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Skorkowsky's retirement draws mixed feelings, questions about the school district's future

Jackie Valley
Jackie Valley

The beginning and end lie just one mile apart.

Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky started his career as a first-grade teacher at Ronnow Elementary School, a three-star building just north of downtown Las Vegas.

Twenty-nine years and many promotions later, Skorkowsky stood inside Bracken STEAM Academy — a five-star magnet school situated several blocks west of Ronnow — on Thursday and announced his looming departure. He won’t seek a contract extension when his current one expires in June.

“I am not resigning,” Skorkowsky, 53, told a throng of media. “Let’s make that clear. I am announcing my retirement, and I am leaving on my own terms.”

Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky announcing that he is retiring during a news conference at Bracken STEAM Academy on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

His decision comes amid a turbulent time for the Clark County School District, which is digging itself out of an estimated $60 million deficit and bracing for cuts that will make educating 320,000-some students that much more difficult. On top of that, the district is in the midst of a structural reorganization that’s, in theory, shifting more budgeting and decision-making power to school communities.

The district veteran’s leadership has come under scrutiny, especially regarding the financial situation. Earlier this week, the administrators’ union accused him of mismanaging the budget.

The finger-pointing prompted Skorkowsky to email his colleagues Wednesday evening, apologizing for his role in the budget crisis while admonishing unions for twisting the situation for “political gain.” He announced his retirement the next morning.

“Unfortunately, some of vocal critics of mine have made our current budget situation into a referendum on my leadership,” he said Thursday. “That is not the case. They know that. But they are throwing stones and bombs to try to distract from the true issues. This decision today allows me greater freedom to deal with those attacks and address the real issues.”

He followed with a strong vow: “I have nothing to lose. You can be guaranteed that I will speak my mind.”

Skorkowsky, who will reach 30 years with the district in June, said he decided to retire while vacationing earlier this summer. He then rattled off a list of accomplishments during his four years as superintendent so far.

Among them: increasing graduation rates, boosting participation in Advanced Placement classes, securing additional funding to help low income-students or those learning English and adding new magnet school programs — the latter of which has been his point of pride and bright spot within the embattled district.

“I feel good about this decision,” he said.

Broad range of reaction

His decision signals the start of a 10-month window to find a successor, a process that will be spearheaded by the district’s School Board of Trustees.

But two trustees — Kevin Child and Chris Garvey, who have been vocal critics of the superintendent  — were notably absent from the Thursday news conference. They weren’t invited or told about the event.

“I found it to be lacking professional courtesy,” Garvey said.

Child was more blunt: “That means he’s afraid of actually the truth. Just because he’s retiring doesn’t mean I’m going to stop asking questions.”

During tension-filled board meetings, Child and Garvey have peppered the superintendent with questions regarding the budget crisis and why the situation wasn’t revealed sooner. Child has repeatedly called for a forensic audit of the district’s finances.

Their position has put them at odds with the five other trustees, who have defended Skorkowsky at times. The superintendent called Trustees Deanna Wright, Linda Cavazos, Carolyn Edwards, Lola Brooks and Linda Young his “friends” and “mentors” during his retirement announcement.

“For me, it’s not personal,” Garvey said. “Pat Skorkowsky is a wonderful person. He really is. That doesn’t take away from the fact that things need to be answered. I have to ask those questions and get answers that explain where we’re at: How did we get into this budget mess?”

Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky announcing that he is retiring during a news conference at Bracken STEAM Academy on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

The trustees already approved a roughly $43 million chop to this fiscal year’s budget, but more cuts are on the horizon. District officials said $80 million worth of cuts may be necessary to close the gap and account for money already spent through the first few months of this fiscal year.

Skorkowsky has blamed the deficit on a combination of rising employee costs, unfunded mandates and a state funding formula that hasn’t increased enough to keep pace with expenses.

“If we don’t address these problems now — as a community — the next superintendent will face the exact same situation,” he said, while vowing to figure out what internal practices may have contributed to the shortfall. “It won’t matter who is in the seat.”

But not everyone lauded Skorkowsky for sticking it out another 10 months.

Stephen Augspurger, executive director of the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees (CCASAPE), reiterated points he made in the union’s letter blasting Skorkowsky. While Augspurger acknowledged that the superintendent had done some “very good things,” he said Skorkowsky will be remembered by district employees as the leader who couldn’t manage the budget.

“While I admire many of the things Pat Skorkowsky has done, I think his mishandling of the budget overshadows all of that other, because it will roll down hill to virtually every employee,” he said. “And for him to say ‘I’m going to give a 10 month notice,’ and ‘I’m going to try and fix this mess’ — I don’t think he gets the right to fix this mess. He alone is responsible for the way this unfolded.”

Augspurger said Skorkowsky should step aside and allow an interim leader to take his place before his contract ends.

The sentiment was echoed by the Clark County Education Association’s executive director, John Vellardita, who said the teachers union welcomed the news and warned that “lame ducks” weren’t effective leaders.

“We have a crisis situation here and it requires a special kind of leadership," he said. "Somebody who has one foot out the door, you know, history shows that just doesn’t work."

Vellardita said Skorkowsky has lost the confidence of union members, and he urged trustees to put together a “transition plan” in the immediate future.

The union is locked in a bitter arbitration battle with the district, particularly as it relates to the future of teachers’ health care. During his remarks Thursday, Skorkowsky called for a forensic audit of the beleaguered Teachers Health Trust.

The Nevada State Education Association — the parent union of the CCEA — sounded much more conciliatory notes toward Skorkowsky, with executive director Brian Lee saying in a statement that the union “recognizes the 30 years of service and contributions Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky has given to public education and students in Nevada.”

Meanwhile, those involved in the reorganization effort praised his leadership during the massive undertaking.

“I admire him for sticking it out as long as he has,” said Tom Skancke, the consultant hired to guide the district through the reorganization.

Skancke, who once said Skorkowsky’s presence was key to the structural overhaul, doesn’t expect the superintendent’s June departure to derail the effort.

“The reorganization will be well underway by the time he departs,” Skancke said. “That will be a year and a half of implementing the reorganization. It will be very difficult by June of next year to unravel all the work that has been done.”

Moving forward

Although the district’s mounting financial concerns raised some eyebrows about the timing of Skorkowsky’s departure, others pointed to the calendar as a clue: He will have logged five years as superintendent by June.

“If you do some research on the stress of the job and how long superintendents last, that is a long tenure, especially for a district of this size,” state Superintendent Steve Canavero said. “He has done, I think, an amazing job.”

And so begins the process of finding a replacement, which is shaping up to be the next battle.

Board President Deanna Wright said trustees would discuss the superintendent search at an upcoming meeting. That includes determining whether to launch a national search, which likely would involve hiring a firm to help find well-qualified candidates.

“We need to look at the possibilities,” Wright said. “This is the fifth-largest district in the nation. We have a significant set of challenges.”

Child and Garvey have already expressed concern about funneling money toward a national search at a time when the district is cutting positions and programs.

“Where’s the money coming from for a national search?” Child said. “I think there are very capable people who can step into this position at the school district.”

Considering internal candidates only would be a mistake, said Glenn Christenson, chair of the Community Implementation Council, which is overseeing the reorganization.

“I think it’s important we do a national search and look at maybe some other perspectives on how we can do education better here in Southern Nevada,” he said. “We would be very short-sighted to not look at a breadth of candidates for this position.”

Riley Snyder contributed to this story.


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