A Guide to the Clark County School Board

The Clark County School Board has more control over your life than you thought. We scope out just how much.

Damon Hodge

Pound for pound, the Clark County School Board may be Nevada's most influential political body outside the state Legislature. Sorry County Commission. The school district's decisions don't just affect its 292,000 students or 36,000-plus employees, but nearly every resident of Southern Nevada—and in more ways than the taxes we pay to build and repair schools, operate buses, hire teachers and educate students.

Pick a malady, any malady—dropout rates, poverty, crime, violence, drug use and abuse, sexually transmitted diseases—and education is connected somehow.

Name a social service issue—runaways; juvenile prostitutes, addicts and inmates; lagging mental health care for young people (the federally funded Nevada Youth Risk Behavior Survey noted that more Clark County middle-school and high-school students feel isolated)—and education is connected somehow.

For good measure, add politics: Besides making Nevada the laughingstock of the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, the 2003 legislative budget impasse (a.k.a., The Great Tax Debacle) prompted Education First, a state constitutional initiative that would require the Legislature to fund public education before any other part of the state budget for the next biennium. Passed in 2004, voters must green-light the initiative in November for it to go into effect.

Finally, look at quality-of-life indicators—employment, socio-economic status, college education, where you live, whether you rent or own. Education applies.

All these things, in some fashion, boomerang back to education, which means, yes, the Clark County School Board has more control over your life than you thought.

So let's scope it out.

• • •

The Vitals

Meetings: 5:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month at the Edward A. Greer Education Center, 2832 E. Flamingo Road (commonly referred to as the "Ed Shed"). Each trustee also hosts monthly parent advisory committee meetings and attends meetings on zoning, budgeting and other issues.

Membership: Seven board posts; trustees are elected to overlapping four-year terms.

Salaries: $80 per meeting, up to six meetings monthly; up to $3,500 a year.

Duties: Write governing policies; approve regulations; semi-annually evaluate superintendent's performance; make final decisions on new bond issues; conduct analyses, briefings and public policy reviews related to district functions.

Mission Statement: "Clark County School District students will have the knowledge, skills, attitudes and ethics necessary to succeed academically and will practice responsible citizenship."

Operating Budget: $1.8 billion for fiscal year 2005-2006.

• • •

The Board

Shirley Barber: The Elder Stateswoman.

On board since: 1996.

Represents: District C; covers portions of North Las Vegas, West Las Vegas and the Downtown corridor.

Known for: Stumping for more resources, including a high school, in predominantly black West Las Vegas; sniping at superintendents (former schools chief Carlos Garcia was a frequent target); attempting to cap the superintendent's power; occasionally playing race card. Passed over for board president despite having the second-longest tenure and plenty of experience in education (41 years), Barber insinuated that race may have played a role. In May, she led a press conference that lambasted Garcia and district brass for promoting Hispanic administrators over blacks, among other things.

Terri Janison: The Rookie.

On board since: October.

Represents: District E; covers northern Summerlin and a wide swath of the northwest Valley.

Known for: An independent streak; dissecting the issues. There is some concern that she's a bit too cozy with the Council for a Better Nevada, a group of top executives that has thrown itself full bore into the public-education fray, handpicking candidate Eric Nadelestern as its "superstar" superintendent and criticizing the board for selecting interim superintendent Walt Rulffes for the permanent job. Among its goals are more autonomy for schools and better relationships with businesses.

Ruth Johnson: The CEO.

On board since: 1996.

Represents: District B; covers portions of the northwest, North Las Vegas, everything north of Interstate 215 and a chunk of the northeast portion of the Valley, including Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Nellis Air Force Base.

Known for: Being the Oscar Goodman of the board—one critic dubbed her the "power behind the throne" and said she controls four or five votes; this critic also says she can be a voice of reason. She favored hiring interim Rulffes over Nadelstern.

Larry Mason: Mr. Stoneface.

On board since: 1994.

Represents: District D; covers mature, urban areas spanning portions of Downtown, historic, center-city neighborhoods, the Strip and UNLV corridors.

Known for: Having the longest board tenure; stumping with trustee Shirley Barber to reduce gaps in minority student achievement; vociferously opposing a mandatory uniform policy; being named in a Nevada Equal Rights Commission complaint by former Assistant Regional Superintendent Paul Garbiso, who claims he was involuntarily removed from his job for not supporting a Hispanic candidate to lead the East region.

Sheila Moulton: The Students' Trustee.

On board since: 1999.

Represents: District G; covers East Las Vegas, the Sunrise and Whitney Ranch townships and parts of Henderson.

Known for: Backing prayers and invocations at graduations; trying to include diet and caffeine-free sodas in a 2004 regulation that stripped unhealthy foods from vending machines and food stands during campus events; declining to criticize Mayor Oscar Goodman for telling a class of Mackey Elementary fourth-graders that he'd want a bottle of gin with him if he were stranded on an island.

Mary Beth Scow: The Matriarch.

On board since: 1996.

Represents: District A; covers Henderson and Green Valley.

