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From a split hiring vote onward, Jara struggled to unite district during 6-year tenure

Jara’s term at CCSD included a pandemic, teacher contract battles and budget woes. Some early backers say hiring him was still the right decision at the time.
Rocio Hernandez
Rocio Hernandez
EducationK-12 Education

From the moment he was hired in May 2018, it was evident that Clark County schools Superintendent Jesus Jara didn’t have broad support. 

But after a motion to hire an internal candidate failed in a 4-3 vote, the board turned its sights to Jara, a longtime Florida educator and administrator who immigrated to the United States from Venezuela as a child and learned how to speak English upon entering school. 

Feb. 23 marked the end of Jara’s six-year tenure, which included district financial woes, the pandemic, tensions between him, the school board, lawmakers and the district’s teachers union and a recent scandal involving a probe into the district’s use of its federal COVID relief funds. 

Observers’ takeaways on Jara’s tenure range from understanding about pandemic-related struggles Jara navigated to frustrations over the district’s lack of improvement on student achievement. 

Jara and the school district did not respond to a request for an interview, but he told the Las Vegas Sun on his final day that he decided it was time to call it quits after his mother’s recent death. 

“I’m the lightning rod. I need to excuse myself for the betterment of kids so that we can focus,” Jara said. “Instead of focusing on getting Jara out, let’s focus on doing what’s right for children.”

The Clark County School Board accepted Jara’s resignation terms, which included a $250,000 one-time lump sum payment, at its Feb. 22 meeting

In a farewell address, he said being the superintendent of the Clark County School District was “a lifetime opportunity” and the highlight of his career as an educator. 

“As any superintendent would tell you, undertaking the responsibilities inherent in the superintendent role is challenging,” Jara said in the statement. “Still, we all choose to do it anyway because advancing the cause of ensuring educational opportunities for all children and affecting positive change is the only way to make their future and our society better.”

Becoming superintendent

During the 2018 superintendent search, trustees were divided on whether an internal or external candidate would be best for the district. 

The superintendent before Jara, Pat Skorkowsky, had been with the district for about 30 years, five of which he spent as superintendent until he retired in June 2018. Skorkowsky took over the role in 2013 from former Superintendent Dwight Jones, who came to the district from Colorado and stayed in the position for less than three years. 

Before Jara was eventually hired, the school board made it a point to invite three candidates with current and former ties to the school district for an interview. Among those internal candidates was Mike Barton, who then served as the district’s chief academic officer. 

Barton had wide support among members of the public who came to speak before the board made its selection on a new superintendent at its meeting on May 2, 2018. He was backed by three of out of the seven school board members, who were impressed with his track record of helping improve the district’s graduation rate. 

Barton was also a favorite among community groups such as the Clark County Black Caucus, the Latin Chamber of Commerce and the administrators' union. 

But some trustees were concerned about aggressive lobbying efforts by Barton’s supporters. The situation, they said, led to some district employees feeling coerced to back Barton. Ultimately, the motion to hire Barton failed in a 4-3 vote. 

Former Trustee Carolyn Edwards, who served as the board president at the time, was among the four trustees who voted against Barton’s hiring.

“I was not sure that any one internal person, and there were three of them, was going to be able to bring everybody together to focus on students rather than politics in the district,” she said during a recent interview. 

After the vote for Barton failed, Edwards motioned for the board to hire Jara, an external candidate, instead. 

Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara speaks with a student in a history classroom during his first school visit at Del Sol Academy of the Performing Arts on June 21, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

She said she was impressed with Jara’s experience as the deputy superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Florida, the eighth-largest school district in the country and the fourth-largest in Florida, which Edwards felt shared many similarities with CCSD. 

“I felt that he was more engaged with the community [and] with people [and] his demeanor was open and inviting, which was something that I thought an external candidate had to have in order to come into the district and engage our community,” she said. 

When her motion passed with a 4-2 vote, Edwards said she was worried Jara wouldn’t want to come work for the district knowing that the board was divided on him. She stepped away from the meeting after the vote was over to check in with Jara. 

“I said, ‘How do you feel about coming on a 4-2 vote?’ and he said, ‘I'm excited to do the work and I'm ready to come.’” 

Rebecca Garcia Dirks, co-administrator of the CCSD Parents Facebook group, said in a recent interview that she supported Jara’s candidacy during the 2018 superintendent search. She thought an outside perspective was needed to make changes within the school district, and she was impressed by Jara's passion for students with a similar background as him. Nearly half of the district’s students identify as Hispanic, according to data from the Nevada Department of Education. 

“He very much was representative of a lot of our students and that was something that I appreciated,” Garcia Dirks said.

