Regents will ask Legislature to reform higher ed salary structure

UNR campus
The University of Nevada Reno. (Photo: UNR)

K-12 teachers aren’t the only ones not satisfied with salaries.

Many within the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) are frustrated by its lack of an in-rank salary advancement structure and they want legislators to tackle the issue during the upcoming 2019 session. They argue salary compression — only slight differences between salaries for new hires and existing employees — has led to problems with faculty recruitment and retention.

Addressing this issue tops the NSHE Board of Regents list of legislative priorities, which were officially approved Friday and discussed at earlier meetings. The issue is the subject of a bill draft request birthed from an interim committee focused on higher education.

An independent study by a human resources firm commissioned by that interim committee concluded that internal salary compression was a “significant” issue at NSHE institutions but that most were still paying comparably against similar institutions. The study recommended NSHE consider developing multiple salary structures because existing ones are too broad to be effective. It also recommended revising the method for calculating salary schedules at the state college and community college where salary compression is more pronounced.

Since the recession, cost-of-living adjustments and merit-based pay have been inconsistent for NSHE employees, even as the private sector has enjoyed a healthy bounceback. Currently, academic and administrative faculty are eligible for merit pay only when their institutions are awarded money by the legislature. Funding for merit pay has happened only twice in the past decade.

One associate professor told the interim committee back in May that recruiting has become far more difficult over his 16 years at the University of Nevada, Reno. Securing the committee’s first or second choice candidate used to be routine, he wrote. “More recently we are routinely turned down by our top three choices. In the past four years we have had three out of five searches for tenure track faculty members fail. In my previous 10 years at the university, one search out of 10 did not lead to a faculty hire.”

In addition to concerns about stagnant salaries, faculty groups and individuals testified that their health benefits haven’t kept pace with rising costs and they are expected to do more with less. Then, there’s the rising cost of housing and other expenses in places like Reno and Southern Nevada.

It’s been estimated it would cost $90 million to address salary compression within NSHE.

If all of this sounds familiar, it is because the issues being raised within NSHE echo those being loudly trumpeted at the K-12 level. The situation may not be as dire — starting and stagnant salaries for full-time professors are higher than those of K-12 teachers — but frustration over a failure to create dedicated funding sources for employee-related costs appears to be a shared trait among all Nevada educators.

In Southern Nevada, Clark County School District teachers have an in-rank salary advancement structure in theory, but salaries have remained stagnant in reality as the district deals with budget shortfall after budget shortfall. The Clark County Education Association — the collective bargaining unit for the teachers — reached a unique resolution with the district earlier this year to work together to lobby the legislature to fix the funding formula and, in turn, their district issues.

Advocates and groups focused on K-12 are hopeful about their chances given the “blue wave” that will usher in Governor-elect Steve Sisolak and an almost-super-majority of Democrats in both chambers.

And the higher ed folks?

NSHE Chancellor Thom Reilly says he’s feeling “cautiously optimistic” too. He is encouraged by the fact Sisolak is a former regent who understands the mechanics of higher education in Nevada. Reilly also says the system is supporting the legislative efforts happening at the grades below them.

“We are two systems but really we are one big system,” said Reilly, “K-20.”

In addition to approving their legislative priorities, the regents on Friday also approved prioritization of their capital improvement projects. Topping their list: an education building for Nevada State College, a health and sciences building for the College of Southern Nevada, and an engineering academic and research building for the University of Nevada Las Vegas. The estimated cost of those three projects is $113.5 million, and regents would like the state to pay for more than $83 million of those costs.

The 2019 Legislative Session begins in February.

April Corbin
Reporter | April Corbin is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. Most recently she covered local government for Las Vegas Sun. She has also been a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of its student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April serves as treasurer of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter and is an at-large member of the Asian American Journalists Association. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise. She lives with her boyfriend, his toddler, three mutts and five chickens. In her free time, she enjoys rock climbing, exploring Nevada and defending selfies.

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