It’s a narrative that appears to be playing out all across the country: Teachers are going on strike, calling in sick en masse, flooding the halls of capitol buildings and taking to the streets over low salaries, high class sizes and dwindling resources. West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kentucky, California and North Carolina have all seen major teacher protests within the past 18 months.
Nevada could be next.
Clark County School District teachers this week are voting on whether to authorize a possible strike at the beginning of the next school year. The Clark County Education Association, which represents the 18,000 teachers employed by CCSD, called for the vote of its members as a response to growing concerns that the Nevada Legislature and Gov. Steve Sisolak will fail to deliver on their promises to fix systemic issues within the state’s K-12 education system.
Online voting to authorize a strike began in the wee hours of Tuesday. By midday 2,000 votes had already been cast. For the undecided and enthusiastic, the union held two informational meetings Tuesday. An additional two meetings are scheduled for Wednesday.
Voting runs through Saturday.
Approximately 11,000 of the school district’s 18,000 licensed teachers — or 61 percent — are union members and therefore eligible to vote. A simple majority of votes is needed to authorize a strike. The results of this week’s vote could be released as early as Sunday.
‘Enough is enough’
CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita believes putting the option of a strike on the table sends the right message to a Democratic-controlled Legislature that thus far has failed to launch.
“There were high expectations when this session opened up,” says Vellardita.
That was back in February.
It’s now May and only four weeks remain in the legislative session. As of Tuesday, no bill has been introduced to address the decades-old funding formula known as The Nevada Plan, which almost all education advocates agree needs to be updated in some way. Large questions still loom about whether additional revenue is possible (and if so, how much) given the governor’s earlier insistence that no new taxes would be imposed. Such weighty topics need time to discuss and pass even the friendliest of legislatures.
“That window (of time) is compressing every day you don’t introduce something,” says Vellardita.
The CCEA head did confirm the union was a part of a “sneak peek” meeting reported on by The Nevada Independent Monday. The series of meetings, which also included district officials and business executives, was related to the long-awaiting education legislation but was said not to include specific bill language.
Vellardita would only say he hopes the governor and legislative leadership find “appropriate solutions” that result in getting raises to educators and resources to students. Such an outcome could potentially null the need for a teacher strike, which does carry legal risks for both the union and those who participate in it.
Nevada teachers are barred from striking by state law. A court could fine CCEA up to $50,000 per day and teachers who participate could be subject to dismissal or suspension.
Vellardita says the union has acknowledged that strikes are prohibited by state law and encourages everyone to assess the risks for themselves. However, he believes the national context matters just as much as the words printed in Nevada Revised Statute.
He points to strikes and protests in states “far more conservative politically than Nevada.” Strikes are illegal almost everywhere, but teachers are doing it anyway because they work.
“They took action. Enough was enough. They won to some degree their demands. Not one educator lost their job as a result.”
Vellardita also doubles down on concepts sacrosanct to unions — the idea there is safety in numbers and when push comes to shove the power rests with workers banding together.
“Clark County started this school year with 500 vacancies and they’ll end this school year with 500 vacancies,” says Vellardita. “What are they going to do? Fire several thousand teachers and replace them with who? We don’t see that happening.”
Not everyone in the education community is convinced a strike is the way to go.
The Nevada State Education Association, a statewide union connected to the National Education Association, has consistently butted heads with CCEA over policy positions. The two unions were once affiliated with one another but officially and dramatically parted ways just over a year ago.
NSEA President Ruben Murillo says the successful teacher strikes that occurred in other states all had the support of their school districts, trustees and affiliate unions like NSEA and NEA.
“It wasn’t just teachers and support staff,” he adds. “There was a broad coalition.”
Murillo says NSEA and NEA won’t be able to help CCEA and its teachers in the event an actual strike happens. Other education advocacy groups have largely remained mum on the proposed strike, choosing instead to wait and see how the rest of the legislative session plays out. (Similarly, school board trustees opted not to attend a CCEA rally last month after legal counsel said their attendance could be interpreted as support of a strike, which at the time was only a rumor.)
The lack of a coalition isn’t Murillo’s only concern. He also questions the timing. He likens authorizing a strike that won’t happen for at least four months to being a parent who repeatedly threatens a misbehaving child with a punishment but never delivers.
“The action has to happen now or it’s an empty threat.”
Regarding the timing, Vellardita says it is what it is because of the legislative schedule. The last day of the current school year is May 23, roughly a week before the end of the session. This means legislators will still be working on the budget and the fate of education policy is likely to still be up in the air.
Once the state budget is finalized and approved, the process trickles downward. CCSD will look at its official budget and make any changes — for better or worse — over the summer. That process sometimes trickles deep into the academic year, as it did last school year when there were two major budget modifications that affected every school in the district.
Currently, CCSD leaders forecast they will not have enough money to honor the 3 percent cost of living increase publicly promised to educators by Sisolak during his state of the state speech, or the 2 percent “roll up” salary increases teachers are supposed to receive as part of the negotiated contract between CCEA and CCSD. Neither raise was included in the most recent budget projection submitted to the state by CCSD.
The district has said it needs an additional $100 to $120 million for those.
Beyond the prospect of frozen salaries and broken promises, teachers are also concerned significant budget cuts may be coming. The superintendent and district officials have acknowledged during school board meetings that it is a possibility. That could mean CCSD teachers are welcomed to the 2019-20 school year this August by larger class sizes, fewer textbooks and school supplies, cut programs, fewer support staff (like aides and maintenance workers), and fewer licensed-personnel (like librarians, nurses and counselors).
The one thing Vellardita and Murillo do agree on is the need for some major legislative action this session.
“We can’t wait two more years,” says Murillo. “If nothing passes, it’s the status quo. You’ll see cuts in counties across the state. … It would be like dying, a slow death between sessions.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed North Dakota among the states where teachers have gone on strike or held major protests. It was not. (North Carolina was.)