By VERNON ROBISON
Moapa Valley Progress
The Moapa Valley communities rolled out the red carpet for elected officials and other leaders at a meeting held Thursday night, August 4, to discuss a draft legislative plan to reorganize the Clark County School District (CCSD).
It was the fifth in a series of eight Town Hall meetings mandated by Assembly Bill 394. The bill, which was passed in the 2015 State Legislature, calls for a complete reorganization of the school district. The meeting, held in the Fine Arts Building at the Clark County Fairgrounds, was the only one in the series held outside of the Las Vegas valley.
More than 220 people attended the meeting, mostly from the northeastern Clark County communities of the Moapa and Virgin Valleys.
Leading the meeting was County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick. With her was State Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, who chairs the Legislative Advisory Committee tasked with drafting the plan and regulations for the reorganization. Other members of the panel included legislators, leaders of county teachers and administrators unions, and other key contributors in the reorganization process. Also in the audience were State Senator Pete Goicoechea, CCSD Trustee Kevin Childs and State Assemblymen James Oscarson and Chris Edwards.
Each of these guests received a loaf of fresh-baked bread as well as home-made cookies and milk; all prepared in the homes of community members who wished to express support and appreciation for the ongoing efforts to improve education.
The meeting began with a brief overview of the plan. The plan proposes to de-centralize the district’s top-down power structure to keep more decision-making at the local school level. The principal at each school would work collaboratively with a school governance team made up of teachers, staff, parents and community members to make key educational decisions at the school. Each school would be funded on a per pupil basis and the governance team would control the budget of the school. The central administration of CCSD would be relegated to a service organization for the schools.
“This plan has come about because so many people are sick and tired of the school district being ranked near the bottom in the country,” Roberson explained. “It has gotten to the point where we just won’t stand for it anymore.”
Panel member Michael Strembitsky, who was hired by the legislative committee to author the reorganization plan, said that the proposal deals with structure of the district and not with people. But he said it was the people who would ultimately give the plan success.
“The structure of the district will either facilitate the energy of people or thwart it,” Strembitsky explained. “But if the structure is set up to give people a chance to do their work, it will be the people who make the changes. The people will transform things overnight.”
After this brief presentation the floor was open to public questions and comment for more than two hours. Members of the public stood in a long line which extended down the center aisle of the room waiting their turn to make statements.
Most of the comments were positive, enthusiastic and supportive about the plan.
“I just want to give kudos to the Legislative Advisory Committee in forming this plan,” said Logandale resident Lindsey Dalley who is a member of a local task force to advocate for greater local autonomy in education. “They have been supportive, open and willing to listen to us and make major changes that we have suggested. These people are our friends and they want to help us. They have not been afraid to come out from behind the glass wall.”
Mesquite resident Courtney Sweetin; a member of the parent group, Break Free CCSD, which has advocated for AB 394; agreed that the committee members had been genuine in incorporating parents’ wants and needs into the plan.
“Basically, we wanted two things in this plan,” Sweetin said. “We wanted the dollars to follow the students and we wanted more local control. This plan does both of those things.”
Wendy Mulcock of Logandale thanked the commissioner and legislators for holding the Logandale meeting. She related experiences of spending 5-6 hours at a school board meeting in order to be allowed two minutes of public comment with no response from the board. The idea of having decisions about education made closer to home was appealling to her, she said.
“I am happy with the idea that my kids can drive two minutes to the high school to address a group of community members and make real changes to education,” Mulcock said.
The only lukewarm response to the plan came from a comment made at the beginning of the meeting by CCSD Trustee Kevin Childs. Childs explained that he was representing Trustee Chris Garvey who was out of town due to the birth of a grandchild.
Childs read a statement regarding the reorganization plan, which had been approved by the CCSD Board of Trustees in a meeting just the night before. The statement expressed a desire to slow down the reorganization process.
“It is the position of the CCSD Board that there are significant education, financial and legal issues that must be addressed prior to the proposed plan being finalized and implemented,” Childs read. “We further resolve that the board’s paramount concerns are for the improvement and achievment of all students in the CCSD in equity and access to high quality education for all CCSD students. Therefore, there must be assurances that the proposed plan will not result in any substantial disruption to any student within the district.”
This position led to several questions from residents about the staying power of the proposed reorganization plan.
Bunkerville resident Ty Wakefield observed that, from a parents point of view, the CCSD Board of Trustees appeared to be unwilling to submit to the legislative will dictated in the plan, and its timeline.
“Sure it will decrease their power and that of central administration,” Wakefield said. “But that is the essence of leadership isn’t it? In the CCSD, the board and district must decrease and the local schools and communities must increase.”