Peter Guzman, president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce, had supported Barton’s appointment, but said in a recent interview he connected with Jara shortly after the hire to discuss working together. 

“He's been very consistent the entire time that I've known him about it being about the kids … and that really appealed to me, because that's what we should be about,” Guzman said. 

Clark County Education Association (CCEA) Executive Director John Vellardita said in a recent interview the teachers union wasn’t thrilled about Jara’s appointment, but welcomed a change in leadership. 

“We also were extremely aware that a 4-2 vote is never a good sign for anybody coming on board, and that it probably would forecast problems in the future under his tenure,” Vellardita said. 

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, left, Clark County School District Superintendent Dr. Jesus F. Jara and John Vellardita, Clark County Education Association executive director, exit after a news conference announcing that CCSD and CCEA reached teacher contract deal on Aug. 28, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Growing tensions

After arriving in Clark County, one of the first obstacles Jara would have to face was how to address the district’s financial issues. Months prior to his selection, the school district was placed under “fiscal watch” by the state, a status that would allow state officials to more closely monitor the district’s finances. 

One of the first budget cuts Jara made was to eliminate 170 dean positions at all middle and high schools in order to shore up part of the $33 million to $35 million shortfall the district was facing over the next biennium.

The move instantly sparked outrage at public meetings, a lawsuit filed by the administrators’ union and heated discussions on social media. 

“These kind of actions say it’s the superintendent’s way or no way,” former Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees Executive Director Stephen Augspurger said at the time. “I don’t think that’s the kind of superintendent we need in the Clark County School District.”

The backlash against Jara grew when news broke out in June 2019 that Jara had expensed a $2,409 Peloton exercise bike through his health and wellness allowance amid the district’s financial crisis and budget cuts. 

Less than two years into his tenure, Jara would be tested when former Gov. Steve Sisolak announced the decision to temporarily close all schools due to the pandemic in a March 15, 2020, press conference. The move to distance education upended student learning and later resulted in learning loss, jumps in chronic absenteeism and greater inequities among students. 

Vicki Kreidel, an elementary school teacher and National Education Association of Southern Nevada president, was critical of Jara’s handling of remote instruction during the pandemic. She said there was no training offered on best practices. 

“I basically had to search YouTube for videos on how to set up Canvas (an online system where teachers can post assignments, information and grades) and how to effectively teach elementary from home, but there was no guidance or support for us in that from the district,” Kreidel said.  

One thing Kreidel said Jara and the school district did right during the pandemic was spending part of its COVID-19 relief funds to buy a Chromebook for every student. 

“We were able to bring our entire school to 1:1 technology, which was the first time that we had that,” she said. 

Later that year, Jara came under fire after he was accused of lying by former Gov. Steve Sisolak and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert after Jara tried to downplay the district’s involvement with a controversial, proposed school funding bill, AB2, which would have allowed CCSD to take back carryover dollars from schools and redistribute them among other schools expected to be hit hardest by the budget cuts. 

The controversy led three school board members to call for a special meeting where they confronted Jara over alleged dishonesty involving AB2 as well as confusion surrounding the reopening planning process and considered “termination for convenience,” meaning trustees did not need to cite particular reasons for the action. 

But before the board could discuss ending Jara’s contract, the board voted to adjourn the meeting in a 4-3 vote.

In October 2021, a second attempt to terminate Jara for convenience succeeded in a 4-3 vote. The meeting came after Jara faced criticism about decisions related to the district’s response to COVID-19, ongoing operational difficulties and staffing shortages, and poor culture and climate within schools.

But a few weeks later, the board reconsidered Jara’s firing, and voted to rehire him in another 4-3 vote. 

Former Trustee Irene Cepeda was the swing vote in Jara’s termination and rehiring. She said in a recent interview that at the time, she felt it was important to keep Jara in the position to maintain stability during ongoing pandemic challenges and saw Jara as the best person for the job.  

“We're just starting to get [federal pandemic aid] funds and we're starting to spend on those funds for [personal protective equipment and] for starting to address learning loss. How does any person take over from there especially when frankly, whenever you get new leadership you will have a change in cabinet?” Cepeda said.

Garcia Dirks said in a recent interview she felt a shift in Jara following the pandemic and school reopenings, which began in March 2021. 

“It felt like he really distanced himself from community participation and engagement, which really impacted his ability to build trust and get agreement on how to move the district forward after such a massive event, such as the pandemic,” she said.

Clark County Education Association protesters antagonize Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara after a meeting he hosted with parents at Sambalatte coffee shop in Summerlin on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Clark County Education Association protesters antagonize Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara after a meeting he hosted with parents at Sambalatte coffee shop in Summerlin on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Calls for resignations

By 2023, calls for Jara’s resignations were reignited.

