LaTara Laster turned a support staff job into a pathway toward a leadership role in the Clark County School District.
More than two decades and two collegiate degrees later, she landed a dean position at Legacy High School in January. Now, her journey faces an abrupt — and unexpected — roadblock with the district’s budget-related decision earlier this month to eliminate deans at middle and high schools.
“I enjoyed it. I loved it,” she said recently during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “I was building relationships with the students. It was exactly where I wanted to be.”
The career detour carries financial implications if Laster winds up back in the classroom as a teacher, earning potentially $10,000 less per year, based on calculations by the administrators’ union. But as a black educator who worked her way up the ranks, she said the emotional hit is just as bruising as the monetary one.
“Believe it or not, culturally, we always have to work 10 times harder because we have to prove ourselves every day,” she said. “To be set back professionally and have to start back from the bottom, it’s going to be very difficult.”
Superintendent Jesus Jara announced the decision in a video message and said it would help the district overcome a $17 million deficit. Criticisms emerged almost immediately, with many complaints pertaining to school safety. Deans often handled disciplinary matters, bullying investigations, attendance and campus safety issues along with supervisory responsibilities.
But Trustee Linda Young raised another concern at a June 13 board meeting: Would it hamper efforts to increase diversity in the administrative ranks?
About 65 percent of Clark County deans are white, while 17 percent are black, 13 percent are Hispanic, 3 percent are multi-racial and 1 percent are Asian, according to data supplied by the school district. Deans who identify as other ethnicities make up the remaining 1 percent.
Although deans are overwhelmingly white, the cohort is more ethnically diverse than other leadership positions. A greater share of principals and assistant principals are white — roughly 74 percent and 69 percent, respectively.
Laster said she was one of three black deans at Legacy High School, which serves a minority-majority population. About 34 percent of the school’s students are black, 35 percent are Hispanic, 16 percent are white, 8 percent are two or more races, 2 percent are Pacific Islander and 4 percent are Asian.
Tera Still, another dean at Legacy, views her ethnicity as an advantage when students — the majority of whom are also black — are sent to her office. There’s a natural cultural understanding, she said, which can set the right tone from the get-go. Plus, she said the presence of three black women as deans diversified the school’s administrative staff, which this past year included a white principal, two white assistant principals and one Hipsanic assistant principal.
“Anybody can service or work with students of diversity or different cultures, but I just think it’s easier when you look like the people who are in your schools,” Still said.
The school’s deans spent time trying to reduce cultural barriers between students and teachers, Laster said. Sometimes that meant facilitating parent-teacher conferences or helping teachers devise classroom strategies that could prevent behavior issues from spiraling into trips to the dean’s office. They also provided a listening ear to students who, for whatever reason, felt more comfortable reaching out to them.
“We are going to be taking a step backwards,” Laster said. “It’s unfortunate because the students need us.”
Young, a retired educator and the district’s only black trustee, echoed that sentiment. When students see teachers and administrators who look like them, she said it establishes a basic connection. (She noted, however, that ethnicity is not the only form of diversity.)
“Many of those kids will open up to a dean of color than they would to someone of another culture,” she said.
Young said the district needed to address the $17 million deficit somehow, but she wishes the process would have involved conversations with people at the ground level — principals, assistant principals, deans, teachers and students. Young doesn’t think the safety and diversity concerns are mutually exclusive: Greater cultural awareness among staff likely would lead to students feeling safer, she said.
The three-term trustee who once worked as a dean chalked it up to a learning experience.
“So what do we learn from this?” she said. “How can we make this a better process and feel like all of our people — especially our deans — are valued?”
Jara responded via email to several questions related to the leadership pipeline. He said deans can be placed in teaching positions or apply for open administrative and other licensed positions. The candidate pools for deans and assistant principals are different, though. Deans hoping to pursue open assistant principal positions would need to be placed in that pool.
“Our diversity efforts should not rest on any particular job family,” he wrote. “CCSD needs to increase its diversity throughout our employee ranks, especially among administrators and teachers. Goals and strategies to accomplish this are set out in the Focus: 2024 five-year strategic plan.”
Jara also noted that the school district participates in diversity hiring fairs and recruiting trips to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs).
Even so, Stephen Augspurger, the executive director of the administrators’ union, said the decision to remove deans was a “slap in the face” to hardworking deans such as Laster and Still. The Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees and several deans, including Laster, filed a lawsuit in District Court last week alleging that Jara and the Board of School Trustees violated the state’s Open Meeting Law.
The union also has filed a motion for preliminary and permanent injunction, which seeks to halt the elimination of deans until the court renders a decision. A court hearing is scheduled for July 3.
Augspurger said in an interview that eliminating deans would only exacerbate the district’s struggle to have a staff that reflects the community’s diversity.
“We’ve had the need for a diverse workforce for decades,” he said, “and the district hasn’t responded to that need.”
The future remains murky for Laster and Still, who expressed disappointment about seeing their professional and workplace plans interrupted. They’re not keen on returning to teaching.
“That chapter of my life is closed, and although I loved being in the classroom, that’s not my vision for the future,” Still said. “I just feel that’s not fair.”