May 28, 2024 5:37 am
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Opinion

Opinion | War and Mutiny in Nevada Education

Credit: iStock

Carrie Kaufman, Michigan Advance

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the phrase “the enemy of your enemy is your friend.”

I’ve never really thought that was true. But then again, I’m not transactional. And that’s a very transactional view of the world.

Last weekend, as Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group forces took over a Russian town east of the Ukranian border, then headed north for Moscow before inexplicably giving up, I wondered about the threat to our world if they successfully staged a coup on a nation that owns about 6,000 nuclear weapons.

The Wagner Group is best known for its torture of civilians in Syria and various countries in Africa. Who, I wondered, would we be better off with his hand near the nuclear button – the guy who ordered (or at least ignored) the torture and murder of innocent people, or the guy who carried it out.

CCSD and CCEA

The enemy of my enemy idea is playing out locally, too, within the Clark County School District. And it’s a lot like the Prigozhin mutiny.

In the special legislative sessions of 2020, when CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara made his ill-fated bid to sneak carryover money away from schools, it was Clark County Education Association executive director John Vellardita who actually presented the bill to the legislature.

I have no doubt that Vellardita’s aims were aligned with Jara’s in this case. The more money accrued to central administration, the more money is on the table to negotiate raises. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, about a third of the way through the 2023 legislative session, in a foreshadowing of the Wagner Group, Vellardita turned on Jara, and released his social media henchmen to attack.

Why? Neither I nor anyone I’ve talked to have any idea. And the social media henchmen – a couple of whom I know and like – won’t be able to give a perspective until Vellardita inevitably turns on THEM and they come out of the spell of his cult.

The attacks by CCEA calling for Jara’s firing have been vicious, and have said what we’ve been saying for nigh on three years. 

The union has been making a big deal about how the district – and therefore Jara – is going backwards in reading and math proficiency. Which is totally true. And has been obvious since at least 2019. But CCEA has been silent, or tepidly supporting Jara. Until now.

They’ve made a thing out of Jara’s new contract and his big raise to $393,000, $50,000 toward his attorney, and his ability to consult for even more pay. He also is now eligible for state retirement – or PERS – since he has just reached his 5-year mark with the district.

But at the time this contract was approved, no CCEA officer or staff member gave public testimony.

Meanwhile, Jara’s team puts out reports about graduation rates for schools that serve poor communities without checking their numbers, which turn out to be wrong. Jara and his team of high-paid ditherers saw numbers that were disconcerting, and they weren’t disconcerted by them. After all, these are poor kids. We can’t expect them to have a good graduation rate. Right?

CCEA has said nothing about this.

During the 50 bajillion-hour meeting on October 28, 2021, when Jara was initially fired, both CCEA president Marie Nieses and vice-president Jim Frazee spoke in support of Jara – though they both noted they didn’t love everything he did. This made sense. Jara was being fired after trying to interfere in negotiations to CCEA’s favor, and against his chief negotiator, whom Vellardita had openly criticized.

Methinks that if a union chief is criticizing your negotiator for being too tough, then perhaps you should back your negotiator.

Last week, CCEA put out an ad that is simply a lie. It shows Trustee Evelyn Garcia-Morales, in her infamous attempt to justify to the legislature the $425,000 in annual raises that were given to Jara’s cabinet. Her performance was so painful, I did a youtube about it.

But CCEA used the footage from Garcia-Morales’ performance, then twisted it to seem like she was talking about Jara’s raise.

Look, this man should have been fired in 2020, he should have been fired in 2021. Just as Putin should not be menacing the world stage. But CCEA acting like a lighter version of Prigozhin doesn’t help, either.

Does anybody in this state tell the truth?

NSEA

The other teachers union in the state – the Nevada State Education Association – spent the legislative session just trying to be heard. They put forward their Time for 20 3-pronged idea – 20% teacher raises, $20 an hour for staff members, and 20 students per class – and never even got a hearing.

Of course they didn’t. Because CCEA gave over $857,000 to legislative candidates, or other PACS that gave to legislative candidates, in 2022.

The state had so much money coming into our coffers this year, the legislature was able to put $300 million into the rainy day fund, and give record amounts to education. But they didn’t mandate a 20% raise or $20 an hour for teachers and staff.

Because if the bought-off legislators gave NSEA’s ideas a hearing, CCEA would be mad. And CCEA would rather its teachers get paid less than give its rival – which it replaced in a coup in 2017 – a “win.”

Let’s note that NSEA represents all other teachers in the state. And their sister union represents all staff members, including those in Clark County. But legislators would not listen to them.

Now NSEA seems to be taking a cue from CCEA’s strategies. Honestly, I think the NSEA people are too nice to ever fully mimic Vellardita, but they are aiming to mimic his fundraising prowess, so that, perhaps in the future, legislators might listen to them, too.

Such is the state of our democracy.

NSEA’s first salvo is a new Political Action Committee, called Schools Over Stadiums which, you got it, seeks to repeal the A’s stadium law – SB1 in the second special session – and seeks to get public support for Time for 20.

“Nevada’s priorities are misguided,” NSEA spokesperson Alexander Marks told me. “They move $300 million into the rainy day, and then a week later they give $380 million to a California billionaire.” Marks adds that teachers don’t feel valued when they see the legislature say no to a raise, but yes to an equivalent amount to a baseball stadium.

NSEA’s PAC will have three possible priorities, though Marks and political director Chris Daly aren’t sure how things will fall into place as of yet.

First, they are looking at filing a lawsuit that will argue that there will be such a change in loss of tax revenue – in gaming and property tax to name two – when the Tropicana is razed, that the legislature needed to have a 2/3s vote on that.

The constitutional article at hand – Article IV, Section 18(2) reads:

Except as otherwise provided in subsection 3, an affirmative vote of not fewer than two-thirds of the members elected to each House is necessary to pass a bill or joint resolution which creates, generates, or increases any public revenue in any form, including but not limited to taxes, fees, assessments and rates, or changes in the computation bases for taxes, fees, assessments and rates.

There are two arguments NSEA sees from this.

First, the stadium bill doesn’t create new taxes, it just moves existing taxes around. Therefore, lawmakers were told, it didn’t need a 2/3s vote. NSEA is arguing that it did need a 2/3s vote because losing the Trop and replacing it with a stadium will create “changes in the computation bases for taxes, fees, assessments and rates.”

They are also arguing that bonds, to be issued by Clark County, “create, generate or increase… public revenue.”

NSEA also wants to collect signatures for both a referendum that would straight-up repeal SB1, and for an initiative petition that would raise educator salaries.

They are looking to raise at least $2 million, with some of that, frankly, coming from folks in and around the Oakland area.

Again, these are iffy propositions. They are counting on sustained anger that the state gave almost $400 million to a billionaire in a state that often gives billionaires money. Cynicism may work against them.

But asking voters directly to approve educator raises is the only way, at this moment, to get around CCEA’s lock on legislators’ votes.

Are We Stuck with Bad Choices?

NSEA is actually arguing FOR teachers and staff, but they have less money, and therefore less of a voice with our political leadership. CCEA is arguing AGAINST CCSD, and lying to get their way. And CCSD is straight-up incompetent.

I feel the same way I do about Russia – we’re are stuck with bad choices no matter what we do. I hope NSEA can rile up enough grass roots to start doing what’s right by educators, and students. Perhaps, just perhaps, they may be the Ukraine in this situation. Any way you look at it, this will be a long and bloody war.

This article originally appeared on Michigan Advance and is republished here under a Creative Commons License

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