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How a nearly $1.2 million contract added a partisan wrinkle to the CCSD overhaul

Jackie Valley
Jackie Valley
Education
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The Clark County School District administrative offices on Monday, Jan 16, 2017.

The leader of the Clark County School District attended a meeting three months ago and left with expensive hired help the same day.

It raised some eyebrows because Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky didn’t propose the arrangement, and the Clark County School Board of Trustees didn’t approve the nearly $1.2 million price tag for a consultant.

An interim legislative body with a mouthful of a name — the Advisory Committee to Develop a Plan to Reorganize the Clark County School District — rubber-stamped a two-pronged plan that was pitched as a way to help the district transition to a system that grants more budgetary decision-making power to each school. The  political wrangling triggered questions but elicited few answers from those involved — including any explanation about the consultants’ qualifications for the job.

“It was a ‘what just happened?’ kind of thing,” Clark County School Board Trustee Deanna Wright said recently.

The public meeting

The Republican-controlled advisory committee, chaired by Sen. Michael Roberson, considered and voted on the proposal during its Oct. 18 meeting. Here’s what it entailed:

  • The creation of a Community Implementation Council (CIC) that would serve in a capacity similar to a board of directors, shepherding the Clark County School District through the implementation of its state-mandated reorganization. Glenn Christenson, a former Station Casinos chief financial officer, would chair the nine-member, appointed council made up of community members from diverse backgrounds.
  • The hiring of TSC² Group — a Las Vegas-based consulting firm whose principal, Tom Skancke, previously worked with CIC Chairman Christenson at the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance — to assist the school district on a day-to-day basis and help with the reorganization effort. Per terms of a one-year contract not to exceed $1,188,000, the consulting firm would organize its work in three phases: fact-finding, deployment of transition recommendations, and transition management, according to the company’s proposal.

The situation caught some stakeholders off guard. Skorkowsky said he didn’t know about the proposal until he arrived at the meeting. Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, who sits on the advisory committee, said he was briefed in early October about the general idea but not given specifics about services or costs. Fellow committee member Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, expressed similar surprise at the proposal.

“I believe the Democrats were certainly taken aback about the fact that we were about to entertain this contract,” said Ford, who added that his frustrations are more directed at Roberson than Christenson and Skancke.

Ultimately, two of the four Democrats on the advisory committee didn’t vote. Ford and Denis said they had prior engagements and were forced to leave early when the meeting ran long.

Christenson and  Skancke, president and CEO of the TSC² Group, made presentations during the committee meeting, outlining their desire to assist the school district and how they would do so. Christenson also tried to ward off any notion of self-interest.

“First of all, I have no dog in this fight,” Christenson told the committee. “I have been very engaged with the education issues. I put a lot of time in it. I have accepted no compensation. I am not running for office … I really believe there is a need for a group to come in and help implement AB394.”

Assembly Bill 394, approved in the final minutes of the 2015 session, is the law that set in motion the massive school district reorganization. It created the advisory committee and tasked it with developing a reorganization plan, which the school district now is implementing.

After Christenson and Skancke finished speaking, the Democratic and Republican committee members peppered them with questions regarding the no-bid nature of the contract, the consulting group’s qualifications, the contract cost and whether the consultants would be developing policy. Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz, a Democrat who sits on the committee, also complained about not receiving adequate information ahead of time.

“We could have helped fine-tune and given perspective from some of us who have been in the trenches,” Diaz, who is a teacher, said at the meeting.

One exchange during the discussion made it clear the school district would be footing the bill for the contract — per language in the regulations that spell out the new district structure. The State Board of Education approved the regulations, and then the Legislative Commission adopted them into Nevada’s administrative code.

“I guess I should probably have somebody from the school district come up and say, ‘Yes, they agree to the sharing of the costs,’” Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, said at the meeting.

Roberson replied: “The regulations provide that the cost of this contract will be borne by the school district.”

Hardy asked whether the district had an opinion. “Do they want to accept all of this free work on a behalf of a small investment?” he said.

“Well, whether anyone comes up or not, it is the law,” Roberson reiterated.

“I’m a law-abiding citizen. Thank you,” Hardy said.

The Republican committee members eventually made two motions to approve each aspect of the proposal. Both passed with 5-2 votes. Ford and Roberson said the two opposing votes came from Neal and Diaz. Neither assemblywoman responded to inquiries from The Nevada Independent. Paul Selberg, director of the Assembly Democratic Caucus, said Neal and Diaz told him they voted no on the contract motion but couldn’t clearly recall how they voted on the council-related motion.

