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Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky speaks with a fifth-grade class at Kay Carl Elementary School in Las Vegas on Thursday, April 5, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

The suit-clad visitor stood by the Orr Middle School garden when the bell sounded, transforming the peaceful sidewalk into a sea of teenagers.

Students’ chatter and laughter filled the air as they trudged toward their second class of the day. Some grabbed breakfast items along the way, and most completely ignored the man beside their principal who was watching the hustle and bustle unfold. Suddenly, and without explanation, the visitor strode forward, making a beeline for a girl who had just exited a classroom.

He stopped her, introduced himself as Pat Skorkowsky — superintendent of the Clark County School District — and proceeded to deliver a compliment.

“You were so polite in the office this morning,” he said.

“Thank you, sir,” the girl replied as she smiled, relief washing over her face.

Skorkowsky had watched the student enter the front office that morning. The girl was tardy but kindly and respectfully followed instructions from a staff member to get her pass. When Skorkowsky spotted her changing classes, he couldn’t resist offering praise.

“You want to reward that behavior,” he said afterward.

It doesn’t matter that Skorkowsky’s office nowadays sits in an administrative building, away from an actual school, or that his days largely consist of meeting after meeting: Once an educator, always an educator.

A toy basket sits on a coffee table in his expansive office, hinting at his former days as a first-grade teacher. There’s a Slinky, Silly Putty and a Rubik’s cube, among other gadgets that have occupied generations of fidgety kids. Skorkowsky counts himself among them. The 53-year-old says he thinks better if his hands are moving.

Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky as seen during a meeting in his office in Las Vegas on Thursday, April 5, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Soon those toys will find themselves in a box. After a 30-year education career, all in Southern Nevada, Skorkowsky is bidding this chapter of his life goodbye. He retires June 29.

His upcoming departure comes after leading the nation’s fifth-largest school district for five years — the end of which has been pockmarked by budget cuts, strife with school trustees and headaches associated with a massive, state-mandated reorganization plan.

***

The Oklahoma native landed in Las Vegas as a newly minted teacher who faced a tight job market in his home state. The desert city was booming in 1988, ushering in a new era defined by luxury megaresorts going up on the famed Las Vegas Strip.

Skorkowsky’s first job in the district, however, brought him northeast of the tourist corridor to an older neighborhood near Pecos Road and Washington Avenue. He taught first grade at Ronnow Elementary School for three years before cycling through a series of other schools as he became an assistant principal and then principal.

As an assistant principal at Eisenberg Elementary School, Skorkowsky could be found wearing overalls and shearing a sheep. Curtis Jones, the school’s principal at the time, said Skorkowsky always pitched in to tend the little farm the school shared with Kahre Elementary School, located just across the street in the northwest valley.

A pot-belly pig, goat, desert tortoise, chickens and sheep called the farm home. It doubled as an outdoor learning lab.

“He’s from Oklahoma,” Jones said, joking about Skorkowsky’s farming skills. “It wasn’t something foreign to him.”

Still, Jones knew Skorkowsky wouldn’t be sticking around the elementary school farm for too long. Jones described Skorkowsky as a natural teacher and leader, who showed a keen interest in everyone around him. He was the type of administrator who learned names quickly and always remembered the small, personal details that shaped teachers’ lives outside the school environment, Jones said.

So when Skorkowsky eventually moved on, Jones and the principal from Kahre Elementary School predicted the tables would be turned one day.

“We both said, ‘One day we’re going to be working for him,’” Jones said. “We knew that. You could just see that drive and that ambition.”

They were right. By 2012, Skorkowsky had become deputy superintendent, the district’s second-in-command position. The administrative gigs, however, were not what Skorkowsky originally envisioned for his career.

“I thought it was too far away from schools, but as I moved up, I realized you can still have a significant impact on what happens in schools,” he said.

