New Plan Would Keep Nevada’s Sprawling Clark Co. District Intact

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A year after state lawmakers gave the green light to break up the nation's fifth largest school district—Nevada's Clark County schools—a new plan has emerged that would keep the sprawling system intact.

Rather than split the approximately 320,400-student district into a number of smaller entities, the committee charged with reorganizing Clark County schools is now proposing to give much broader authority over how the schools are managed to principals.

In a way, the district will be resurrecting and expanding a successful, but short-lived, program it ran starting in the 2006-07 school year, when a select number of school principals were given expanded autonomy as part of an "empowerment schools" model. Empowerment schools' students scored higher in state English/Language Arts and math tests than before the schools adopted the model, according to the state legislature.

Breaking Up the Bureaucracy

Site-based school management that combines expanded principal autonomy with additional parent and community involvement is not exactly new. Districts such as Chicago and Denver use governance models that allow principals to control significant portions of their schools' budgets.

Clark County schools has been one of the fastest-growing large school systems for years. The effort to possibly break up the district was a response to years of pent-up frustration from parents and Clark County residents, particularly those who live in suburban and rural municipalities. They argued that the district, which encompasses 15 municipalities, including Las Vegas, had become a mammoth bureaucracy that was not responding to the needs of students and parents.

Though the plan to put principals in charge of key decisions is a departure from the original idea of a district break-up, it's been well-received. But it has also opened up a new round of questions, including whether the district's school leaders will have the skills needed to succeed.

Principals in Charge

Under a proposal to reorganize Nevada’s Clark County school district, the system’s more than 300 principals would be responsible for hiring and firing teachers and other staff members, budgeting, and selecting services their schools need from the central office. The district’s central office, meanwhile, would shrink, but remain in charge of payroll, labor negotiations, and accounting.

The union that represents Clark County principals and administrators for example, wants assurances that principals will be able to hire and fire staff members without interference from their bosses. Some parents expressed concerns that nothing in the plan speaks directly to the needs of students with disabilities or English-language learners, who make up a significant part of the district's enrollment. The principals' union also told the committee it wanted safeguards that would prevent the district from returning to a system that allows central office employees to place teachers and other staff in schools against principals' wishes.

Lisa Mayo-DeRiso, a member of Break Free CCSD, a grassroots organization that initially wanted the district to be broken up, is excited about the proposal, which she thinks could transform education in Clark County.

"At the end of the day, if we can graduate more kids, send those that want to go to college to college, those that want a vocation to a vocational school … and make the educational experience better for those kids, then we have done our job," she said.

The proposal was crafted by Michael Strembitsky, a former superintendent of the Edmonton school system in Canada's Alberta province, who popularized site-based school management in the 1970s.

Strembitsky's proposal calls for a smaller central office in Clark County that would retain control over things like payroll, labor negotiations, and accounting.

Principals, however, would be responsible for "the entire school operation," including hiring and firing teachers and staff members. Importantly, they would control 85 percent of their schools' budgets and would be able to purchase services, such as equipment and supplies, as needed, from the central office.

Funding for schools would also be allocated on a per-pupil basis, with a weighted-student formula applied for those with special needs, including low-income students, English-language learners, and students with disabilities.

Additionally, a school organization team, comprised of the principal, parents, and teachers, would help set goals and objectives. The superintendent would still hire and fire them.

Shift Away From Break-Up Plan

The evolution from possible breakup to decentralization occurred over the course of the year, during which a legislative committee embarked on a series of meetings and hearings with experts, parents, teachers, students, and Clark County residents and elected officials.

John Vellardita, the executive director of the Clark County Education Association, which represents the district's teachers, said the breakup push was fueled by the assumption that a large bureaucracy like Clark County was failing at its core mission: educating students.

"We said, rather than talk about what the organizational form should be in the school district ... let's talk about what's the optimal education delivery system that we can create that will be conducive to greater student outcomes," he said.

The Strembitsky plan would not address some of the district's highly segregated demographics, but the weighted-student formula would funnel more money to schools that enroll large numbers of students with greater needs, such as English-learners and low-income students, said Nancy E. Brune, the executive director of the bipartisan Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, a Nevada think tank. One potential challenge of the new proposal, Brune points out, is whether the district has a large enough supply of principals capable of taking on the greater responsibilities.

"We have a lot of work to do in making sure we have the right people leading those schools," she said. "I feel like we need to have a parallel conversation [about] the system of developing principals as we roll out this plan."

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And Antonio Rael, a principal who runs a turnaround school, and Katie Decker, the principal of three schools, testified to the advisory committee that while the plan was predicated on the leadership at the school level, principals had not been formally included in the process that led up to the drafting of the proposal.

Michael Roberson, a state senator who is the chairman of the reorganization committee, said the panel will continue to refine its proposal based on the feedback and that he hopes to have a final plan ready for consideration by the end of the month. The proposal must be subjected to at least six public hearings before the advisory committee approves it.

Vol. 35, Issue 37, Page 6

Published in Print: August 3, 2016, as Clark County, Nev., Plan Shifts to Decentralization
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