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August 22, 2014

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Former Gov. Kenny Guinn had lasting influence on schools

Former governor also led Clark County School District, UNLV

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Former Governor Kenny Guinn is seen as a Clark County School District Administrator in a photo circa 1967.

Kenny Guinn 1936 - 2010

Former Governor Kenny Guinn is seen as a Clark County School District Administrator in a photo circa 1967. Launch slideshow »

Kenny Guinn at a glance

  • Born Aug. 24, 1936, in Garland, Ark.
  • Moved to Nevada, 1964
  • Superintendent, Clark County School District, 1969 to 1978
  • President, Nevada Savings and Loan, 1978 to 1987
  • President and chairman, PriMerit Bank, 1987 to 1988
  • Chairman and CEO, Southwest Gas, 1988 to 1997
  • Acting president, UNLV, 1994 to 1995
  • Nevada’s 27th governor, January 1999 to January 2007
  • Board member, MGM Resorts International, May 2007 to present
  • Died Thursday, age 73
  • Survived by wife, Dema, and sons Jeff and Steve
  • Shortly after serving as interim president of UNLV in 1996, Kenny Guinn learned that a young graduate student’s husband had been killed, leaving her destitute.

    He quickly organized a group of friends to help pay her tuition and living expenses so she could finish her degree, keeping his own involvement quiet.

    Guinn didn’t do it for the accolades, said Ron Smith, who served as Guinn’s provost that year and is now UNLV’s vice president for research and dean of the graduate college, but “because it was the right thing to do.”

    Smith also remembered a Board of Regents meeting in Reno when Guinn mentioned he was contemplating a run for governor.

    “He hadn’t talked about it with anybody else, and I told him, ‘Why would you want to do that? It’s crazy,’ But he did it, and he did a wonderful job.”

    Guinn’s long and varied career included nine years as superintendent of the Clark County School District, from 1969 to 1978.

    It was a period of rapid growth for the community, and there was plenty of turbulence along the way, said Brian Cram, a district administrator at the time. The district was desegregating its schools and making sure there were enough classroom seats to go around. Some of the necessary steps, such as busing and converting some campuses to double sessions and year-round schedules, weren’t popular.

    But Guinn’s enthusiasm for the work never wavered.

    “He always felt like there was a solution, and we could find it,” said Cram, who was schools superintendent from 1989 to 2000. “He was always optimistic.”

    Guinn’s contributions included establishing KLVX Channel 10, the region’s public television station, which has evolved into Vegas PBS. The School Board still holds the operating license, and it has become an invaluable resource for digital classroom instruction and community involvement.

    During his time as superintendent, Guinn was known for walking the halls of the Greer Education Center on East Flamingo Road in the morning hours, making sure staff had shown up on time. But even those spot-checks were tempered by his good-natured manner.

    On visits to schools he greeted everyone by name, from the custodian to the principal, and always knew something about them, Cram said.

    “I was always amazed by his encyclopedic knowledge of every facet of the district,” Cram said.

    Over the years Guinn remained an important resource for the superintendents who followed him, offering insights on governmental relations and the challenges of the job. He was also actively involved in bolstering public support for school bond measures.

    “I can’t imagine what we’ll do without him,” said Joyce Haldeman, associate superintendent of community and government relations. “It’s a huge loss for the education community, as well as the state.”

    It was Gov. Guinn who urged the state’s 17 school district superintendents to work together in advance of the 2003 legislative session, rather than each coming to Carson City with a separate wish list for funding.

    “I told them it was imperative that you develop a cohesive program that will give people a look at what your priorities are,” Guinn told the Sun in a 2007 interview. “You can’t wait until the (legislative) session, when the budget has already been put together. They took the constructive criticism very well.”

    As a result, the “iNVest Plan” — a statewide blueprint for education policy and reform endorsed by all of the districts and the Nevada Education Department — was created.

    “We made progress with iNVest because Kenny Guinn stimulated that sense of unity,” Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes said. “He set us on a much better path of cooperation.”

    Carol Harter followed Guinn at UNLV after being appointed the university’s president in February 1995. In the months until she took office that July, Harter spent many hours talking with Guinn and becoming familiar with the state’s higher education governance structure and the issues that awaited her. She was in New York at the time, and Guinn’s help significantly reduced her learning curve, Harter said.

    She worked closely with Guinn on the Millennium Scholarship, and noted that the then-governor was involved in all stages of the discussion, from the eligibility criteria to how it would be marketed to the public.

    Rulffes remembers the announcement of the Millennium Scholarships — which encouraged strong students to attend in-state colleges and universities — as “jaw-dropping” for Nevada educators. The expectation had been that the state’s tobacco settlement money would be used for health care, but Guinn argued that the community’s interests would be better served in the long run by having a more educated populace.

    “This was a stunning incentive for parents and students as well as a truly unique recruiting tool for Nevada’s higher ed system,” Rulffes said. “Gov. Guinn displayed his usual prudence by using the money for prevention rather than treatment.”

    As a result of Guinn’s leadership, nearly 24,000 students have received Millennium Scholarships to UNLV alone.

    “Kenny Guinn considered the Millennium Scholarships his most important legacy, and rightfully so,” Harter said. “He knew how important it would be to the individual students, and to the state of Nevada. He truly was the education governor.”

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