Superintendent Dwight Jones, who was brought in under the guise of reform in 2010, abruptly resigned less than three years later. Although considered a change agent whom many had hoped would turn the struggling school district around, Jones left before seeing his reform efforts pay many dividends. He also had a contentious relationship with the teachers’ union and shouldered some blame when the school district’s property tax initiative failed.

The School Board of Trustees reversed course after Jones’ departure and opted to promote an internal candidate rather than undergo another national search. The board unanimously appointed Skorkowsky as the district’s new leader in June 2013.

“He was the right person at the right time,” said Erin Cranor, a former school trustee. “There were so many cliffs that the district could have either been pushed off of or driven off.”

***

Skorkowsky’s tenure as superintendent began when Southern Nevada was emerging from the recession, which had battered the local real-estate market and caused government entities to tighten their spending. Education funding had taken a hit during the economic downturn, but the tide began to change as community members and business leaders took a greater interest in improving the state’s public K-12 education system.

If there was any silver lining to the recession, it was that politicians, business leaders and education officials took a greater interest in diversifying Nevada’s economy, which heavily relies on the gaming and hospitality industries. After all, a multi-faceted economy likely would better weather future economic nosedives. But transforming the state’s economy meant producing a well-educated and trained workforce as well.

For years, Nevada has remained a bottom-dweller in national education rankings that look at student test scores and per-pupil funding. As the largest district in the state by far, Clark County takes the most heat for lackluster student performance.

Despite the district’s shortcomings, the education community gave Skorkowsky the benefit of the doubt when he took over after Dwight Jones’ sudden exit, said John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association.

“Pat was like a breath of fresh air,” Vellardita said. “There was this view of, ‘Let’s get one of our own to run the district.’”

Plus, the district’s perennial cries for more funding seemed to be gaining notice. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval backed a bevy of education reforms in 2015 that largely involved categorical funds — money earmarked for high-need students such as those learning English or living in poverty. The reforms came with a $1.5 billion tax increase — the largest in Nevada’s history — which included a controversial Commerce Tax.

Sandoval also signed legislation paving the way for the much-hyped and long-awaited weighted-funding formula, which funnels state money to students based on his or her needs. But the weighted-funding formula hasn’t been fully implemented given the estimated $1.2 billion price tag.

Meanwhile, in 2015, state lawmakers passed legislation that led to the ambitious reorganization of the Clark County School District. The state-mandated reorganization upended the large school district’s operational structure, passing more autonomy to individual schools.

The plan initially didn’t sit well with the trustees, who filed a lawsuit against the Nevada Department of Education and State Board of Education in December 2016. A tension-filled several months ensued as district and state officials squabbled over the reorganization.

Pat Skorkowsky, Superintendent of the Clark County School District, is sworn in during the legislative advisory committee discussing the CCSD budget Thursday, Feb. 02, 2017, at the Grant Sawyer Building. Photo by Photoprizes LLC.

It was Skorkowsky who often testified on behalf of the school district at reorganization meetings and, as a result, bore the brunt of lawmakers’ dissatisfaction with the process.

Glenn Christensen, who chaired a council that helped shepherd the district through the reorganization, said he wishes the operational overhaul could have gone faster. But he didn’t put all the slow downs solely on Skorkowsky’s shoulders.

“What of this was driven by the trustees? What were his own personal feelings?” he said. “It was sometimes difficult to distinguish.”

Tom Skancke, the reorganization consultant hired by lawmakers, said he believes Skorkowsky supported the structural overhaul, but the nature of his position left him balancing the concerns — and agendas — of the trustees, politicians, district employees, business leaders, parents and other community members.

“I would say that his frustration would be that he was pulled in a thousand different directions,” he said. “There was one time he looked at me and said, ‘Why can’t we all get along and make this happen?’”

The reorganization went forward, although it’s still far from a perfect science.

Christensen said Skorkowsky could have demonstrated stronger leadership throughout the reorganization process, but he gives him a “B or B+” as a superintendent overall.

