PHOTO/DAVE ROBERT: Reno High School students navigate the school’s hallway.

Teachers have a plan for the Nevada Rainy Day Fund, and it has nothing to do with the Legislature giving massive tax breaks to Hollywood moguls or spending money on stadiums.

“We’re asking for some of that rainy-day fund money that’s just sitting … to be pulled into education to essentially pay for the lack of pay that everybody in the district has, as well as put more into programs for kids,” said Jessica Fernainy, a Washoe County teacher.

The rainy-day fund balance is about $900 million—the highest in Nevada state history and more than double 2020’s total.

The teachers’ plan is called “Time for 20.” It asks for a 20% raise in teacher pay, a $20 minimum hourly rate for support staff, and a class-size cap of 20 students.

“We cannot expect Massachusetts results while spending Mississippi money,” reads a headline on the Nevada State Education Association website. The NSEA notes that Nevada schools regularly rank among the worst in the nation, with overcrowding, low teacher pay and staff retention among the state’s major problems. Teachers and support staff see those conditions every day.

“The class sizes are too big,” said Joanne Ault, a speech pathologist at the school district. “Teachers are really unable to handle some of the behaviors that we have in schools now. And I’ve seen a big difference in 21 years.”

Ault said incidents involving student behavior have “skyrocketed” during the last five years. “Teachers don’t feel like they have support,” Ault said. “What we need from the community is parent support. We need people to support their teachers and support the educators. How many more years can everybody take this kind of thing before something changes?”

Lu Hansen, who holds a master’s degree in special education, had been a “strategies” teacher for five years in Washoe County schools. Those teachers focus on “instructional design and implementation,” working more directly with the students. Strategies teachers often have a physically demanding job, Hansen noted. She is now a “resource teacher,” which is more of a support role.

“The class sizes are too big. Teachers are really unable to handle some of the behaviors that we have in schools now. And I’ve seen a big difference in 21 years.” Joanne Ault, WCSD speech pathologist

“After five years, I could not do one more day,” Hansen said. “It’s a very physical, laborious (job). I really liked it, but I physically burnt out.”

Teacher burnout is a national problem. The number of teachers in Nevada declined by 6 percent in 2022 compared to the previous year, according to the National Education Association. That was the third-worst decrease in the nation. Nevada also ranks high in overcrowded classrooms. States with the highest student-teacher ratios in 2020 were California, Utah and Nevada, according to the NEA.

The state also has a bad report card when it comes to paying educators. In Washoe County, pay scales for educational support professionals, as well as school support like the janitorial department, start as low as $10 an hour. Nevada teachers make nearly $7,500 per year below the national average—and $27,000 less than teachers in neighboring California, according to the NEA.

At a time when housing prices and rents are soaring, the Time for 20 plan would give salaried teachers a cost-of-living boost. In addition, the union argues, higher pay will increase teacher retention.

According to the union, from August through January of this year, there have been “67 percent more licensed staff separations than a typical year over the same time period,” including 300 more teachers who quit than during the previous school year.

“Right now, I think the biggest issue for me is definitely the pay,” Hansen said. “I’ve really grown to love teaching. I see the impact that I make, and it’s exciting … (but) I have two kids in college, and I cannot sustain this, unfortunately, with the cost of living that everyone’s experiencing.”

Some teachers rely on their spouses to make ends meet.

“I own a house with my husband. If it wasn’t for him, I would have no money left for anything after paying for my mortgage and everything,” Fernainy said. “I don’t feel it as much as other people feel it, but I know we don’t have enough money to have kids anytime soon, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Other Western states have raised salaries and reduced class sizes. Lawmakers in New Mexico last year passed a measure that will increase salaried staff pay by 6% and more than double teaching assistants’ pay from $12,000 per year to $25,000. Oklahoma raised certified staff pay by $3,000 to $6,000 based on experience. Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall, quoted in The Oklahoman after the bill’s passage, said: “I would want educators in the state to look at what’s come out of this package and know there was never any question about their value or whether or not a teacher pay raise was going to happen.”

Brian Wallace, the NSEA vice president, said Nevada leaders should follow the lead of New Mexico and Oklahoma. “Our schools are at a breaking point, but we know how to fix it,” he said. “Pay educators more so we’re competitive; improve working conditions for better morale; and respect us and the work we do.”

Teachers have been lobbying Nevada lawmakers about the Time for 20 proposal, and they ask community members to support the cause. Nevadans can get involved by writing a letter to the governor and their state representatives, they said.

“Educators know what works, and if we are serious about getting every Nevada student and family access to a quality education, our elected leaders need to adequately fund our public schools,” said Dawn Etcheverry, president of the NSEA and a music teacher in Washoe County. “That’s why we say it’s Time for 20.”

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