Known for: Championing modernization of older campuses; participating in the superintendent search that netted Carlos Garcia; stumping for a budget commensurate with student needs during the Great Tax Debacle of 2003.

Susan Brager-Wellman: Mrs. Rational.

On board since: 1995.

Represents: District F; covers southern Summerlin, the southwest portion of the Valley and Blue Diamond.

Known for: Championing using vehicle rebate to assist teachers; two consecutive years of not taking any taxpayer-funded educational trips outside the county; opposing Nadelstern's hiring as superintendent.

• • •

Why the next 18 months could determine the next 10 years

• Rulffes' contract will be up. Is 18 months enough time to gauge the success of his empowerment schools and Superintendent's Schools initiatives? Empowerment schools (Rose Warren, Kirk Adams, Lee Antonello and Paul Culley elementaries) will be freed from stringent oversight; principals will be given latitude to decide which teaching methods work and more control over budgets; to select staff and curriculum; to offer performance incentives and institute longer school days and lengthier school years.

• If he's not rehired, will the Council for a Better Nevada hit up Nadelstern or proffer another "superstar" candidate? Will the relationship between the council and school board have improved by then?

• Also ending in 2008 is the 10-year period covered by 1998's $3.5 billion school construction and campus modernization bond. Just five years after sinking $140 million into education to boost per-pupil spending and give teachers small raises, voters will be asked to pony up billions more to repair old campuses and build new ones to meet the burgeoning demand.

• Whoever wins the governor's election later this year—the front-runner is Republican congressman and Education First creator Jim Gibbons, with either State Sen. Dina Titus or Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson expected to be the Democratic contender—will help determine how much support public education gets either by force of will or force of veto. None of the candidates has the education pedigree of outgoing Gov. Kenny Guinn, a former CCSD superintendent. All say they are committed to education. Titus, who wants more education funding, smaller class sizes, full-day kindergarten and textbooks for all students, has been endorsed by the board of directors for the Nevada State Education Association, a group comprised of education leaders statewide. Gibson told the Reno Gazette-Journal he was worried that moves to limit government spending and tweak the property-tax could harm education. Gibbons supports the Millennium Scholarship college tuition program that earmarks funds for high-achieving students to go to any school in the state; he recently told In Business Las Vegas that "We need to put a greater emphasis on K-12 and getting children excited and educated in math and sciences."

• Just as important as who occupies the governor's chair in Carson City is the composition of the 2007 Legislature—more specifically, which party controls which house. (As it is now, the GOP runs the Senate, the Dems the house). State Republicans are generally viewed as stingy toward education, Democrats as open-wallet benefactors. Whichever party can encroach on the other's territory or steal a waffler or two can steer the course on education.

• Expect, as with nearly every legislative session of the past decade, a fresh round of indignation over the state's per-pupil spending average ($4,500, about $1,500 below the national average) and the need to increase starting pay for beginning teachers.

• The push toward breaking up the district, which received an injection of life with a state-funded $250,000 study of the issue, could heat up.

• The Council for a Better Nevada isn't going away anytime soon, so expect their two cents to be added everywhere possible.

Throw in federal No Child Left Behind mandates, a district that is rapidly diversifying and growing (at an annual 10,000-student-to-15,000-student clip), and Susan Brager-Wellman, a 12-year school board veteran, acknowledges the next 18 months as the most important in a long time.

Over the past three years, she says the board has been futuristic and opportunistic—forging community partnerships and expanding the number of charter schools and magnet programs and career technical educational academies.

The prospect of going back to voters and asking for billions more for schools doesn't unnerve Mary Beth Scow, primarily because a legislative audit of the school district determined that it's not top-heavy in terms of administration.

"Their own counsel bureau did an audit of the district and their own research proves this. It's a lot easier to write that in a newspaper and get headlines than to get the facts," she says, confident of voter support. "There are more fair-minded citizens than not. Citizens will come forward and say we need resources."

And look for things between the school board and the Council for a Better Nevada, she says. Time will mend any fissures. "We had a few little kinks in the beginning, but that's okay. We want good-hearted, fair-minded citizens who want to help education. Citizens want to have a good public education system. Without community involvement, public schools don't function well."

• • •

What has the board done right?

Biting the bullet: Taking cell phones away from 500 employees (saving $270,000 annually) and vehicles away from a slew of administrators ($1 million annual bill). Shearing $111 million from the 2003 budget, including popular programs like middle-school sports and music festivals—ultimately, the cuts weren't needed because legislative funding came through (Whew). Centralizing food-service operations from three locations to one, saving thousands of dollars in fuel costs. Hiring a fleet manager to track vehicle usage (making sure employees are where they say they are).

Says Clark County Education Association President Mary Ella Holloway: "As much as I'd like to blame the school board for all our problems, it's the lawmakers who decide how much money we get. There is a segment of the Legislature that's interested in cutting back [education funding]—almost every Republican up there [in Carson City]. There are two things that irritate me. One is [lawmakers] saying, 'Prove that we can do a good job with what we give you and we'll give you more.' If you have overcrowded classrooms, underpaid teachers and all the issues we're dealing with, it makes it difficult to do the best jobs. Second, they say, 'We've been throwing money at education and nothing has improved.' I've been in education for 25 years and no one has ever thrown money into my classroom."

