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July 28, 2015

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School District: Race to the Top money not worth the effort

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Justin M. Bowen / File photo

The Clark County School District administration building in Las Vegas.

The cash-strapped Clark County School District is expected to forgo a pursuit of millions of dollars in federal grant money because it has too many strings attached.

This month, the $4 billion Race to the Top grant program opened its latest round of funding to individual school districts for the first time in its three-year history. Previously, only state education departments were eligible to apply for the grant, which rewarded states for implementing innovations supported by President Barack Obama. Nevada is not a Race to the Top state.

School districts across the country are eligible to apply for $400 million in Race to the Top funding, with each four-year grant worth $15-25 million. Final deadline to send in grant applications to the feds is set for October.

With only 15 to 20 school districts across the country anticipated to win the multimillion-dollar grants, the competition is expected to be fierce.

However, the School District doesn’t seem too interested in participating in what one School Board member likened to “mud-wrestling.”

That’s because the grant is too restrictive and potential for failing to meet its requirements is too high for a large urban district like Clark County, officials said Wednesday during a special work session.

These requirements include creating a “personalized learning environment” — an individualized learning goal and plan — for each student in the pilot program, in Clark County’s case about 10,000 students. The grant also requires that a teacher, principal, superintendent and school board evaluation system be implemented by 2014-15.

There is also an expectation that school districts scale up these innovations after the Race to the Top pilot program ends, said Kimberly Wooden, chief student services officer.

That could prove difficult for Clark County, which – as the fifth-largest school district in the nation– serves 309,000 students.

“It’s a great idea, but in order to bring it to scale in a district our size, it may require technology,” Wooden said, adding there may be additional costs incurred to the School District to implement this technology.

Furthermore, for all its troubles, the School District may receive just $6 million a year in Race to the Top money, officials said. The School District operates on a $2 billion annual budget.

“My concern is that a grant, once awarded, becomes a contract,” School Board member Erin Cranor said. “Sounds like selling your soul for $6 million.”

States such as Georgia and Hawaii that have failed to meet the grant requirements now face heavy sanctions — a fate School District officials say they don’t want to fall on Las Vegas.

“I just have real concerns. I already feel that we have so many mandates on us,” School Board member Deanna Wright said. “No, let’s keep on our course. Let someone else mud-wrestle for $6 million.”

School Board member Chris Garvey agreed: “Let’s continue on our path. Look for money without a lot of strings on it.”

Superintendent Dwight Jones, who was on vacation during Wednesday’s work session, has the option to submit an application that is to the School District’s benefit, said Cranor, who has experience as a grant-writer. The federal government is likely to reject the application; however, there is a small chance the money could be awarded to Clark County, she said.

The School District currently has about $20 million in federal grants, including more than $8 million in School Improvement Grant, or “turnaround,” money.

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