Change is harder for some folks

Chasm grows between Dwight Jones and the Clark County school board

The Clark County School District's new superintendent, Dwight Jones, was hired to be a "game changer."

What district trustees increasingly signal from their dais, however, is — at best — ambivalence about actually allowing him to change the game.

Jones quickly separated himself from the status quo in January, when he released his white paper, A Few Lessons Learned. Taking a decidedly fresh view of Nevada's economic downturn, he wrote of the "real opportunity" it affords for the district to do things differently. And he laid out a path to improved student performance through more school choice and more site-based autonomy — taking the principles behind the district's current but limited empowerment program, for instance, and scaling them up district-wide.

Yet while Jones is optimistic and motivated, he is also realistic.

"Change comes harder for some folks," he told the Public Education Foundation's board of directors earlier this year. He could have pointed at the CCSD board of trustees to illustrate that point.

Take school choice, an important key to Jones' design for reform of the Clark County district. More choice for teachers, principals, parents and students introduces vital new dynamics into school districts and, over time, yields powerfully positive transformations. Innovations by Mike Strembitzky — whom CCSD hired as a consultant for the development of its empowerment schools — demonstrated this in the Edmonton, Alberta, school district he headed.

Yet at the pinnacle of school choice are school vouchers, which Edmonton offers. And while vouchers were not specifically identified in Jones' outline for district change, the new superintendent has publicly supported Gov. Brian Sandoval's proposed education reforms — which do foresee a large statewide school-voucher program.

This CCSD board, however, appears to hate the very idea of vouchers.

During January's regular school board meeting — the first with Jones as superintendent — Joyce Haldeman, the district's chief lobbyist and, as expressed by Jones, the superintendent's "voice," presented trustees with a list of issues likely to surface in the 2011 Nevada Legislative Session. Vouchers promised to be a hot-button topic this session, she told trustees, advising them to be open to discussions.

Open, however, is what the trustees weren't.

"I oppose vouchers," declared Trustee Erin Cranor early in the discussion. And from the dais she directed Associate Superintendent Haldeman, too, to "Oppose school vouchers."

During the subsequent discussion, no trustees spoke up for the principle of choice.  "I do get your message," said Haldeman, eventually. "We'll be opposing vouchers."

While politically school vouchers weren't likely to pass, the chasm yawning between the board and the superintendent they'd hired was visible.

Later that evening, after Jones highlighted that A Few Lessons Learned outlined his vision for the district, the board turned to planning future agenda items. Trustee Chris Garvey then spoke up — acknowledging personally that "change isn't always easy," and "[i]n fact, it's very painful" — seeking to clarify board policies on empowerment schools.

Scaling up Clark County's empowerment school program, like increasing site-based autonomy, is a key principle in Jones' A Few Lessons Learned white paper.

To make things "easier" on everyone, said Garvey, let's "revisit what our current policy is on empowerment schools; what the definition is; [and] what are the parameters of what a site-based administrator can make decisions on and what they cannot."

While a seemingly simple request for clarification, Garvey's request implicitly challenged Jones and explicitly challenged his authority under the district's governance structure. Under that structure — Policy Governance® — the empowerment program is not even within the purview of the board. All administrative and programmatic means are the role of the superintendent. In fact, the school board has no policy on empowerment schools — and never has.

Indeed, last year, using empowerment schools as an example, board President Carolyn Edwards explained to the public how, under Policy Governance®, the superintendent does not even have to consult with trustees — although he may, if he chooses.

Former CCSD superintendent Walt Rulffes, noted Edwards, "came to the board and asked about, do we want to continue with empowerment schools, and, the board gave direction, yes we do ... but, we give him the freedom to bring those things to us," she told the audience.

The point of Policy Governance®, advised Edwards, was to hold the superintendent "much more highly accountable" for results. "And," she explained, "if we tell him how to do everything, then we can hardly hold him accountable for the decisions we make about what he's doing, if we're telling him how to do it."

In A Few Lessons Learned, Jones talks about thinking outside the box and delivering student services differently. And whether he speaks to a group of parents, a group of business leaders or one-on-one, he steadfastly maintains that money is not the solution to CCSD's problems. The district needs to learn to do things better and cheaper, he often says.

This past spring, facing a prospective $400 million budget cut, Jones went "outside the box" and proposed some cuts that are traditionally taboo.

In his proposed budget submitted to the board, based on the projected loss of revenues, Jones assumed $191.4 million in employee concessions — $39.9 million in salary step and education freezes, $23.2 million in health care costs assumed by employees and a 7.8 percent salary reduction.

He also assumed class-size increases, and the elimination of over 1,600 staff positions. Assuming no union concessions, he projected increased cuts to administrative department staff, textbook and supply budgets, computer strategists, literacy specialists, special education facilitators, ELL facilitators and magnet school staff ratios. That still left a $51.9 million gap, however. In all, with no employee concessions, Jones proposed eliminating from 2,486 to 5,428 positions to balance the district budget against projected revenues.