Panel member John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Educators Association, responded with some criticism of the school board’s position. He said that the board had waited months while the process was ongoing to finally come out with a statement to slow down the process.
“From my perspective, people want change,” Vellardita said. “Parents want a better system. Teachers want more control in the school building so that they can do what they got into education for in the first place. But this means a change in power. And those in power are fighting now to hold onto it. It is only through the efforts of parents and other members of the community that we can bust that stranglehold and make a change.”
Logandale resident Sam Aikele read from the draft regulations of the plan where it stated that one of the key roles of central services would be to “set expectations for schools and provide exceptional outcomes for students.” Aikele worried that this phrase could eventually drive a return to central control over everything.
“What is going to be done to limit the scope of central administration and the superintendent,” he asked.
Strembitsky explained that the lines of accountability would be changed under the plan. Rather than 30 or more supervisors coming down on the principals for various functions, as exists now, the principals would have only one supervisor, the Associate Superintendent. That one supervisor would be the direct link back to the Superintendent, Strembitsky explained.
“This will require a total cultural change,” Strembitsky said. “Under this plan, the definition of leadership is service. The top-down, punitive action model that exists now is totally alien to this concept.”
Logandale resident Bryan Mortensen asked who would be tasked to shepherd the plan into full implementation and to ensure that the necessary structural and cultural changes were made.
Roberson responded that the legislative committee would continue to meet for the next two years to monitor the plan and make sure that it is implemented successfully. He emphasized that the state legislature has statutory authority over education in the state.
“We have another session in six months and again in another two years if we need to pass further legislation to keep this on track,” Roberson said. “And it is important to note that AB394 had bipartison effort at the legislature. There was a broad-based support.”
Another commonly voiced concern was about the selection of school principals and Associate Superintendents. Many residents commented that there needed to be community involvement in choosing the people to fill those roles.
Roberson said that this was an issue that had been a more recent consideration to be added to the plan. He admitted that it was not yet part of the current plan or its regulations. But in the process of the Town Hall meetings it had been made clear that another point of community involvement should be added, Roberson said.
“The Associate Superintendent role is so vital in this process, every municipality will have the ability to have an important say in who that Associate Superintendent is in their municipality,” Roberson said. “If you are in unincorporated Clark County like you are here, the county would have a role; if in Mesquite, then the city.”
Roberson said that exactly how that would work would be flexible. It could be through a CEAB or other local advisory committee, he said.
“And that is another thing dealing with CEABs,” Roberson added. “Right now the organization of a CEAB is at the will of the school district Board of Trustees. But we are going to put it into the law that you have the right to form those groups independent of the trustees.”
Roberson explained that there would be a public process where potential applicants for the Associate Superintendent position would be interviewed and reviewed by the local groups who would then come back with a recommendation.
“I would expect the superintendent to then pick the person who the community had selected,” Roberson said.
Roberson added that it would work the same way in selecting school principals. Only in that case it would be the school governance team who would make the recommendations to the Associate Superintendent.
In another comment, Moapa Town Advisory Board member Ryan Udall asked Kirkpatrick if a five member advisory committee could be formed for the Moapa Valley communities to have a unified voice in this process. Kirkpatrick responded that she would support that and would get together with community leaders to work on the details.
Logandale resident Jerry Swanson asked about a section in the draft regulation which gave local school precincts the ability to outsource certain functions if it better suited the local school. Swanson specifically talked about HVAC repairs in local school buildings where hiring a local contractor might be faster, and perhaps more economical, than waiting for central services to respond from Las Vegas.
Roberson said that the intent of the plan was to allow autonomy to the local schools to make those types of decisions. But he emphasized that there would need to be a process put in place where certain vendors could be approved by the district to perform those services to minimize liability issues.
“We will need to be smart about how we do this,” Roberson said. “But we believe that the schools need to have the autonomy to get things fixed when needed.”
Vellardita added that the intent of the plan was not for support staff personnel to lose their jobs, but for those functions to answer to the schools rather than to a larger bureaucracy.
“The intent is to give autonomy to the building,” he said. “If we are doing that then they should be able to exercise that autonomy and not have to go through all the red tape of the bureaucracy.”
Strembitsky added that the local school precincts would have the opportunity to evaluate the quality of service coming from central district personnel. That would make the support roles more accountable to the school precincts that are receiving those services, he said.
Roberson said that he was pleased with the meeting and the depth of the comments made by the public.
“This is by far the most enthusiastic group that we have spoken to in the last week and a half through this process,” Roberson told the crowd.