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October 6, 2015

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If parents had their way: What they want in the next schools superintendent

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Dwight Jones, the Clark County School Superintendent, is photographed in his office Thursday, January 20, 2011.

The next superintendent of the Clark County School District should know the challenges facing education in Las Vegas well, parents told School Board members Tuesday night.

About 30 parents and community members attended a public forum at Bonanza High School to voice their opinions on a variety of education topics, such as the district's legislative agenda. However, the discussion quickly turned to the topic of the district's efforts to find Superintendent Dwight Jones' replacement.

Jones, who abruptly announced his resignation two weeks ago, is leaving the district on Friday — midway through his four-year contract — to care for his elderly mother. Last week, the School Board appointed Deputy Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky as interim superintendent, and approved contract negotiations for an executive search firm to conduct a national search for a new permanent superintendent.

The School Board is expected to vote on a contract with McPherson & Jacobson on Thursday. In 2010, the board paid $60,000 to the Omaha-based firm, which vetted and returned with three candidates, including Jones.

The board also will conduct several public forums to receive input on qualities of a good superintendent for Las Vegas.

Many people attending the parent meeting Tuesday wanted School Board members to hire locally. Community members seemed to want a superintendent who knows Las Vegas well, would engage parents to get involved in schools and will remain loyal to the community. Many were supportive of keeping Skorkowsky on as superintendent.

"We need continuity in this district," said parent Meryl Grant, who has two children at Clark High School. "We don't need a revolving door. We need to think about longevity."

Justin Howard, a 2004 Las Vegas Academy graduate and UNLV senior, said there are plenty of talented Nevadans who are qualified and willing to lead the nation's fifth-largest school district.

"We should be able to find someone here," Howard said. "We need to focus our attention here."

Even an insider could bring fresh ideas from other places to Las Vegas, said parent Paula Barton, who has two children in the district.

"We need someone who is familiar with the School District," Barton said. "We want another Brian Cram (a Las Vegas High School graduate who was superintendent for 11 years)."

Others weren't so sure about hiring an insider.

Michael Hollis, a former Liberty High School coach, said he would like a superintendent who has classroom experience, but possesses "young ideas" to improve the lot of children in Las Vegas.

"We need to open this thing as wide as possible," he said. "Look at our kids — they can't compete at the national level."

Paul Moradkhan, the director of government affairs with the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, commended the School Board for looking nationally for its next superintendent. Last week, the chamber said it was open to contributing money for the search firm should the board require assistance.

The chamber's 6,000 business members want well-educated Clark County graduates to hire as employees, Maradkhan said.

School Board President Carolyn Edwards defended the board's decision to conduct a national search. Edwards said she encourages local candidates to apply for the position, but said the board has an obligation to choose its next superintendent from among the best candidates across the nation.

"Just because we are doing a search doesn't mean that we are not interested in local people," Edwards said. "We have a responsibility to our constituents to look at the whole pool."

Black and Latino activists said the district needs a superintendent who understands the unique challenges facing students in the minority-majority school district.

Clark County Democratic Black Caucus chairwoman Yvette Williams said Jones — the district's second black superintendent — did more for minority students in his two years in Las Vegas than any other superintendent who stayed longer. Under Jones' tenure, the district looked at ways to improve schools in the historically disadvantaged neighborhood of West Las Vegas and started to look at ways to curb the high rate of suspensions and expulsions of its black students.

"For the first time in a long time, we had hope," Williams said. "We are very much concerned that this is going to go away. All of our children deserve the same quality education."

Jose Solorio, a former School Board member and a Latino activist with Si Se Puede, said the district needs a superintendent who will address the needs of Las Vegas' burgeoning population of English-language learners. Nevada is one of three states that doesn't provide dedicated state funding for its 76,500 ELL students.

"The next superintendent needs experience in dealing with ELL students and the Latino community," Solorio said. "We also need someone with the courage to say we need more funding."

Political organizer Fernando Romero with Hispanics in Politics said the School District needs a leader who has a background in special education.

"We haven't had a superintendent focused on special education," said Romero, who has a son with autism. "We have a number of people here who are capable of doing the job and know our community well."

After the meeting, Edwards said she was encouraged by the turnout and discussion over the superintendent search. School Board members — most of whom were in attendance at Tuesday's meeting — will take the public comments into consideration when choosing the next superintendent, Edwards said.

"It's good for us to hear people's input," Edwards said. "It's clear they want someone who is invested in the community."

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