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July 2, 2015

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In education power play, who will benefit from leadership vacuum?

Click to enlarge photo

Nevada State Superintendent Jim Guthrie testifies in an education committee at the Legislative Building in Carson City on March 1, 2013. Guthrie told lawmakers that effective teachers trump the issue of class size. Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones is at left.

March Madness in Nevada wasn’t just for basketball.

Last month, the state’s top two education officials left their jobs in the middle of the legislative session.

The power vacuum created by Clark County School District superintendent Dwight Jones and state superintendent Jim Guthrie could mean few education reform bills appear at the Legislature, or it could offer opportunities to interest groups pushing their own agendas.

“It gives people an excuse to say, ‘Oh, that’s complicated; let’s wait,’ ” said Brian McAnallen, lobbyist for the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Who benefits from that?

“Anybody who likes the status quo and doesn’t want any decisions made and doesn’t want to move us forward,” McAnallen said.

Jones and Guthrie were known as reform-minded leaders unafraid to ruffle feathers and upset the status quo.

Education observers call their interim replacements — Pat Skorkowsky in Clark County and Rorie Fitzpatrick at the state education department — smart, well-spoken and experienced stewards.

They’re well-equipped to advocate a position, but they lack the mandate to make bold moves, legislative observers said.

“A strong voice at the helm, it’s going to be difficult not having that for them,” said Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, the state’s teachers union.

McAnallen said the teachers union stands to gain in this situation because reforms will be up against a heavy slant toward the status quo.

The teachers union holds more power this legislative session than it did last session, when Democrats partnered with Gov. Brian Sandoval to pass bills that the union opposed.

Now, the union has a guillotine hanging over the heads of the Legislature and the governor in the form of the 2 percent business margins tax that will be on the 2014 ballot.

All the revenue from that tax would support Nevada’s schools.

Warne said inaction from the Legislature and governor could “only increase support for the margins tax because the Legislature was unable to procure funding for our schools.”

“It’s the one thing guiding the entire debate in Carson City,” one legislative staffer said.

This legislative session, there seems to be more consensus among Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature and Sandoval, a Republican, that the state’s education system needs more money. It’s just a matter of how much.

Sandoval has added money to education via his budget and Republicans in the Legislature have also put forward bills to spend more for education programs.

Following cuts in education budgets during the recession, Sandoval has proposed additional education spending in two realms: programming for English-language learners and full-day kindergarten in more schools. He’s based the proposal on research that full-day kindergarten is crucial for student success and that reading levels and graduation rates won’t improve until the state invests in English classes, according to the governor’s State of the State address he delivered in January.

“The nice part is that we all agree on this education stuff,” said Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, who wants more funding than the governor.

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Elaine Wynn, shown here at a charity fundraiser in 2010.

Sandoval’s other education appointee, Elaine Wynn, also agrees that the state needs more money.

As director of the state Board of Education, she has a chance to advance education goals in Nevada this legislative session.

She’d worked as an education reformer for many years and told Desert Companion magazine that she was “going off into the sunset,” until Guthrie and Jones “met behind my back and a buzz was created. I was really taken by surprise. But I decided there was a falling into place of leadership that was all geared in the same direction, which was, ‘We’ve got to do something here.’”

Now, however, Guthrie and Jones are in Texas. Wynn is the last person standing.

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