Trustees, however, wanted Jones, like his predecessors, to seek additional revenue.

"Just as we begin the discussion," Cranor began, "I wonder if we can just maybe agree on one semantic: to not refer to this [Jones' assumptions] as Plan A, but rather, to refer to this as Plan B and Plan C. Plan A being that we will work effectively with our legislature; that we will seek ways to increase revenues at the district level; that we will seek ways to possibly advocate for, um, local school support tax not sun-setting this summer; other things like that...."

After trustees briefly discussed how that might look, Jones pointed out to trustees and the public that district staff was not in a position to work for tax increases.

"Staff is really not in the position to use taxpayer dollars or staff during staff time to assist with groups to try and decide if they're going to support, put pressure to raise taxes or those kinds of things," said Jones.

"I wouldn't want the public to think that we would use taxpayer money to do anything in support of a potential tax increase," he continued.

For most of the next two hours, trustees expressed their "disgust" for the "misguided" Sandoval and sermonized about the need for Jones and the community to work for increased revenues while "urging" people to pressure the Legislature and Sandoval.

"I don't see a solution other than seeking to increase revenues," said Edwards. "It has to be, it has to be mitigated by an increase in revenue. And, I think, I think we need the public to be talking to their legislators and to the governor specifically, to say, ‘Find a way to increase revenues.' If you can't offset all of it, let's offset 50 percent of it; let's, let's mitigate the impact of this on education."

Later, Garvey urged everyone to "get out there and start pushing these people to look for revenue."

"So, we've gotten some direction," Jones chided as trustees concluded their lengthy pontifications.

"The reality we're faced with" — he responded to trustees with sobering seriousness — is, "we still have a shortfall. ...

"The failure to get concessions ..." Jones emphasized, "is a loss of jobs." There are no two options, he concluded.

When the superintendent failed to gather children, parents and teachers — as is customary — to sing the "woe is me" song appealing for increased taxes for education, the trustees attempted an end-around.

During the May 12 school board meeting, Jeff Weiler, chief financial officer for CCSD, called forward Jeremy Aguero of Applied Analysis. Aguero's firm is a CCSD consultant who's been paid, according to CCSD warrants, over $61,000 since November 2008.

Aguero spoke for nearly an hour, proselytizing for Reconstructing Nevada, the plan of Democratic leaders in the state legislature for new service and business margin taxes, plus extension of other, sun-setting taxes. Legislative Democrats on May 10 had passed education budgets assuming that their $1.2 billion in tax increases would also pass. It didn't, and Sandoval subsequently vetoed the Democrats' May 10 education plan.

As promised, Jones recently released Phase I of his design for CCSD reform.

A Look Ahead: Phase I  Preliminary Reforms Report, Improving Achievement in the Clark County School District, strategically highlights innovation and school choice to "flatten" the district. Some key elements of the design:

  • Performance zones, the reorganization of area service centers to 12 or more performance zones with feeder-aligned schools;
  • Autonomous zone, a single autonomous zone for schools that are academically successful. Schools will have greater latitude with budgeting, staffing and program design;
  • New schools division, these include empowerment schools, charter schools and educational management organizations;
  • Growth model, a system designed to gauge how each student in grades 3-8 progresses yearly;
  • Four-tier teacher evaluation, changing from the satisfactory/unsatisfactory evaluation system to an evaluation ranking system of highly effective, effective, minimally effective and ineffective. A future element of the shift is that the performance of students (i.e., academic growth) is considered during the process of teacher evaluation.

After a short summary by Jones, trustees — being what one observer called "cautiously diplomatic" — commended Jones for his report but postponed comment on the substance until they'd had more time for review.

Two weeks later Jones helped focus board discussions with a two-part "guide" correlating key components of A Look Ahead with the board's own Ends and Governance Policies. Trustees, in stark contrast to their activity when A Few Lessons Learned was offered, stayed out of the details. Primarily they reserved their comments to praising Jones' transparency in providing the "guide."

"There will be a temptation," said Edwards, commending trustees for their reserve, "to get into the weeds with this.

"And I want to remind all of us ... that we need to stay out of that and let the work that needs to be done, be done by the superintendent. So that we can hold him accountable for the outcomes that we're looking for," she concluded. And she thanked Jones for delineating the board's role.

But for the all the praise and thanks dispensed, Policy Governance® in actuality limits the board — requiring it to direct the superintendent through broadly written policies and then allowing him to "establish all further policies, make all decisions, take all actions, establish all practices, and develop all activities" when reasonably interpreting those policies.

So Jones' "guide" for the trustees was not only a help-aid for them. It was also a tactful way of getting them out of his "weeds," drawing a clear line in the sand that pushed the trustees back into their proper role.

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