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From inception to action: A history of the school reorganization effort

Jackie Valley
Jackie Valley
Education
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Grow, grow, grow.

That’s what Clark County did really well starting in the 1990s. Glittering casinos sprouted on the Las Vegas Strip, each more inventive than the last. Cookie-cutter stucco houses multiplied in the desert, and retail centers sprang up to serve all the new residents.

Meanwhile, the Clark County School District — tasked with educating every child entering public schools’ doors — struggled to keep up with the population explosion. Dozens of new schools rose from the ground, while administrators hired hordes of new teachers. The outcome: The system grew to become the fifth-largest school district in the country with more than 320,000 students this year.

Education officials blame challenges such as lackluster student test scores and a high dropout rate on the rapid growth and poor state funding. Ongoing efforts to boost student performance have led to repeated calls for a dramatic change in how the mammoth school district operates.

What some hail as that long-awaited transformation is now underway, as the school district reorganizes to shift more decision-making autonomy to each school. But political maneuvering to make it happen has irked both school trustees and community members who say the process has been far from conventional. The plan’s critics point to a powerful interim legislative committee that charted the destiny of the reorganization effort and recently green-lighted a no-bid contract for a consultant to evaluate the district whose previous experience was in transportation and economic development.

And it all started when a Republican-led contingent of lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 394, the so-called Clark County School District reorganization measure, in the final minutes of the 2015 Nevada legislative session.

The bill’s beginnings

Assembly Bill 394, sponsored by nine Republicans, received its first reading at the end of March. It finally moved out of committee hearings two months later on June 1, 2015 — the last day of the legislative session.

The summary attached to the bill states that it “creates an advisory committee and a technical committee to develop a plan to reorganize the Clark County School District and revises certain provisions related to collective bargaining.”

At 10:07 p.m., the Nevada Assembly approved the bill with seemingly bipartisan support. Only five Democrats voted against it.

At 11:37 p.m., the bill cleared its next hurdle in the Nevada Senate, where all Republicans and two Democrats supported it. Seven Democrats opposed the measure.

Sen. Mo Denis, one of the Democrats who voted against the bill, said the hasty nature of the vote struck him as odd.

“We didn’t want to vote on it, but they basically cut off debate and didn’t give us a chance to have any discussion on it,” he said. “We didn’t really have an opportunity to dig down into the language of the thing.”

Gov. Brian Sandoval’s bill signature set in motion more than a year of interim work conducted by a nine-member legislative advisory committee, which Republican Sen. Michael Roberson chairs, and a sub-committee made up of community members who could provide technical expertise.

The bill authorized the creation of both committees and the hiring of a consultant to help determine how to reorganize the school district into “local school precincts” by the 2018-2019 school year.  

The bill language was a deviation from former Assemblyman David Gardner’s original intent, which was to break up the school district into smaller districts. For multiple reasons, including bonding and civil rights concerns, that proved politically contentious and, from a practical standpoint, a very complex task to achieve successfully, he said.

What emerged by the end of the 2015 session resembled a hybrid version that left the school district intact but broke up some of the administrative-level power, said Gardner, a Republican who was one of the bill’s primary sponsors. He characterized AB394 as a bipartisan effort from its inception through the first year and half of committee work. Partisan politics didn’t creep into the process until the last few months, he said.

“This was never meant to be a jam-it-down-anybody’s-throat kind of bill,” Gardner said. He added later: “Democrats have worked very well with us. I think we gave them a lot of say in how things were going.”

Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, a Democrat from Las Vegas who supported the bill, described a positive experience working with Gardner on the legislation, despite their ideological differences at times. “He’s a good, smart guy and he will listen,” she said.

Ultimately, Swank viewed the legislation as a chance to be creative and form policy that could increase community involvement in education and improve student performance. She’s hopeful the new plan will yield positive gains on both fronts.

“We clearly need to be trying something, and it can’t always be throwing money at the problem,” she said.