CCEA, which Vellardita said had previously given Jara grace during the pandemic and stood by him during both of the board’s attempts to fire him, became more critical of the lack of improvement in the district’s student achievement under Jara’s leadership. 

In 2022, 24 percent of fourth graders tested at or above proficiency in math and reading, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Math proficiency for eighth graders stood at 19 percent, and reading proficiency stood at 27 percent. Nearly all were declines from 2019 results.

According to NAEP data, Clark County students’ average reading and mathematics scores were slightly lower than pre-pandemic years, but not significantly different from the average scores at school districts in other large cities. 

Vellardita said the union had multiple meetings with Jara before the start of the legislative session on what Jara’s plans were to turn things around, anticipating the boost in funding coming to K-12 schools. 

“We walked away aware he had no plans that would be anything significantly different moving forward,” Vellardita said in a recent interview. “We raised with him at that time that … you're going to be responsible for the bulk of all of this money, and if we don't show results, you're going to be a liability for advocates like us for public education.”

The rift between CCEA and Jara would only grow throughout the year as a teacher contract dispute dragged well into the school year. The school district and the union also disagreed on whether funding from a $250 million matching fund should be used to fund permanent or temporary raises for teachers. 

By May, CCEA began calling for Jara’s resignation. The state’s top Democratic legislative leaders, Speaker Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) and Senate Majority Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), joined the growing calls for Jara’s resignation in November. 

Yeager said in an interview with The Nevada Independent he became concerned after the district failed to reach a contract agreement with CCEA, even after the Legislature approved a 26 percent increase for K-12 education, and instead declared an impasse in its negotiations with the teachers union. 

The controversies against Jara and the district intensified from there. 

In December, the district came under fire after news broke out that CCSD has used some of its COVID relief funds to pay for teacher recruitment trips at vacation destinations. 

In January, CCEA filed a lawsuit against the school district to obtain public records from the superintendent’s social media account, including a possible burner account they allege Jara or the district’s Communications Director Tod Story may be using under a fake name, after Jara’s official X account appeared to have posted a disparaging comment against a union leader. 

By late January, Jara submitted his resignation letter, without giving any reasons behind his decision. School Board President Evelyn Garcia Morales said during the Feb. 7 board meeting she had discussed the idea of Jara leaving the district after she became concerned about the “ongoing vitriol and disrespect” against Jara by some community members. 

Trustee Lola Brooks said she thinks Jara has been used as a “scapegoat” for long-standing systemic issues within the district. 

“If we continue to focus on these interpersonal power shows, we're never going to actually talk about students and student success,” she said during the meeting. “So this is an act of kindness. It is a chance to give people freedom to focus on the things that they need to focus on so that we can all move together.”

After debates on Jara’s resignation terms, which included a $500,000 buyout that was later reduced to $250,000, the school board approved Jara’s resignation in a 5-2 vote, despite opposition among some community members who did not agree that the embattled superintendent deserved a “golden parachute” as he exited the district. 

Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara before presenting to the Senate Committee on Education on behalf of the Nevada Association of School Superintendents during the 82nd Session of the Legislature on Feb. 8, 2023, in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Moving forward

After approving Jara’s resignation, the school board appointed Jara’s Deputy Superintendent Brenda Larsen-Mitchell to serve in the interim as it determines the next steps. On Wednesday, the board will discuss whether it wants to move forward with a local or nationwide search. 

In spite of the rocky end to Jara’s term, Edwards said she stands by her decision to nominate him for the role, calling it the right decision at the time. She credited some of Jara’s unpopularity among some community members to pandemic-related frustrations, which weren’t unique to Jara.

“Are there things he could have done better? I think so,” Edwards said. “He could have engaged some parts of the community better than he did. I think he certainly should have engaged the Legislature better than he has.”

Cepeda, having worked closely with Jara during the four years she served as a trustee, said she saw that Jara cared about his work.

“I think he did the best he could with the cards he was dealt, and they were very tough cards,” she said.

As he reflected on Jara’s tenure, Vellardita said he didn’t feel Jara was leaving the school district in a better position than he found it, pointing to the district’s student proficiency rates. Looking forward, he said superintendent candidates should have experience managing a large school system, financial acumen and an ability to build relationships within the community. 

Guzman said he’s not sure if the school district would have been better off today if the school board had gone with Barton instead. But what is clear to him is there’s much to do to help the school district get back on track.  

“We can't keep talking about whether it was all on Jara or not,” he said. “We have to make sure we're taking care of our teachers so that we can take care of our kids.”  


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