Teachers union says it will try suing individual principals

school lockers

A 2017 bill designed to decentralize Clark County School District is now being criticized for giving too much power to principals.

The bipartisan Assembly Bill 469 passed by the 2017 Nevada Legislature put more decision-making power at the individual school level. It shifted more authority to principals and school-level boards, and mandated a certain percentage of education funding be controlled at the school level. Clark County Education Association, which represents teachers and licensed personnel within CCSD, helped draft the bill at the time but now says the district and administrators union are using the bill to justify discriminatory employment practices against teachers.

Furthermore, the teachers union says they are prepared to take the issue to court.

“Bottom line: CCEA is going to sue these individual principals on behalf of teachers who’ve been discriminated against,” says Executive Director John Vellardita.

The union is currently representing a teacher who, upon completing an approved medical leave of absence, was denied reentry into their school by its principal. According to Vellardita, the justification given was AB469, which states the principal is charged with selecting staff.

Vellardita would not provide additional details about the dispute but says using the 2017 bill to refuse reentry of a teacher into their workplace after an approved leave is an overreach.

In a brief interview with the Current, Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees Executive Director Stephen Augspurger said the reorg bill is clear in the authority it gives.

“No one can be placed (within a school) without the consent of the principal,” he says.

Augspurger continued on to say that when a teacher returns from leave they are reassigned — “most of the time in the same building, but not always.” He scoffed at the notion that anyone was considering this power “unconditional” but did not elaborate.

He did not return follow-up phone calls or an email for an interview or additional comments regarding the issue.

Through its communications office, CCSD responded to the Current with a statement referencing the statutes established by the reorg bill, adding “…principals can select the teachers that work at their schools. However, the principals must comply with state and federal law when taking any such action. CCSD works with principals to maintain compliance with state and federal laws as well as provisions of the Negotiated Agreements with employee bargaining units.”

Vellardita says that interpretation leaves principals vulnerable to lawsuits against them individually — and that his union is willing to go there.

“(The district and administrators union) are in effect saying the principal is now the employer because the employer spelled out under law has the authority to hire, fire or replace an employee,” argues Vellardita. “As a result of that, those administrators have legal exposure when it comes to employment practices.”

This is not the first time the issue has come up. In October of 2017, then-Nevada Superintendent of Public Education Steve Canazaro requested an opinion from then-Attorney General Adam Laxalt on whether CCSD could assign a teacher to a school without the consent of its principal if it was part of an agreement between the district and collective bargaining representatives. In the request, Canazaro noted the “tension” between the newly established reorg statutes and existing ones that require school districts to negotiate with collective bargaining organizations regarding “the policies for the transfer and reassignment of teachers.”

Laxalt’s conclusion was no. In his official opinion, he wrote: “AB 469 delegates to local school precincts the authority to select teachers for assignment to those precincts, and large school districts have no ability to bargain that authority away.”

Vellardita and the teachers union disagree. He says that doesn’t align with the intent of AB469.

“I helped draft that language,” he adds. “I remember the subcommittee. It was conditional.”

State and federal laws protect employees from certain kinds of discrimination. Of significant relevance to school districts are those protecting against pregnancy discrimination.

“Our population that we represent is majority women,” says Vellardita. “A number of them go out on maternity leave, or for medical reasons that have to do with that.”

Vellardita says if a teacher is denied the ability to return to their workplace and cannot be placed in another school, they would be considered “unassigned” and eventually be let go.

“We think that’s unacceptable and a double standard,” he says. “It’s hurting employees.”

Beyond the immediate issue, the outspoken head of the teachers union wants administrators to know they will be held accountable for their actions.

In April of last year, the Las Vegas Review-Journal highlighted problems at Decker Elementary School, where teachers and parents claimed a dysfunctional principal had created a toxic environment leading to high staff turnover. That principal had similar complaints lodged against her when she headed Vegas Verdes Elementary.

In response, the teachers union vowed to “take a more aggressive and very public approach to ensuring that all of our schools have great leaders in their administrators.” The union implemented something called the “Decker Rule” that promises to investigate any claims lodged about ineffective administrators and attempt to resolve substantiated issues — first with the administrator directly, then with superintendent or regional directors, then with the trustee representing school’s district, and then with a public campaign.

“We will not end the campaign until the administrator is removed and the school has an effective administrator,” read the memo.

But more stories of bad apple administrators have surfaced.

Four days before the start of the current academic school year, the principal of Eldorado High School was placed on leave and assigned at home for reasons not made public. In December, parents of students at Clark High School complained to the school board about its principal. Similarly, parents speaking on behalf of teachers also spoke to the school board about issues with the principal of Walter Bracken STEAM Academy.

“The overwhelming majority of principals we have no issue with,” adds Vellardita. “But what we have said to the district is: Given the position they’re taking on the right to hire and fire, and in light of the public high profile cases where there’s been bad admin in schools, we don’t think some of these admin are qualified to make these kinds of decisions. They shouldn’t have the authority to ruin a teacher’s career.”

Vellardita is one of many people within the local education community troubled by the fact that in the past four years none of the more than 300 principals in the district has been rated “ineffective” (the lowest category), and only one has been rated in the second-lowest category (“developing”). That news came to light in September through reporting by the Review-Journal, which also noted that legislation passed during the 2019 session made accountability more lenient for administrators.

Vellardita says the district simply relocates bad administrators to new buildings rather than dealing with the underlying issues. The teachers union has described this as a “dance of lemons.”

Vellardita says a priority of the teachers union for the 2021 Legislative Session will be to strengthen accountability of principals and other administrators, adding: “You strip away accountability from the leadership, you affect the rest of the building.”

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American 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 the 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 currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. 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 with her husband, two children and three mutts.