The following spring, a man already familiar with the Clark County School District entered the picture. The advisory committee hired Michael Strembitsky, a retired superintendent from Canada who had pioneered the so-called “empowerment” school model, to help develop a reorganization plan for the district.

Strembitsky previously had consulted with the school district when it piloted the empowerment model, which grants individual schools more power to build their budgets and request resources they need to enhance student learning. The program, launched with a group of schools in the mid-2000s, withered when funding dried up, although some schools have retained aspects of the concept.

The empowerment program was just one approach the district tested to increase the quality of education. Over the years, it has operated under a variety of organizational structures, such as elementary and secondary school divisions, geographic regions and performance zones.

“One of the challenges any time you have a reorganization is making sure that the message and the different ways of doing business get down to that teacher in the classroom level,” Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky said. These changes, he said, can cause teachers to wonder, “OK, what does this mean for me?”

The organizational structure is changing again, but Skorkowsky said, at least this time, some schools are already familiar with the model.

The new reorganization plan

The latest reorganization effort flips the school district’s structure on its head.

Advocates of the plan call it the “right-side-up” model because it places schools at the top and the superintendent and central administrative functions at the bottom. Last summer, Strembitsky unveiled the new plan, which closely resembles his empowerment concept.

Each of the district’s 351 schools will be its own local precinct with greater autonomy to decide how to direct resources. The crux of the plan is the creation of a “school organizational team” — made up of the principal, school staff members and parents — that will help determine the school’s priorities when budgeting.

That means the organizational teams may recommend spending more money to hire experienced teachers, add reading tutors or upgrade technology, to name a few examples. The end goal: Make budget decisions that will foster student success. (For accountability’s sake, principals make the final budgeting decisions.)

Strembitsky, who declined an interview request by The Nevada Independent, unveiled this plan last summer, and a series of community-input meetings ensued.

With one major change: He suggested rolling out the reorganization one year earlier than planned.

“If a lengthier timeline were allowed, the reorganization would likely be delayed and resistance to the change would likely grow,” his preliminary plan stated. The reorganization should go into effect for the 2017-2018 school year, he said.

And so three actions happened before the warm weather faded:

  • After the public meetings ended, the nine-member legislative advisory committee unanimously approved recommendations and draft regulations,  which essentially state how to implement the reorganization, on Aug. 16. “Part of a committee chair’s responsibility is to drive the discussion and drive the process,” Roberson said at the meeting. “We are under a tight timeline.”
  • The State Board of Education approved the reorganization plan and regulations on Sept. 1.
  • On Sept. 9, the Legislative Commission — consisting of six lawmakers from each house who take action on matters when the legislative branch isn’t in session — adopted the reorganization plan and regulations into Nevada administrative code.

The process comes under scrutiny

The expedited timeline fueled criticism from certain lawmakers, members of the public and the Clark County School Board of Trustees.

“One of the things we have going on here in Nevada is that we try to do a lot of things in the interim because we’re a big state,” said Sylvia Lazos, policy director of Educate Nevada Now, a nonpartisan coalition that advocates for equal access to quality education. “We keep pushing the envelope of what these interim committees are allowed to do.”

An amendment to the Nevada constitution in 1998 limits regular legislative sessions, which are held every other year, to 120 days.

While the scope of this advisory committee may seem unusual, the Legislative Counsel Bureau maintains that no wrongdoing occurred.

“Its responsibilities and duties were probably a little more detailed in (Assembly Bill 394) than in other instances of advisory committees,” LCB Director Rick Combs said. “It’s not often that you reorganize one of the largest school districts.”

A legislative committee similar in structure existed during the Great Recession, Combs said. Called the Subcommittee to Study Mortgage Lending and Housing Issues, it was created in 2007 to respond to widespread problems in the housing sector, he said. One of its first actions: Recommending and implementing a statewide, toll-free hotline to coordinate consumer services in the mortgage industry.

