Nevada’s Clark County school system, the nation’s fifth largest, with more than 318,000 students, could be broken up into smaller districts under a new state law that is raising major questions about how to reorganize a rapidly changing urban system.
The law—signed last month by Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican—authorizes setting up two committees to spearhead the district’s reorganization by the 2018-19 school year.
Supporters say the reorganization would streamline services and improve communications between administrators and parents in a sprawling district of 357 schools that spans 8,000 square miles across 15 municipalities, including the city of Las Vegas, and unincorporated areas.
But among the questions that remain for critics: How will the new district lines be drawn? How will real estate assets and debt held by the Clark County district be divided? Will students be able to attend any magnet school of their choice? Will the reorganization create a set of districts of haves and have-nots? And more immediately, how will the law affect the Clark County district’s plan to issue $4 billion in bonds to build new schools and retrofit others to keep up with growing student enrollment?
Pat Skorkowsky, Clark County’s superintendent, said that a reorganization is worth considering if it results in “a better way of doing business,” without creating barriers for children.
“I think it’s important that this work be carefully considered so that it does not have unintended consequences on the classroom and students in the classroom,” he said.
Mr. Skorkowsky would not say outright that he opposes the plan. But he made clear that he’s worried about what a major shakeup in the urban district would mean for its majority population of Hispanic, African-American, Asian, and low-income students.
Better Student Outcomes?
For example, he said drawing new district lines could create majority-minority districts or districts of a single race or ethnicity. A reorganization could also affect students’ ability to attend magnet schools of their choice and could possibly disrupt the district’s ability to adhere to a federal desegregation order.
Finally, the superintendent said there’s little evidence at this early stage that a reorganization or breakup would improve student outcomes.
“All the research across the nation does not show that breaking up a school district is going to increase student achievement,” he said. “All the research shows that it’s what happens in the classrooms, and the schools, that makes a difference.”
Worried about the financial implications of the proposal, district officials sought guidance from Moody’s Investors Service. While Moody’s did not downgrade the district’s A1 credit rating, the agency said in an analysis that the uncertainty over the law—including the lack of clarity about the number of districts that would eventually emerge from the reorganization and what the nature of the relationships among those districts and Clark County schools—would be could negatively affect the district’s $2.5 billion in outstanding debt and its approximately $4 billion in planned school construction bonds.
Mr. Skorkowsky said the district would proceed with its building plans and cooperate with state officials as the reorganization work unfolds.
The proposal to break up the state’s largest school system was first mentioned this year in Gov. Sandoval’s heavily education-focused State of-the-State speech in January, when he touted numerous efforts to upgrade Nevada’s education system. But efforts to break up the district—one of the fastest growing in the nation—have been attempted at various times since the 1970s. Officials in Henderson, an affluent city of about 257,000 residents, have sought for years to create its own district, and the city council passed a resolution supporting this year’s efforts.
Republican Assemblyman David Gardner, who represents a portion of Las Vegas and who pushed the bill through the Assembly, said research showing that students in smaller districts tended to perform better academically prompted him to act.
“I don’t really think that the Clark County school district is purposefully hurting our kids,” he said. “It’s just that when you’re representing 320,000 kids in one organization, it’s hard to actually have that kind of connection with your kids.”
State Sen. Pat Spearman, a Democrat whose district includes North Las Vegas, said the bill was pushed through the Senate too hastily without enough debate. Her chief concern echoes that of the superintendent’s: the possibility that residents in lower-income communities will be relegated to schools that won’t have the same resources as those in higher-income communities.
“It seems like it’s going right back to pre-Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kan., and [the Supreme Court] determined that separate is not equal,” she said, referring to the landmark school desegregation case. “I think it’s setting the same scenario up, and I don’t agree with it.”
Ms. Spearman said the legislature should have waited to see the effects of the education initiatives that passed in this year’s session, including sending $25 million a year to underperforming schools in the poorest ZIP codes.
Mr. Gardner said the law includes safeguards against a reorganization that would establish majority-minority districts, or districts that would be disproportionately wealthier than others. The idea, he said, was not to create districts or precincts that must mirror municipal lines but districts that make sense to the committee members.
“They’ll be looking at where all of our poverty areas [are], where we have racial imbalances, those kinds of things,” he said. “We are going to draw up some fair lines.”
The law also says that the committee must “ensure equity” in the reorganization of the district and also consider the allocation of resources for capital projects, school programs, and students.
Additionally, Mr. Gardner said, the advisory committee—a nine-member body that will be comprised of lawmakers from both houses who represent municipalities in Clark County—will consider input from the community. The technical-advisory committee, which will advise the main committee, will include representatives from the state board of education, local governments, the teachers’ union, the Urban Chamber of Commerce, the Latin Chamber of Commerce, the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce, and a parent or guardian of a Clark County student, he said.
Mr. Gardner anticipates that the districts will continue to raise local funds as they do now and forward the money to the Clark County district, which will then distribute them back to the districts or precincts on a per-pupil basis.
He acknowledged however, that there is nothing in the new law that precludes a property-rich district or precinct from raising additional money for its local schools.
A version of this article appeared in the July 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as Nev. Moves to Split Clark Co. District