on the Nevada School Performance Framework is a primary student success target of Focus: 2024, the District’s five-year strategic plan,” the memo states. “The work toward this target must include the ability to explore innovative models of practice to support achievement of students in all subgroups. CCSD principals have the experience, knowledge, and vision to develop and implement models that should be implemented at schools where they are most needed.”

In a nutshell, the district is offering principals a chance to experiment with innovative practices, hire a core team of staff and enter into partnerships with organizations wanting to support turnaround efforts. But the seemingly greater autonomy comes with a caveat: The principals will be reporting directly to Superintendent Jesus Jara.

The superintendent spoke briefly about the initiative Wednesday during a discussion hosted by Opportunity 180 and the Progressive Policy Institute. Jara said the supervisory structure will allow him to “cut some of the red tape” these principals may encounter — not meddle in the day-to-day affairs of the school.

“We have phenomenal principals in Clark County,” he said. “How do we give them the ability to do some of these things they’ve been wanting to do?”

About 14 percent of Clark County schools this year received a one-star rating, which is the lowest designation and means they’re not meeting the state’s academic standards. Of the 54 schools that received a one-star rating, the distribution looks like this: 34 elementary schools, 14 middle schools and six high schools.

Jara said he’s not sure how many one-star schools will be included in the pilot program, but he expects the chosen principals to start in January. There is no financial incentive for principals who apply and are selected, he said.

Stephen Augspurger, executive director of the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees, said he discussed the concept with Jara and supports the idea. The district employs many principals who have these capabilities, he said, and this gives them a chance to prove it.

“It will bring out that entrepreneurial (spirit) that principals always have — the good ones,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any idea that should go unexplored in this business at this point.”

The plans submitted by interested principals must explain why they’re interested in the opportunity, what innovative model they would like to pioneer and why that model differs from most current practices. 

Proposals are due by Oct. 7 to Deputy Superintendent Diane Gullett. Jara said principal candidates will be interviewed, and school organizational teams will be involved in the process.

Last year, Jara disbanded the Turnaround Zone, which infused chronically struggling schools with extra resources and often involved many changes in staffing. The program, aimed at rapidly improving those schools, had shown mixed results over its tenure.



Clark County Education Association plans strike for Sept. 10 if district doesn't come up with new offer

Two teachers with signs kneeling in front a crowd during a rally

The Clark County Education Association plans to strike Sept. 10 if the Clark County School District doesn’t change its contract offer by Friday.

The teachers’ union sent an email to educators Tuesday morning announcing its plans, following weeks of increased tensions between the two parties. Last week, CCEA rejected a contract offer from the school district, which included a 3 percent pay increase this year, step pay increases for eligible employees in the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years and a 4 percent increase in the district’s contribution to the medical plan for those two years.

Union officials said the district’s offer didn’t go far enough because it only included financial incentives already promised by the governor and legislative leadership. The union has called for pay increases tied to so-called column movement — which refers to a teacher’s advancement based on completed professional development — among other demands.

“On August 23, 2019 if there is no change in CCSD’s offer then CCEA will mobilize for the first strike action to take place on September 10, 2019,” the email states. “The strike date will give parents ample notice to make arrangements for their students. The data will also provide educators across the district time to organize.”

CCEA has threatened to strike since the spring, despite teacher strikes being illegal under Nevada law. The union backing a strike could be subjected to daily fines reaching $50,000 and participating employees could be suspended or fired.

It’s unclear how many teachers would walk out. CCEA is the larger of two teachers’ unions and the official bargaining unit, although not every teacher is a dues-paying member.

John Vellardita, the union’s executive director, declined to speak with The Nevada Independent.

The strike threat hasn’t garnered support from other employee unions, which received the same contract offer from the school district.

The Education Support Employees Association released a statement Tuesday saying it does not support or encourage its members to participate in a strike. ESEA, which is the largest local affiliate of the Nevada State Education Association, is working on “finalizing the pay and benefits increased” promised by Gov. Steve Sisolak during three more scheduled negotiation sessions with the school district, union officials said.

“We expect to settle a contract with the District via the bargaining table; and not in the streets,” ESEA’s president, Virginia Mills, said in a statement.

NSEA, the statewide teachers’ union, echoed that sentiment. CCEA broke away from NSEA more than a year ago following a lengthy spat over money and operational strategy. After CCEA disaffiliated with the statewide teachers’ union, a new local arm emerged — the National Education Association of Southern Nevada — but it is not the collective bargaining unit.

“The current strike threat could harm our kids and communities while doing little to alleviate our overcrowded classrooms or create opportunities for our students,” NSEA’s president, Brian Rippet, said in a statement. “NSEA remains committed to putting our kids first and problem-solving with key education stakeholders to ensure a quality education for every Nevada student.”