Denis, a Democrat who sits on the advisory committee, said he supports the empowerment-like reorganization model, but he’s not pleased with how the process occurred.

“We circumvented the full Legislature from being able to comment or participate in the decision-making for that particular law,” he said.

Roberson, the advisory committee chair, declined multiple interview requests about the school district reorganization.

The process ruffled more feathers Oct. 18 when the advisory committee approved the creation of a Community Implementation Council and the hiring of a consultant to assist the school district with the reorganization. The council consists of nine members from diverse backgrounds who were appointed by the advisory committee. Erin Cranor, a Clark County School District  trustee, is one of the members.

The proposal, which was presented and voted on during the same meeting, caught school district officials and Democrats seated on the committee off guard.

The Republican-led approval of the proposal also put the school district on the hook for the nearly $1.2 million consulting contract, given to the TSC² Group, whose president and CEO is Tom Skancke. A former head of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, Skancke is known locally and nationally as an expert on economic development and transportation infrastructure.

The move didn’t go over well with the Clark County school trustees, who argue their concerns with the reorganization plan and process haven’t been acknowledged.

“It kind of gave the impression that we need to do this to and not with the school district,” Clark County School District Trustee Erin Cranor said.

On Dec. 21, the Clark County School District Board of Trustees filed a lawsuit in Carson City District Court against the Nevada Department of Education and the State Board of Education. The 21-page document contains a myriad of allegations — chief among them that the advisory committee exceeded the authority granted to it, the reorganization is an unfunded mandate and that it doesn’t adequately address student achievement 

The lawsuit also alleges that the Nevada Department of Education has placed the school district in a predicament by not establishing the weighted student funding formula — a requirement built into the regulations. The weighted funding is supposed to allot more per-pupil money to students who fall into the following categories: special education students, children who come from low-income families, gifted students and students whose primary language is not English.

“Yet CCSD is still expected to figure out how to comply with the weighted funding requirement, without additional funding, before the local school precinct budgeting process begins January 15, 2017,” the lawsuit states.

The defendants, however, were not served with the lawsuit until Jan. 10, said Greg Bortolin, spokesman for the Nevada Department of Education.

“It’s clearly aimed at stopping implementation of the reorganization,” he said of the lawsuit. “At this point, the department supports implementing the bill. Until further notice, we will work to see that it’s implemented.”

Cranor said the school board simply wants the opportunity to collaborate on the reorganization and share lessons already learned by the district. That would give the plan the best shot at success, she said.

“Frankly, if we could just start over and sit down and rewrite that regulation together, I think we would be miles ahead of where we are right now,” she said.

The Nevada Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the Nevada Department of Education and State Board of Education, has not yet responded to the lawsuit.

The path ahead

A Community Implementation Council meeting last week kicked off with dialogue between the two camps that, at least on the surface, resembled an extension of the olive branch.

Glenn Christenson, the appointed chair of the Community Implementation Council, thanked five trustees — Deanna Wright, Carolyn Edwards, Kevin Child, Linda Young and Erin Cranor — for attending the meeting  and briefly addressed the lawsuit. He noted that sometimes groups sue to force an acknowledgment of their concerns.

“We have many common goals with the trustees and would welcome the opportunity to work more closely with them to achieve these goals,” Christenson said.

Wright, who is president of the school board, spoke next and said the trustees just want to do what’s best for the students.

“Going forward, I want to foster a respectful relationship between the board of trustees and the Community Implementation Council,” she said.

And with that, discussion returned to the actual implementation of the site-based decision-making model. Clark County schools will receive their first glimpse of how much money they’ll be working with when the district releases its strategic budget workbooks this week.

Regardless of the lawsuit, the clock is ticking. The school district must submit its tentative budget for the 2017-2018 academic year to the state by April 15.

How each Clark County school decides to allocate its share of resources will be known soon. What won’t be known for at least a year is whether those financial decisions translate to be better student learning.

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