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Superintendent passionate in defense of $250K-a-year consultant

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Leila Navidi

Ken Turner, special assistant to the superintendent, participates in a discussion after a screening of the education documentary “Waiting for Superman” at the Greenspun Media Group building in Henderson Wednesday March 30, 2011.

Updated Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 | 7:46 p.m.

Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones vehemently defended his $250,000-a-year consultant, whose initial one-year contract went before the School Board for a third time Wednesday.

Shortly after he was hired two years ago, Jones tapped Ken Turner to serve in his cabinet as "special assistant to the superintendent."

Turner, a Harvard-educated consultant, has more than 30 years of experience in national and international school-reform efforts, including three years as deputy commissioner under Jones, a former commissioner of education in Colorado.

During his first two years in Clark County, Turner was instrumental in bringing the Colorado "growth model" – a new measure of student achievement – to Nevada. Turner was also the architect of the School District's new school rating system and assisted the state education department in seeking Nevada's waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

As Jones' confidential adviser, Turner helped the superintendent craft his reform agenda, including his "Look Ahead" white papers outlining yearly goals. Turner also served on several advisory committees that looked at ways to improve the district's 30 empowerment schools and to close the district's high achievement gap for minority students.

Turner's consulting fee was paid for in previous years with private donations from the Lincy Foundation and the UCLA Dream Fund.

Turner's salary is second highest in the district, eclipsed only by Jones' public salary of about $396,200 a year, including benefits, according to website TransparentNevada.com. Turner's pay over the past two years did not include any benefits, liability insurance or travel expenses, but has included two $50,000 "relocation" payments, even though Turner already lived in Las Vegas before starting his second year.

Turner was also provided office space and assistance from one of Jones' secretaries, whose $65,200 annual salary comes out of the district’s general fund. Last year, Turner also received help from two of Jones' apprentices, who each were paid $80,000, without benefits, from the Lincy Foundation.

Jones recently requested Turner to stay on for a third year, which would be made possible through a donation from the Windsong Trust. The district refused to release details about Turner's new $250,000 contract, saying it is "pretty stringent about not giving out contract prior to them being 'final,'" according to district spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson.

The Clark County School Board was expected to vote Wednesday on Turner's new contract, but decided to postpone its decision to Feb. 14 after an intense debate. The board must approve any consultant fees over $50,000 during a public meeting.

The majority of the School Board seemed to support approving a third year for Turner, especially because his fees would not impact the taxpayer-funded general fund budget. No one on the board took issue with Turner's quality and quantity of work.

"I think Dr. Turner's guidance has not only been helpful to the superintendent, but the district," School Board member Deanna Wright said. "He has delivered things on time, and most of the time under budget."

However, School Board members Chris Garvey and Linda Young raised concerns about the continuous renewal of Turner's consulting contracts.

"He's been very helpful in moving the district forward," Garvey said. "But what is the length of time we need for Dr. Turner's expertise? We need to have an idea: How long is this going on?"

Garvey also echoed complaints she had heard from employees about Turner allegedly giving directives to district staff. As a consultant, Turner has no authority over district employees, Garvey said, adding she would like to see a better delineation of duties in a new contract.

Young argued consultants ought to serve the district for a short period of time, and must transfer their knowledge to district staffers so they can continue the consultant's work on their own.

"I'm not opposed to you at all, just the process," Young said, addressing Turner. "How do we get to a point where we don't need consultants?"

Jones, in a rare, public torrent of emotions responded, to Garvey and Young. The superintendent launched into a 20-minute, full-fledged defense of Turner with a rising voice and animated hand gestures.

Jones argued the School Board raised fair questions but said to change a low-performing school system, he needed his former deputy's "level of expertise" to rebuild and redesign the nation's fifth-largest school system.

Jones argued Nevada wouldn't have its No Child Left Behind waiver from the federal government or a new school ranking system without Turner, praising his "loyalty" to the district.

Jones said he needed Turner to continue the work he's started, including melding the district and state's school-rating systems and fine-tuning the growth model.

"(Turner) brings a unique set of talents that we still don't have in the system," Jones said. "This is a finite set of skills that has helped the district and the state. I have tremendous respect for him."

Turner is the only consultant brought from Colorado to Clark County, Jones said. To save taxpayer money, Jones said he was adamant Turner's salary be paid with private money.

"I am one of the most fiscally conservative superintendents in the country," Jones said, his voice rising.

After the meeting ended, Fulkerson –- the district's spokeswoman –- issued an email reiterating Jones' points.

"Let's be frank – a generation of kids have been failed by this District. Mr. Jones cannot do this alone. He needs the community's support and fellow experts to come in and help with this massive undertaking," Fulkerson said in the email. "You would not hire a brain surgeon based on who is cheap and easily accessible - so why would we risk getting anything but the best when it comes to the public education for hundreds of thousands of kids in this Valley?"

Turner said he was a bit puzzled by the dissension on the board over his contract.

"I'm not sure if I understand why this is coming up, but the community is entitled to it," Turner said. "They're elected officials with constituents. We're all trying to do the right thing.

Although he initially proposed to stay about two years, Turner said he would like to continue to work in Clark County. Turner said the School Board should consider whether his contract renewal is a legally, fiscally and educationally sound idea before voting.

Turner said he was confident he could find another job if board members did not renew his contract at the Feb. 14 meeting.

"I think I'm employable," he said.

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