As Teacher Strike Looms, Superintendent Faces Tough Decisions
Kids in Clark County’s public schools are in their second week of the new school year.
And it’s the second year on the job for Superintendent Jesus Jara.
It was a rocky summer – with a budget shortfall of nearly $17 million to address, as well as figuring out promised pay raises for teachers.
The Clark County Education Association, the largest teacher's union in the state, will strike Sept. 10 if contract negotiations are not worked out by the end of the week.
Jara told KNPR's State of Nevada the district needs to properly compensate its hard-working employees but his budget is tight.
"We have a finite dollar amount that we lobbied in Carson City this year," he said, "It is the largest increase we have seen in compensations. For the teachers, it's close to $69 million."
Jara said he couldn't get into the specifics of what is being talked about at the bargaining table but he does agree that promises were made to teachers about pay increases for increased training.
At this point, he is hopeful an agreement will be reached.
"I can't speak for the CCEA and their leadership but I can tell you it would be devastating to this community," he said.
It is illegal for teachers to strike in Nevada. The union could face a large fine if it does start picketing and teachers could be fired; however, Jara was clear that he did not want that to happen.
He was also clear that he, the rest of the administration, the board and their legal team are working on a backup plan - if teachers walk off the job.
"I have to make sure that I ensure quality education for our children for 180 days a year," he said, "That is part of what we need to do."
Jara said the district is looking to hire substitute teachers and it is waiving the fingerprinting fee for those who apply.
Budget woes are really nothing new for Nevada schools. State lawmakers have been working to address the problem for several years. Jara said when started his position as superintendent he was surprised at the disconnect between funding for schools and people's passion for the future of their children.
"A great community, really invested. To me, I'm puzzled as to where some of these challenges may be," he said.
One of those challenges, which might finally get addressed, is the state's school funding formula. The Nevada Plan, as it is called, was developed in the 60s. It dictates how money from the state's general fund is distributed to each school district.
This year, the Legislature voted to change the formula, but first, it voted to look at how the formula works and how school districts will be impacted by changes.
Jara said getting that funding formula changed was his top priority and the first step in an overhaul of the funding structure.
"The formula we had was 52 years old. I always say, we were educating children using a formula in 2019 that was created in 1967. Our kids are so different," he said, "As superintendent, I really didn't push for more money to be put into the old formula because that would have gotten into the same situation that we've been in."
Now that that first step is underway, Jara believes the state needs to talk about how public education is funded. He's from Florida where schools are funded in part by property taxes.
"We need to have a really deep conversation in this state around how we fund public education," he said, " The Council on Great City Schools did a report for me earlier this past year... they analyzed we are the lowest funded urban school system in America out of the 74 urban school systems that are part of the Council on Great City Schools."
Jara doesn't just want the Legislature to give CCSD a bunch of money. He also believes there needs to be accountability for those dollars with measurable results from students.
The superintendent said his administration is fighting a perception of mismanagement. There is a belief by some lawmakers and community members that CCSD has plenty of taxpayer dollars, but it is not using them properly.
Jara said an independent audit of the district will be presented to the school board on Thursday. He believes the external audit will be positive for the district.
"My priority as a superintendent is not only for our students but also to the taxpayers," he said.
In his efforts to address budget problems, Jara ran into controversy this summer when he announced the elimination of deans at middle and high schools. There was a vote of no-confidence by principals and a threat of a lawsuit.
The situation has been worked out with middle and high schools cutting $98 per student from their budgets but keeping their deans - if they choose. How to cut those budgets have been left up to individual principals.
Jara admitted he learned a lesson from the incident.
"In hindsight, next time get the input from the administrators coming in," he said.
Looking forward, Jara has a number of challenges he would like addressed, including proper funding for teacher resources and training.
"Providing the educators with the tools necessary, professional development," he said, "These are things because of lack of funding that we haven't done."
He also sees classroom overcrowding and student mental health services as priorities.
All of that, he believes, needs a long-term plan from the state.
Jesus Jara, superintendent, Clark County School District