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Split school board selects Florida candidate as next Clark County superintendent

Jackie Valley
Jackie Valley
Education
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A longtime Florida educator who learned English in a public school could become the Clark County School District’s next superintendent.

A fractured School Board of Trustees voted 4-2, with one abstention, Wednesday to appoint Jesus Jara as the new leader of the nation’s fifth-largest school district, pending his acceptance and contract negotiations. Jara is the deputy superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Florida.

Jara posted a statement on Twitter on Wednesday evening, thanking the school board for selecting him as superintendent.

"I'm honored to be chosen as the next Superintendent of CCSD, I want to thank the Board for choosing me from a talented group of candidates," he wrote. "Public education changed my life; it gave me opportunity. Let's give all students the same opportunity."

The decision followed a tumultuous search process that further exposed rifts in the school board as trustees battled over whether an internal or external candidate would be the best person for the giant job — overseeing a district with a $2.4 billion budget and more than 320,000 students.

Ultimately, Jara earned votes from Trustees Lola Brooks, Linda Cavazos, Carolyn Edwards and Kevin Child to snag the appointment. Board members Chris Garvey and Deanna Wright cast the opposition votes, while Trustee Linda Young declined to vote altogether.

Jara beat out five other finalists for the top job: Mike Barton, the district’s chief academic officer; Donald Haddad, superintendent of St. Vrain Valley Schools in Colorado; Shonda Huery Hardman, who worked as an school administrator in several large, urban districts; Jesse Welsh, the district’s associate superintendent of curriculum and professional development; and Eva White, who formerly served as the district’s interim chief financial officer.

As the news made its way to Florida, Jara’s supporters lined up to congratulate him in his office, said Joie Cadle, a member of the Orange County School Board.

“You got a gem,” she said.

***

The decision to extend contract negotiations to Jara — one of three external candidates — didn’t come easily.

The board heard more than an hour of public comment on Wednesday morning. The lion’s share of participants threw their support behind Mike Barton, the district’s chief academic officer who was the favored internal candidate among a wide variety of local stakeholders. The administrators’ union, Clark County Black Caucus and Nevada Succeeds were some of the groups backing Barton.

Barton also had the support of board members Garvey, Young and Child, who described him as someone who has played a key role in improving the district’s graduation rate and won’t face a steep learning curve. Young also commended Barton for his work boosting schools in her West Las Vegas district.

“We have seen this man take the community we represent and lift up those students,” Young said.

But other trustees argued that aggressive lobbying efforts by Barton’s supporters had created favoritism before candidates even applied for the job. The situation, they said, led to some district employees feeling coerced to either publicly support Barton or face retaliation if they offered praise for a different candidate.

“i think the tactic of tearing other candidates down to try and raise a certain candidate up has really soured people to that candidate.,” Wright said.

So a motion to give Barton the top job failed in a 4-3 vote. Trustees Wright, Edwards, Brooks and Cavazos voted it down.

The move didn’t sit well with Young, who argued that, once again, the African-American community’s opinion was being swept to the side.

“I’m very, very concerned  — very concerned — trustees, that you’re not listening to the people who have expressed what they wanted in our community,” she said. “We have to hit the ground running.”

The disagreement among trustees almost ended in a stalemate. The trio of trustees who backed Barton advocated for more time to research the remaining candidates, potentially visit candidates’ communities and talk more to their constituents.

The conversation led to a heated squabble between Young and Brooks, who questioned why some of her colleagues didn’t appear to have researched candidates outside of Barton.

“Did you not have a backup plan?” she said. “I’m talking to anybody who is not willing to vote for any candidates.”

Ultimately, Edwards made a motion to offer Jara the job. She prefaced it by saying Jara comes from a district similar to Clark County and has the experience needed to guide the large, urban district.

When Jara interviewed Friday, he touted how 17 of 19 Orange County high schools have a graduation rate that exceeds 90 percent, although Garvey questioned whether that rate is inflated by moving students with disciplinary problems to charter schools.

