Commentary

Principals vs. teachers

June 22, 2021 6:01 am

Five years after it was enacted, legislation reorganizing the Clark County School District continues to daze and confuse. (Image by tlparadis from Pixabay)

Ladies and Gentlemen (and non-binary and gender fluid individuals) welcome to the intermediate round of The Fight Over Control of Our Schools.

In one corner we have AB469, the 2017 bill that created Clark County School District reorganization, represented by THE PRINCIPALS!

In the other corner, we have… the UNIONS, represented by… lots of people because they’re unions and they want to give everybody a voice.

The referees and judges for this bout are the Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Nevada State Board of Education.

The state board and superintendent are the judges because the 2017 legislature gave them the authority to oversee AB469. That may have something to do with the fact that the CCSD board of trustees filed suit to stop the law before the 2017 legislative session began.

“It was pretty clear [the trustees] weren’t going to come along willingly,” said Mark Newburn, vice-president of the state board of education. 

So, now, the state board of ed and the state superintendent can decide if CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara is violating the reorg law. And they can mandate remedies. 

If the violation is clear and obvious, the State Superintendent Jhone Ebert “has the hammer of enforcement,” said Newburn.

But, said Newburn, “If we think the law is unclear, the state board can write regulations to try to clarify things.”

At this preliminary bout, which was held June 3 at the Nevada Department of Education boardroom in Las Vegas, the principals came out fighting, with story after story about how they see CCSD violating the reorganization law.

The tales revolve around three basic issues: autonomy for principals to hire teachers and staff, autonomy for School Organizational Teams (SOTs) to make service level agreements (SLAs) with outside contractors, and the ability of schools to keep and spend carryover funds.

All of these capabilities, say principals, were promised in AB469, but have never come to fruition. 

“CCSD has carefully crafted the illusion of decentralization and autonomy without providing it,” said Lindsey Dalley, who sits on two SOTs and is a member of the Community Education Advisory Board that works with all four schools in Moapa Valley.

SLAs

Dalley, who is a sleep doctor, cited what he sees as a violation of an SLA when the district charged Moapa Valley schools $90,000 for educational centers. 

The community-run organizational teams rejected that budget item “because we cannot control the expenses and we do not use that service,” Dalley told the board, noting that the education centers in question are in Las Vegas or unincorporated Clark County, at least an hour away from their schools. Nevertheless, they were told they had no opt-out option.

“There are multiple examples,” Dalley told the state board. “It shows up in our budget and we don’t have a choice.”

Valley High School Principal Ramona Esparza had the opposite complaint about SLAs – that the CCSD central administration wouldn’t approve an agreement with their chosen contractor, Data Insight Partners.

“Our SOT reviewed data to reduce chronic absenteeism – which was above 34%,” Esparza told the state board. Data Insight Partners provided individualized profiles for every student, in multiple languages, and provided customizations within 24 hours.

Using Data Insight, and hiring a site-based attendance officer, “we saw a 3% reduction in our chronic absenteeism pre-Covid,” Esparza said.

But in 2020, Valley and 35 other schools were not allowed to purchase Data Insight Partners’ services, which I wrote about in March. (Data Insight partners was just awarded $300,000 from CCSD.)

“This impeded the progress made and my ability as a principal to lead the work that was necessary,” Esparza said. “I felt as if my hands were tied.”

Staff

Esparza acted quickly to have her hands free when she rejected a specific teacher in 2019.

The teacher was placed at Valley by CCSD for one of the school’s three specialized magnet programs — hospitality, military science and technology, and International Baccalaureate. But she came with a reputation.

“The stories were atrocious,” Esparza testified. “We interviewed her. She did not fit our community. We felt we had to protect our students.”

Since then, Esparza told the state board, “I have been stalked by this individual.”

Green Valley High School Principal Kent Roberts had a similar story. CCSD placed a teacher in his school’s IB program who “wasn’t up to the task.”

“On day one, she started generating complaints from students,” Roberts told the board of ed. The teacher ended up taking the first quarter of the school year off for elective surgery, and then left the school when the year was up.

“But the damage was already done,” Roberts said.

Roberts also fought the placement of an 11th grade English teacher — who is responsible for prepping kids for the ACT, which CCSD mandates juniors take. ACT scores also affect school ratings.

Roberts said he talked to six different principals who said this person was “the worst teacher you will ever see.”

After rejecting coaching from Roberts, the teacher retired the night before school started, leaving Green Valley without a full-time teacher.

In both cases, Esparza said, “someone didn’t do their due diligence to document this teacher.” Which state board of ed president Felicia Ortiz seized on.

“Those two teachers you were talking about,” Ortiz asked Roberts. “What was their NEPF rating?”

That complicated the conversation. The basic question from the board was: Are the teachers bad? Or is the system for rating and placing them bad?

The ratings system, principals tell me, is great for a teacher who is good and needs to improve, or great and the school wants to show that off. But for ineffective or burned out teachers, it can do damage.

It takes three years to get rid of a bad teacher who has passed their initial probationary hiring period. First you determine the teacher is bad. Then you must put the teacher on notice and document what they’re doing pretty much every day. Then you have to write up a plan, and keep documenting. If they are rated ineffective for two years after you start documenting, the teacher goes back on probation.

