Wave of teacher absences forcing Vegas-area school closures deemed an illegal strike, judge finds

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A judge on Wednesday found that the teachers union in Las Vegas is behind a wave of absences and ordered an end to what she said is “very clearly a strike” during a bitter contract battle in a state where it is illegal for public employees to walk out on the job.

Since Sept. 1, the unexpected staff shortages have forced eight schools to cancel classes for the day and two others to combine classes, according to the Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas. The district said one of those schools had 87% of its teachers call out sick on the same day.

“The idea that this can be ignored, that these are sick call-outs, and that they are actually due to someone being sick is preposterous,” Clark County District Judge Crystal Eller said. If the teachers union fails to stop the strike, penalties could include a fine of up to $50,000, as well as jail time or termination for striking members and union leaders.

The Clark County Education Association — which represents about 18,000 licensed educators — has said it isn't responsible for the recent wave of absences. Executive Director John Vellardita said after the hearing that they “respectfully disagree” with the judge's order. The union's attorney, Bradley Schrager, said they will appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The contentious contract negotiations are unfolding at a time when labor unions across the country are challenging how workers are treated — from Hollywood’s ongoing writers strike and Detroit ’s auto production lines to the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Las Vegas Strip.

The judge on Wednesday said she was "extremely sympathetic to how difficult the situation is,” but said the law is clear that public employees in Nevada cannot strike.

“Obviously, we want our students to have good teachers. We want our teachers and our office staff to be fully and completely compensated, to have the benefits that they deserve," Eller said, while encouraging the school district to put in what she called a “good faith” effort to reach a deal with the union.

In addition to being one of the largest school districts in the U.S., with about 295,000 students, the Clark County School District is the largest in Nevada. It is facing more than 1,100 teacher vacancies.

The education association, however, says vacancies are almost double that if you factor in the open positions that substitute teachers are currently filling.

Contract negotiations have been underway since March over topics such as pay, benefits and working conditions.

Negotiations resumed this week, but ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, the school district announced it had declared an impasse with the teachers union, saying arbitration was now “the only way” to resolve the ongoing fight after 11 unsuccessful bargaining sessions. It called the union's demands “unaffordable” and “budget-busting.”

Union leaders said they welcome “a third set of eyes” to look over a new contract during arbitration, while also expressing frustration over what they say will likely be a lengthy process before an agreement is reached.

The union is seeking 18% across-the-board pay raises over two years. It also wants additional compensation for special education teachers and teachers in high-vacancy, typically low-income schools, as well as an increased pay rate for teachers working extended-day hours at certain campuses.

The district said its final offer before declaring an impasse included a 9% salary increase during the first year of a new contract, a new pay scale that it says emphasizes college education and years of experience, and other incentives for special education teachers and hard-to-fill positions.

In recent months, negotiations have grown increasingly tense, particularly after the union gave the school district a deadline to reach a contract before the start of the 2023-24 school year.

In Nevada, it is illegal for public employees to strike. But the union had said they would consider taking what they called “work actions” if their deadline wasn't met, including teachers refusing to work more hours than their contracted work day.

“It is simply not believable that Defendants would threaten targeted work actions for months and have no involvement when those work actions come to pass through their own members' conduct,” the school district said in its motion.

Meanwhile, thousands of students have already been affected by the wave of teacher absences.

Andrea Brai, whose son was diagnosed with autism, told KVVU-TV last Friday that students' needs shouldn't fall by the wayside amid the contract disputes. According to the district, 72% of licensed staff members at Sewell Elementary, where Brai's son is a student, called in sick that day.

“When you become a teacher,” she said, “you should go into this profession with that in mind.”

Rio Yamat, The Associated Press