Young abstained from voting, calling the situation disrespectful to her constituents. But the board’s vote tracker lit up with enough green markers to signal Jara’s appointment.

Child, who originally backed Barton, essentially cast the swing vote. He acknowledged being upset about certain aspects of the process but said Jara ranked in his top three.

“The first one didn’t work. Oh well,” Child said. “I think we’re going to be fine. I hope that we start healing.”

Barton said he respected the search process and was grateful for the community support he received. He also dismissed any notion of wrongdoing by his supporters, saying, if anything, their passion may have just come across the wrong way.

“My reputation is one of caring about people and doing things the right way,” he said.

Barton vowed to work with Jara in the district and community he considers home. He doesn’t intend to leave.

“I got good vibes, frankly,” Barton said of Jara, whom he met during the interview process. “He seems to be a very passionate and quality educator.”

***

Jara’s selection drew immediate praise from state Superintendent Steve Canavero, who issued a statement calling him “the right leader for the job.”

The Clark County Education Association offered a more measured response to the appointment. The teachers’ union called on Jara to prioritize labor relations, which have been tense for some time. The school district recently appealed an arbitrator’s decision that would have boosted teacher pay.

As superintendent candidates met with community members inside a district building Saturday, teachers picketed outside.

“CCEA is prepared to work in good faith with the new Superintendent Jesus Jara. The current state of labor relations between CCSD and CCEA is at an all-time low,” CCEA officials said in a statement. “This is not an inconsequential problem. Unless solved soon it will spill over into the next school year. We’ve seen the wave of educators sweeping the country. Clark County is no exception. CCSD has lost two straight arbitrations with CCEA with a third scheduled for June 11-13, 2018. Jara will inherit this problem. Accordingly, we expect Jara to make it a priority to improve labor relations the moment he begins his new job. ”

School board members who worked with Jara in Orlando describe him as a hard-working, fair leader who cares deeply about children and is a family man. He has a wife and three children.

Jara, who immigrated to the United States from Venezuela as a child, also has something in common with many students in both Orlando and Las Vegas: He learned how to speak English upon entering school.

“He believes every child, no matter what their ZIP code is, whether they’re new to the country or native born and lived in the country forever — they all deserve the very best education,” said Cadle, one of the Orange County School Board members. “You’re building the future of a community.”

Jara has a bachelor of science from Barry University, a master’s degree in science education from Nova Southeastern University and a doctorate in educational policy, leadership and administration from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

He started his education career as a teacher before obtaining administrative-level positions. In 2011, Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed him superintendent of Monroe County Public Schools in Key West, where he was tasked with turning the struggling district around. He then moved to Orange County Public Schools as its deputy superintendent.

Cadle said Jara was sent to “right a ship that was sinking” in Monroe County, after the previous superintendent landed in prison for stealing money from the district.

“He had to make hard decisions that sometimes were unpopular with the community, but it was what needed to happen,” she said.

She also described Jara as a champion of technology who’s been integral in outfitting every Orange County high school student with a district-owned laptop. All middle school students will receive a laptop in the fall, followed by elementary students in a few years, she said.

Linda Kobert, vice chair of the Orange County School Board, concurred with her colleague’s assessment. She said it was only a matter of time before another district snatched Jara.

He previously interviewed for superintendent gigs in Nashville, Tennessee, and Palm Beach, Florida.

Kobert said it’s bittersweet to see the man they’ve come to know as a quiet, intellectual leader leave Orlando, but she’s happy — and confident — Clark County children will benefit from Jara’s fresh perspective.

“Many boards will tend to go with an internal candidate because it’s what they know,” she said. “However, sometimes when you bring in someone with other experience, it can benefit everyone internally in the district. Dr. Jara brings this wealth of knowledge from one of the highest-performing districts in the country there.”

If Jara accepts the offer, he would replace Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky, who’s retiring June 29. The board hopes to have some overlap between Skorkowsky and his successor to ease the managerial transition.

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