Stephen Augspurger, executive director of the administrators’ union, said his organization doesn’t support a strike in “any way, shape or form.” The Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees has had one negotiating session with the district with another planned for later this week.

He cautioned the school district against singling out one bargaining group for a better contract proposal.

“If one bargaining unit receives a disproportionately higher share, that not appropriate,” Augspurger said. “We would expect to be treated in the same fashion.”

The looming strike threat, however, has caused unease among principals, he said. The head of the administrators’ union faulted Superintendent Jesus Jara for not addressing the strike possibility sooner and forming contingency plans centered around student and staff safety. He also questioned why Jara hasn’t pursued court intervention to stop any impending strike.

Jara’s decision to eliminate deans — which he later reversed — fractured his relationship with the administrators’ union this summer. After Jara restored those positions, middle and high schools were forced to cut their budgets by $98 per student.

Augspurger said Jara should have been discussing the strike potential with administrators this summer and figuring out logistics, such as how many long-term substitutes would be needed and how to get them fingerprinted and approved for duty.

“That time has come and gone,” he said. “We don’t have enough time to put that kind of plan in place.”

The school district released a lengthy statement late Tuesday afternoon acknowledging that strike preparations are underway despite ongoing labor negotiations. All schools would remain open during their regular bell schedules if a strike occurs, district officials said.

Jara pointed to the district’s ongoing fiscal challenges for why it can’t meet CCEA’s demands. 

“A strike must be prevented. We agree that teachers deserve more pay, which is why we are offering a 3% raise, a step increase and contributing 4% towards medical for all their tremendous work,” Jara said in a statement. “The total for those increases is approximately $69 million, therefore an additional request cannot be met with an approximate $35-million-dollar forecasted deficit for the biennium. To that end, a compromise must occur to ensure our student’s academic progress isn’t interrupted.”

CCEA ramped up its strike chatter in the final weeks of the legislative session, threatening to take action if lawmakers didn’t appropriate enough money to improve overall public education and cover educator pay raises. 

School district officials say the Legislature came close — but still short — of meeting their financial requests. Jara announced a $17 million deficit for the current school year (and roughly $35 million over the biennium) shortly after sine die. 

CCEA continued to monitor the district’s budget situation while never fully backing away from launching a strike. If Clark County teachers do strike, they’ll be joining thousands of educators across the country who have taken to the streets in recent years to demand better pay, improved working conditions or a combination of both.

District officials said the human resources office is “working diligently” to ensure the necessary number of substitute teachers should a strike materialize. Per that effort, the district is waiving the cost of fingerprinting for substitute hires. They’re also calling on retired teachers, local universities and philanthropic organizations to help with staffing if necessary.

“No child will be turned away from our District,” Jara said in the statement. “All doors will remain open, regardless of any decision by union leadership.”

Sisolak responded Tuesday to the strike threat during the Tahoe Summit and expressed optimism the situation could be avoided. The governor also said he hadn’t spoken to school district or union officials in the last two days.

“Education has been and will continue to be our number one priority,” he told reporters. “I think that everyone needs to step back and keep in mind that the most important things that we are dealing with here are teachers and the kids that they are educating. And when you put that in perspective, I’m hopeful they’ll be able to come to some kind of agreement.”

This story was updated at 2:10 p.m. and again at 5:07 p.m. to include more information and reactions.

Bills reversing 2015 changes to collective bargaining pick up steam in last week of Legislature

Union member stands holding flag

Two bills reversing changes made to Nevada’s collective bargaining law in the Republican-controlled 2015 Legislature appear to be finally moving forward in the last week, although the fate of a more ambitious bill extending bargaining rights to state workers is still in flux.

Months after the bills were first introduced and heard, members of the Senate Finance Committee held hearings Monday on SB153 and SB111 — two bills sponsored by Democratic Sen. David Parks that aim to reverse many provisions of a wide-ranging collective bargaining bill passed in 2015 that modified the collective bargaining process for local employees and prohibited principals from participating in collective bargaining agreements. Several labor unions argued the bills would improve the bargaining process and cut down on time spent in arbitration, while the Clark County School District warned that the bills add tens of millions in new costs.

Though their appearance in the Finance Committee is a sign that the bills are likely to start moving through the legislative process with roughly a week to go before the end of the 120-day session, their appearance is likely to spark questions about the future of SB135, which would allow state government workers the right to collectively bargain.

Parks said he didn’t know when or if the bill — entombed in the Senate Finance Committee since mid-April — would move forward. But he said his other two collective bargaining bills would go a long way to restoring the system in place prior to the passage of the 2015 law, which he and only three other Democrats opposed at the time.