"... The board is not opposed to spending more money for education and paying more for teachers, but they are constrained by money situations. We are doing much more testing of students, which is good, but that costs money and takes money away from things like smaller class sizes. I really think we wouldn't lose as many students as we do in middle school if we had smaller class sizes, and I'm not sure that too many administrators is a problem. If we eliminated half of the administrators, that wouldn't give us enough money for teacher pay raises."

Innovation (Expanding magnet programs, career technical educational academies and charter schools)

There are eight magnet programs at high schools. While students in Rancho High's Aviation Program can get their pilot's license, those in Clark High's Academy of Finance meet with and work for top business leaders, and their counterparts in Valley High's International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Program earn college credit, and those in Valley's Academy of Travel and Tourism learn the ins and outs of tourism from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

There are five magnet programs at the elementary level, including the Jo Mackey Academy of Leadership and Global Communications, which exposes students to the arts, foreign language and technology, and four at the middle-school level.

In the next few years, Scow says six career technical educational academies are scheduled to open, featuring programs like mechanics, design, cooking, cosmetology, hotel management and more. Currently the district operates the Southern Nevada Vocational and Technical High School (training in 17 disciplines, including automotive technology, welding, computer accounting and cybercorps) and Advanced Technologies Academy (instruction in seven technological areas such as graphic design and web site maintenance).

During last Thursday's board meeting, trustees approved the 100 Academy of Excellence, a North Las Vegas charter school operated by the 100 Black Men of Las Vegas.

Using size to their advantage.

Without the Clark County School District taking the lead, does InVest, the program pushing for all-day kindergarten statewide, get passed? Unlikely.

If the CCSD were broken into smaller districts, could it have successfully pressured land baron Jim Rhodes (who doesn't lose often) into including a site for an elementary school in Rhodes Ranch? Doubt it.

Says State Sen. Sandra Tiffany: "They're doing the best they can with the behemoth they are dealing with, but it's very hard to right a broken structure, very hard to turn a huge ocean liner two degrees."

• • •

What are the board's biggest obstacles?

CCSD's Bigness: Deconsolidation isn't a new idea. It was considered back in the '50s by district administrators fearing a wild population spurt.

In recent years, Tiffany has hollered about it the loudest, arguing that decentralizing operations—effectively breaking the district up into smaller, autonomous districts—would decrease class sizes, allow teachers to pay more attention to students, increase accountability (the smaller districts would have their own boards and superintendents) and improve parent-teacher interface—all the things trustees say they want to do anyway.

Sen. Tiffany: "The biggest problem is with the board members. They are not paid and they have no staff. It's very, very hard to get anyone with extensive business experience to take on a position like this. They represent 250,000 people but only get paid for one meeting. That's a real problem. When you have smaller school districts, you represent less people and have better parent communication. They should get compensated for their work and have a staff member helping them with parent interface."

" ...The school district is too big. I like a [higher education chancellor] Jim Rogers' mentality or looking at the system, seeing what's wrong and trying to fix it

Cultural disconnects and addressing diversity: Urban Chamber's Overstreet: "In 2003 the Urban Chamber of Commerce filed a complaint in the federal Education Department's Office of Civil Rights claiming that too many black youth wind up in special-education classes and under-funded schools in low-income neighborhoods. The Department of Education never investigated the issue."

Sooner or later, Overstreet says, numbers will force the district to devote more resources to diversity. In 2002-'03, whites comprised 45.9 percent of students, Hispanics 31.8 percent, blacks 13.9 percent, with Asians, Pacific Islanders and American Indians combining for the remaining 8.3 percent. By 2004-'05, enrollment for whites dropped to 41.2 percent of students, while Hispanic (35.4 percent) and black students (14.4 percent), along with Asians and Pacific Islanders (8.2 percent) and American Indians (.8 percent) saw increases.

Getting good staff: CCEA's Holloway: "Recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers is sometimes based on salary and benefits. We're hurting in Clark County, compared to a lot of places, because salaries are lower and the cost of living is rising higher. Teachers who own houses back East have turned down contracts because they can't buy houses here."

Contrary to opinion, the district is doing a lot to assist teachers: with home- buying, via the CCSD Home Buyers Workshop, which allows licensed personnel who complete training access to programs that help with mortgage down payment or closing costs; with Clark High's Teacher Academy, a magnet program that draws middle-schoolers interested in teaching; and with periodic staff development days throughout the year. The list goes on.

Structural flaws: Sen. Tiffany: "Who has power and influence? Is it a strong superintendent or a strong board? Even if you implement a policy, how are you able to make sure it's carried out? The five regions are not workable; they are the size of school districts. The regions should have their own boards, governance, policy and budget. Mary Beth Scow told me about her trip to New York [to shadow Nadelstern] and seeing principals with more authority. Here, principals only control 4 percent of the budget at their schools. You can't make much of a difference with 4 percent of the budget."

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