But three years is three quarters of a high schooler’s career. It is all of a middle schooler’s career. 

So principals usually find workarounds. They make the teacher’s life hell. This is a workaround I particularly despise. They shrink the size of the department, or eliminate the department altogether, so there are no “jobs” to fill. They do whatever they can to get rid of the burned out teacher or the one who never should have been hired and passed along. It is easier and less time-consuming than documenting.

The other side of this, as Chris Daly and Jan Giles from the Education Support Employees Association and John Vellardita from the Clark County Education Association argued, is that a principal who has complete power might brand someone as “ineffective” simply because they don’t like them. It could be a teacher who speaks up for working conditions or other union issues. It could be someone who wears his afro hair natural in the office. It could be for anything. This district is retaliatory. It would be absurd to assume that principals were not part of that.

Vellardita told the board that the union contracts were necessary to prevent “overreach and abuse on the part of principals who thought they had unconditional authority to deny educators to be in a classroom.”

Stephen Augsperger, the head of the principals’ union, countered that “the Clark County School District has erred on the side of poorly performing union members.”

I feel like the truth is somewhere in between.

Not a dating app (sadly)

“I understand where bargaining groups are coming from,” said Green Valley’s Roberts. “They’re trying to protect their people. I get that. But I think there’s a way that CCSD and the bargaining groups can solve this problem.”

The problem is, the bargaining units that have to come together to solve the problem haven’t wanted to. They have relied on lawsuits and attorney general reports and Labor Relations Board rulings — and those rulings have been contradictory.

In 2018 the attorney general’s office — still under Adam Laxalt — ruled that the Nevada Revised Statute that governs the reorganization law (388G) did not conflict with the law that governs union contracts. The AG argued the district created the overall contract that oversaw the pool of teachers employed by the district that the individual schools could choose from.

It concluded: “AB469 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.”

But you know what you do when a court ruling doesn’t go your way? You appeal, or go to another court. Which is effectively what the teacher and support staff unions did.

The Nevada Government Employee Management Relations Board (EMRA) seemed to rule the opposite of the AG. In December 2020, they ruled that AB469 does not explicitly abrogate collective bargaining agreements, and principals cannot supersede the ability of the district to place teachers. But they were looking at statutes involving collective bargaining, not AB469, which they have no jurisdiction over.

Last month, a Clark County District Court ruled against the principals, arguing “that the local school precincts were indeed given the authority to select teachers, administrators and other staff under NRS 388G.610(2)(a). However, this authority was not unlimited.”

Now the state board of ed will decide. And it might not be a simple principal vs. teachers decision. One of the issues brought out in the hearings was CCSD’s HR system cannot give the principals a list from which to choose to interview. It simply places people without regard to the school’s needs. Almost every board member was aghast at that.

The dispute between admin and teachers/staff is rooted in two different parts of the reorg law

The part that principals rely on is this:

 2.  The superintendent shall transfer to each local school precinct the authority to carry out the following responsibilities:

  (a)Select for the local school precinct the:

          (1)Teachers;

          (2)Administrators other than the principal; and

          (3)Other staff who work under the direct supervision of the principal.

But the statute also says:

To the greatest extent possible, the principal of a local school precinct shall select teachers who are licensed and in good standing before selecting substitutes to teach at the local school precinct. The principal, in consultation with the organizational team, shall make every effort to ensure that effective licensed teachers are employed at the local school precinct.

It’s the “greatest extent possible” language that the Board of Ed will likely be deciding.

“If you had a better placement process,” said Newburn. “If it had the sophistication of a dating app – you would be able to find those [teachers] a happy home.”

Board president Ortiz gave CCSD HR chief Nadine Jones three months to come up with a systemic solution.

As to whether or not the reorganization law supersedes prior collective bargaining laws, Ortiz gave chief negotiator Fikisha Miller six months to bring all parties into alignment.

Augsperger of the principals union says he’s willing to do that. He notes that CCASAPE changed many of their rules in 2018, to be in compliance with AB469. Principals, for instance, are no longer guaranteed placement if they take a year’s leave of absence.

But the teachers and support staff unions did not. Because doing so would be an admission that collective bargaining was second to the reorg law. 

Ortiz — and the rest of her board — seem to be leaning toward the idea that AB469 does supersede collective bargaining. She sees the law as making the district the referee, and perhaps fight promoter. They provide the venues. They create the ropes where the combatants fight. Or perhaps, in a more beautiful world, play cards.

“The district needs to set the guardrails — legal stuff, essentially — and everything in between should be fair game,” Ortiz said.

Newburn wants the combatants to meet in the middle of the ring and shake hands. He sees the part of the statute that mandates principals select staff as the floor. This is the part the AG report defined. He sees the part of the statute that uses the “greatest extent possible” language as the ceiling, aligned with the labor relations board decision.

He, too, wants the combatants to meet in the middle.

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Carrie Kaufman
Carrie Kaufman

Broadcast, digital and print journalist Carrie Kaufman has covered the Clark County School District for public radio and The Nevada Voice since 2015.

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