Denis and Ford, the other Democrats on the committee, didn’t vote because they needed to leave before the meeting ended, they said.

Behind closed doors

So how did the proposal even come about?  Ford said it reeks of political maneuvering on behalf of Roberson, but the parties involved have clammed up.

When contacted by The Nevada Independent, Roberson, Skancke and Christenson denied interview requests. They all cited a lawsuit regarding the reorganization filed Dec. 21 by the Clark County School District Board as the barrier to discussing the events , but none of them are parties to the court action. The lawsuit, although it mentions the pricey contract, only lists the Nevada Department of Education and the State Board of Education as defendants.  

“Please follow our progress over the next several months during our CIC meetings,” Skancke wrote in an email. “I think you will be impressed with the work we are and will be doing.”

A Nevada Independent reporter responded to that email by asking Skancke to describe his experience in the education arena and provide a copy of his resume or curriculum vitae. Skancke never responded. When reached by phone Monday, Skancke said the Legislative Counsel Bureau advised him not to speak with reporters until after the lawsuit has been resolved.

A biography he submitted to the advisory committee provides a vague reference to his school-related experience, describing him as a “key player in the effort to fund and reform K-12 and higher education in Nevada.”

Skancke previously served as the CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, an organization focused on developing the regional economy. He left the LVGEA in June 2015 and later started the TSC² Group. Before that, he owned The Tom Skancke Company and advised on hundreds of transportation infrastructure and public policy projects in Southern Nevada and across the nation, according to the biography.

The TSC² Group website states the company “creates integrated strategies that transform outcomes around public policy, communications, and business development for their clients.”

Some insight about Skancke’s supposed background in education came from comments Christenson made when he addressed the advisory committee.

Christenson said he and Skancke had a conversation several years ago about the inextricable link between education and economic development. That led to the creation of the LVGEA Education Council, a group of business and community leaders dedicated to modernizing and reforming education in Southern Nevada. Christenson is the chair of that council.

Those explanations haven’t appeased some members of the community. School Trustee Carolyn Edwards questioned the advisory committee’s logic in hiring what, in her opinion, appears to be a more business-oriented firm.

“You can’t send kids back,” she said. “We educate everybody who comes through our doors with what they come with. It’s not the same as business.”

School board members, however, expressed even more dismay about the secretive nature of the arrangement, which lacked a request-for-proposals process, and the financial burden the contract imposes on the perennially cash-strapped district. Wright, who’s president of the school board, said the trustees are used to working ahead on things but in an open and transparent process.

“There’s not the backroom discussion on things,” she said. “That’s very different from the way this other group was operating.”

And, as a result, she said the school district is being saddled with a seven-figure bill that could have been better spent on classroom computers, experienced teachers or more support staff. The silver lining? Skancke’s group, which has completed the first phase of its work, has identified some of the same challenges the trustees have complained about for years, she said. Wright just wishes their pleas had been acknowledged sooner.

One of those challenges is an antiquated employee management software program that requires manual workarounds, decreasing efficiency across the district. New software systems could cost anywhere between $20 million to $46 million, officials estimate.

At a CIC meeting last week, Skancke passionately described the need for a system upgrade, calling it a “critical piece” of the school district’s ability to move forward with the reorganization.

“This is not a talking point,” Skancke told the CIC members. “The crisis is here. And I want to thank the trustees and the superintendent for not backing off of this for 20 years. If there was a way that this implementation council and superintendent and our team and others in the community can step forward to find a solution, then it needs to happen today.”

The superintendent weighs in

When Skorkowsky first saw the proposal for the implementation council and the TSC² Group at the Oct. 18 meeting, he said his first reaction was trying to understand the intent of the arrangement.

“Now, I see the Community Implementation Council as individuals who can help us overcome challenges that we’re facing with the reorganization,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean he wants the school district to pay the nearly $1.2 million for the consultants’ contract. Skorkowsky, like several trustees, said he hopes another entity ultimately absorbs the cost.

“Any type of budget figure as we go forward now that’s imposed on the district will have to come out of those unrestricted funds that we are supposed to be giving out to the schools,” he said.

The reorganization model, after all, is hinged on more money flowing directly to the schools, where principals, staff members and parents can decide how best to use those dollars to benefit the students.

Disclosure: Station Casinos has donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.
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