Calls for Clark County superintendent search, not appointment, grow ahead of meeting
A proposal to appoint a new superintendent for the nation’s fifth-largest school district without a comprehensive search and public interviews has sparked outrage among educators, a top lawmaker and community members who say it’s not transparent and excludes community input.
The Clark County School Board is set to appoint Deputy Superintendent Brenda Larsen-Mitchell as superintendent at its Wednesday work session after Superintendent Jesus Jara announced conditional plans to resign in late January. If the board agrees to terms set in his resignation letter, his last day will be Feb. 21.
Larsen-Mitchell has been with the district for about 30 years, and has held several positions including teacher, dean of students and assistant principal.
Although there are no state or local laws restricting the appointment of an internal candidate, such a process would buck a trend for large districts, and critics say it may not yield the best person for the job.
Jara’s decision to resign comes about a month after the school district settled on a new contract with the Clark County Education Association (CCEA), ending a bitter dispute over teacher compensation. Jara was heavily criticized by the union and top Democratic lawmakers for the district’s handling of the negotiations, which entered the arbitration process in September when the district declared an impasse. Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) and other legislators called on Jara to resign.
Numerous lawmakers, educators and community members have taken issue with the proposal to place a new superintendent without conducting a formal search, and have urged the school board to take a step back and first appoint an interim superintendent.
“We need a nationwide search because we need the absolute best person for this district,” Yeager said during an event by the Vegas Chamber on Monday focused on K-12 education issues. “I've been disturbed to hear that maybe that's not going to happen.”
Superintendent searches across Nevada
There are no state policies or regulations governing how Nevada school boards should go about hiring a new superintendent, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert, leaving the decision in the hands of trustees.
Last month, the Washoe County School Board hired a firm to conduct a nationwide search for a new superintendent that it expects to hire before the start of the next school year. The board governing the state’s second-largest school district is looking to spend no more than $100,000 for the search, while former Superintendent Kristen McNeill is leading the district in the interim.
The district previously spent about $50,000 during its last superintendent search that resulted in the district hiring Susan Enfield. The district had a contract of $60,000 with a search firm for the superintendent prior to Enfield, but ended up spending only about $27,000 when the search was halted amid the COVID pandemic and with the board deciding to permanently keep McNeill, who was then serving in an interim capacity.
The Lyon County School District, which serves about 9,000 students, appointed Deputy Superintendent Tim Logan as the new head of the district last November without a formal search. Outgoing Superintendent Wayne Workman said in an email the district has a history of mentoring the deputy superintendent to one day take on the top role via appointment. Logan will begin his new role in July after Workman retires.
The Clark County School Board has conducted a nationwide search to find two of its last three superintendents — Jara and former Superintendent Dwight Jones. The contract for the search firm used to find Jara – Ray & Associates – costs the district nearly $50,000. In 2013, the board opted to promote an internal candidate, then-Deputy Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky, rather than undertake another national search.
The search for a new superintendent can be a lengthy and expensive process. A typical search can take anywhere from 12 weeks to five months, said Bill Bryan, founder and CEO of the Bryan Group, the firm that conducted the Washoe County School District’s previous search.
The Incline Village-based firm also conducted the Nevada System of Higher Education’s most recent chancellor search, which ended in failure after the Board of Regents voted last June against hiring any of the three finalists.
The total cost of a search for a large school district such as Clark County can run anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 including costs for advertising the position, Bryan said.
Bryan said finding the right number and high-quality candidates could depend on the timing of the search, as well as the district’s reputation. He said one of the challenges in Washoe County’s last superintendent search was its high turnover rate for superintendent. When Enfield took the job in 2022, she was the district’s fifth superintendent in the last 10 years.
“There isn't anything that won't be uncovered, and if they've got other choices, they’re probably going to go other places,” he said.
Another challenge that has made superintendent searches more difficult in recent years has been turnover among superintendents, which increased during the pandemic in Nevada and across the country. An analysis by ILO Group, an education consulting firm, found that 1 in 5 of the nation’s 500 largest school districts experienced a superintendent departure during the 2022-23 school year.
“Education needs the best leaders, but has the smallest pool of candidates, so you really have to look hard and most school districts do not have a really good internal pipeline to develop the level of proficiency that you need at the top,” Bryan said.
He added that it's unusual to see the school board for a district the size of Clark County skip a nationwide search and appoint from within district ranks.
“They're taking a risk,” he said. “I don't know who this person is. They may be the best person in the world, but it's really different being alone at the top than being in positions below.”
Although Nevada doesn’t have any state standards in place governing superintendent searches, Ebert suggested that the Clark County School Board follow best practices for hiring a superintendent, which includes having a fully transparent process and getting community input.
“I want them to listen to their community, number one, that's what they were elected to do … to make sure that they're moving the school district forward in a positive direction,” she said in an interview. “When the community doesn't feel that people are being transparent and open with the process, that's where you get a lot of tension.”
Community members demand search
Parent and community activist Rudy Zamora started an online petition a day after Jara’s resignation announcement to demand the school board to conduct a formal search for its next superintendent. The petition had about 900 signatures as of Tuesday morning.
“As someone that grew up in town, [who] went through the system and now has a child in the system, I think our children deserve better and we need to do the appropriate search for the right candidate,” he said in an interview.
Rebecca Dirks Garcia, parent of three Clark County students and co-administrator of the popular CCSD Parents Facebook group, said an internal poll of group members recently found wide consensus not only for a nationwide search, but also preference for an external candidate over an internal hire. Garcia said it's rare to see this level of agreement among the group’s membership.
“The community really wants to be involved in the process to select the next superintendent in a transparent and open manner, and it just doesn't feel like an immediate appointment provides the community any opportunity to engage with the district,” she said.
During a press conference last Friday, CCEA union leaders voiced opposition to Larsen-Mitchell’s appointment, and said if she’s appointed, it would be a “continuation of Superintendent Jara’s leadership.”
At the Vegas Chamber’s Monday event, Yeager stressed the need for leadership that can take the district in a new direction, instead of following on the path set by Jara through the appointment of his deputy superintendent in the top role.
“Going that direction, to me, would be a real mistake,” he said during an interview with reporters. “We need to get the absolute best person we can get and we should be talking to everybody and anybody who might be interested.”
The teachers’ union has suggested a special session of the Legislature may be needed before the 2025 regular session if the Clark County School Board moves forward with its plans to appoint Larsen-Mitchell. Yeager said the state is limited on what it can do on the matter, but warned that the Legislature could take a “strong look” at the district’s governance during the next session.
“We're all hopeful that this process is going to work the way it should and going to work the way citizens deserve it to work, and if it doesn't, then I think we'll look at all options on the table, whether that be the next legislative session or something sooner,” Yeager said.
Reporter Jannelle Calderon contributed to this report.