“In terms of inspiring people, I think he does a great job,” Christensen said. “The role of the superintendent is so difficult, though, in that he doesn’t have control over as many things as he might, say, if he were in a business organization.”

But the reorganization wasn’t the only headache for the district over the last year and a half. The school district was locked in bitter arbitration battles with the unions representing administrators and teachers. In both cases, an arbitrator sided with the unions. The school district has appealed the arbitrator’s decision that favored the the Clark County Education Association and would give teachers a pay bump.

The district has said the appeal boils down to money. Last year, the district underwent a series of budget cuts to overcome a deficit that ballooned to roughly $60 million. The surprise financial situation, which came to light last summer, soured Skorkowsky’s relationship with some trustees, who argued he should have known about the money issues well before July.

Trustee Kevin Child has repeatedly called for a forensic audit of the school district, and Trustee Chris Garvey has often peppered Skorkowsky with questions over budget-related matters that she hasn’t perceived as transparent. The tension has las to several public spats between Skorkowsky and his board critics during public meetings.

Garvey declined to discuss Skorkowsky’s performance as superintendent, saying it would violate his contract to do so outside a formal evaluation. But she expressed frustration that the board hasn’t formally evaluated him in years. (Trustees largely praised Skorkowsky during his first performance review in 2014, but they also asked for better communication and transparency, according to The Las Vegas Review-Journal.)

Trustee Carolyn Edwards said the board’s transition to a “balanced governance” model, which discourages micromanaging or policy rubber-stamping on behalf of trustees, meant they needed to develop a new evaluation process. Skorkowsky’s retirement announcement rendered that moot, she said.

But that hasn’t stopped the public from delivering its own — sometimes blistering — evaluation of his more recent job performance. When Skorkowsky announced his retirement plans in September, leaders of the administrators’ and teachers’ unions called for him to step aside immediately.

The school district has blamed the budget mess on a combination of factors, including rising employee costs, unfunded legislative mandates and chronic underfunding from the state. Clark County education leaders have argued that increased funding from the state in recent years has been in the form of categorical funding, which can’t be applied to some of the rising expenses facing the district.

Even so, Vellardita said Skorkowsky should have been more aware of his business-centric deficiencies and assembled a competent team to handle the organization’s $2.3 billion budget. The district’s chief financial officer position had been in flux for nearly a year, until Jason Goudie, who hails from the gaming sector, took over in July.

The union leader also faulted the superintendent for not being more engaged in the state’s political sphere, which he said has led to more involvement from the Nevada Department of Education at the local level.

“It’s a political job,” Vellardita said. “Anybody who says it’s just about teaching the kids doesn’t fully understand the relationship of politics to policy. It’s a political job in the sense that it requires an understanding of not just how education is funded but how politics works when (state lawmakers) only meet every two years for 120 days.”

Vellardita credits Skorkowsky with embracing a higher starting wage — $40,900 — for Clark County teachers, noting that he had to persuade others that “it was the right thing to do.”

But morale has suffered more recently as teacher contracts got swept into nasty negotiation battles. Some have blamed Skorkowsky for not cleaning house in what they call a toxic employee management relations office, led by Eddie Goldman, who has come under scrutiny after a retiring employee wrote a scathing letter that accuses the district of letting Goldman amass power and influence to bully people.

Meanwhile, teachers have showed up at board meetings or picketed outside schools to protest the district appealing the arbitration decision, which puts their pay raise in jeopardy.

The question now: Will recent events cast a shadow over Skorkowsky’s legacy as superintendent?

“I have a lot of admiration for Pat and what he has accomplished in the district, especially with limited resources” Caryne Shea, a parent of children who attend the school district, wrote in a text message. “I hope that people continue to remember his body of work, the incredible amount of time he committed to CCSD and really did want what was best for students and the district. It’s a shame his 30-year career is ending at a time when the school district’s morale is low. But that is a collective situation and we need to grow from this.”