“I think that it certainly fell far short of what the intent was when those bills were introduced,” he said. “My attitude is from having many years of labor negotiations and experience in the public sector, we had a system that didn’t work perfectly, but it certainly worked well. What (SB241) did was just make a mess of it, and it’s been that way since.”

The biggest fight on Monday came over Parks’ SB111, which reduces the amount of funds a local government can exempt from their ending fund balance in collective bargaining negotiations from 25 percent to 16.67 percent, and a new requirement that any money appropriated by the Legislature for salary and benefits be part of a negotiation during collective bargaining and considered by a fact-finder or arbitrator when determining a school district’s ability to pay compensation.

That last section of the bill sparked opposition from the Clark County School District, which placed a massive fiscal note on the bill saying that implementation would cost $36 million a year, and $72 million in future budget cycles in order to comply with annual pay raises without sufficient funding. But it could also play a critical role as lawmakers look for ways to fund a promised 3 percent teacher pay raise without having the district use the funds for other purposes.

Stephen Augspurger, head of the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees, gave legislators a copy of the last budget’s legislative allocations showing that the state had appropriated $164.8 million for a 2 percent merit increase for educators and staff, and said that the provisions in SB111 would ensure that the money would actually be spent for merit increases as opposed to filling gaps in the district’s budget.

“The Legislature has provided that money to the school district,” he said. “They have that money. It should be spent for normal movement on the salary schedule. It hasn't, it would be disingenuous to say now that there's a fiscal note on this bill.”

Brad Keating, a lobbyist for the school district, said the fiscal note was accurate and that the district often faced unexpected and huge costs (such as an extra $18 million needed for special education) and that the state’s antiquated and byzantine funding formula made it hard to draw a straight line between money appropriated by state lawmakers and actual dollars going to educators for merit pay increases.

“When dollars go into the formula, they don't come out to the same amount and nothing is broken down by line item,” he said. “So how are we supposed to give out at guaranteed raises when we don't know how much we truly receive as a district?”

Parks said he didn’t believe the school district’s fiscal note was accurate.

“I have a strong opinion about fiscal notes, and I think that if you want to kill a bill, you put a fiscal note on it,” he said in an interview. “I think that in this particular situation, I think it’s an unsubstantiated fiscal note.”

The other portion of the bill — lowering the reserved ending fund balance that could be walled off from collective bargaining negotiations — was supported by union representatives and Mary Walker, a lobbyist for several rural counties who said the change would still ensure governments had at least two months in a reserve balance while having enough financial flexibility for personnel costs during times of an economic downturn.

“I believe this is sound fiscal policy, and that SB111 will provide local governments financial stability in times of recession,” she said. “This will help minimize layoffs during cutbacks.”

The other bill, SB153, makes several reversals and repeals sections of former Republican Sen. Michael Roberson’s bill from the 2015 session that added several restrictions toward the ability of school principals and administrators to collectively bargain.

The bill repeals three sections of the 2015 law, including provisions requiring that employee organizations offer concessions for the full cost if an employee takes leave to perform duties or services for their union, and two sections requiring school principals to be at-will employees and for certain school administrators to re-apply for their positions every five years. It also allows school principals and other administrators below the rank of superintendent to participate in a collective bargaining unit separate from school teachers — undoing another provision of the 2015 law.

The measure also revises certain rules on arbitration for impasses in collective bargaining negotiations, including a requirement for four (rather than eight) negotiating sessions and time limits on holding hearings after selecting an arbiter. It also would allow for “evergreen” clauses in collective bargaining agreements, which are provisions that allow regularly scheduled pay raises and other parts of collective bargaining agreements to continue after an agreement expires.

Former Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a similar bill last session that attempted to make many of the same changes to the 2015 collective bargaining law.

Professional Firefighters of Nevada lobbyist Tom Dunn said the lack of those clauses hurt workers and incentivized local governments to delay negotiations as long as possible.

“All it's going to do in the long term is cost both local government and more importantly the bargaining units that we represent time and money,” Dunn said. “All it's going to do is drag out the process further than it was prior to 2015, and there is going to be a harm to local government employees because every day that this process gets dragged out is potentially a benefit or more importantly a PERS retirement contribution that has been decreased. And it's a complete and total budget savings for local government.”

As introduced, the Clark County School District said implementing the bill would cost around $36 million per year to implement, raising similar concerns to Parks’ other bill that would require additional spending for merit pay increases without any increase in funding.

Chris Daly, a lobbyist for the Nevada State Education Association, said that the current bargaining rules were “cumbersome and unworkable,” and said the district’s assumptions in the fiscal note were a worst-case scenario and unlikely to actually occur.

“We think that this fiscal note is not real in terms of how this would play out for that school district,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, who chairs the Senate Finance committee, said she hoped to bring both bills up for a committee vote sometime later this week.