***

For all the mudslinging over the past year, Skorkowsky still maintains a loyal cadre of supporters.

Ruben Murillo, president of the statewide teachers’ union, lauded Skorkowsky’s ability to juggle demands coming at him from legislators, school trustees and community members.

“Every time you move up in rank — whether you are with the district or any other job — the responsibilities become more challenging,” he said. “It’s hard to maintain your calm composure. Pat has been able to manage that. Over the past year, I’ve seen him become a bit more defensive in terms of what he believes in, especially with the school board.”

Board President Deanna Wright, who’s been a Skorkowsky ally and considers him a friend, went a step further defending his leadership. She pointed to increasing graduation rates, improved test scores and the expansion of the district’s nationally acclaimed magnet school program as evidence of Skorkowsky’s positive impact on Southern Nevada children.

Wright said he often fielded attacks from elected officials who know little about the realities of teaching children nowadays, particularly in a diverse district like Clark County.

“He took abuse that was unnecessary, that was unprofessional and that was unwarranted,” she said.

Skorkowsky wouldn’t delve into the particulars of each criticism thrown his way. Instead, he chalked it up to the nature of heading a large organization, which boasts more than 320,000 students and 42,000 employees.

“Most of this stuff is part of the job, and you get pretty thick skin as you go along,” he said.

Where he heads next is anyone’s guess. Even Skorkowsky acknowledges he’s not quite sure what his future holds. By the time he retires, Skorkowsky will have logged 30 years in the district, meaning he can collect his full benefits from the Public Employees Retirement System (otherwise known as PERS).

Skorkowsky’s current salary is $280,788. The school board decided that his successor won’t make any less than $320,000 per year.

First on his agenda post-retirement: Getting some rest and possibly taking a vacation.

Skorkowsky said he often gets to his office by 6:30 a.m., usually with two trenta-sized Starbucks black teas in tow. If he’s home by 8 p.m., he tries to “do something totally mindless” — like watching sports or cooking shows — to wind down.

His advice for the the next superintendent: Set boundaries from the beginning.

Skorkowsky said he felt guilty saying no to the many event invitations that landed on his desk. Constantly saying yes chipped away at his personal time and left him exhausted.

But Skorkowsky said he’s not alone in that respect. He said teachers carry huge burdens as they balance being an educator, social worker and counselor to many students who come from fractured home environments or who have been exposed to prolonged stress and trauma.

“It’s not just teaching anymore, and it’s exhausting,” he said.

The educator-turned-administrator said schools are struggling to wrap their arms around students’ many needs. He said studying the link between childhood trauma and learning is “quickly becoming a passion,” perhaps hinting at his next career endeavor.

But whatever lies ahead, Skorkowsky says he’ll miss the people — the educators, employees and students — who make up the district.

***

On a recent weekday, his job takes him from a middle school in central Las Vegas to a fledgling career and technical education program at Desert Rose High School and then to a northwest valley elementary school, where kindergarteners wearing white lab coats control robots with an iPad. The youngsters are already learning coding skills to someday compete in the technology-heavy landscape.

Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky operates a robot with a kindergarten student at Kay Carl Elementary School in Las Vegas on Thursday, April 5, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

“We didn’t have anything like this,” Skorkowsky says, referring to his time as a classroom teacher.

He stops for a rare sit-down lunch at Sonio’s Cafe on his way back to the salmon-colored administrative building. An afternoon filled with meetings about capital projects and transition plans awaits.

But before his oversized salad arrives, an anonymous note does. A server — acting as messenger for an unidentified guest seated elsewhere in the eatery — hands Skorkowsky a tiny piece of stationery containing two handwritten sentences:

“Thank you for Mission High School. It saved my child’s life.”

The parent was referring to a new high school that’s devoted to students overcoming drug addictions. It opened earlier this school year.

The delivery catches Skorkowsky off guard. He brushes away tears..

“That’s what it’s all about,” he says, gazing at the note. “Right there.”

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