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October 13, 2015

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Who’s in charge of education in Nevada?

Confusion and miscommunication have thwarted hopes for reform

It could have been a "Beauty and the Beast" story of unlikely love.

In 2011, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval joined the Democratic legislative leadership — your call who’s beauty and who’s beast — in an effort to turn around Nevada’s failing education system by passing a number of education reforms for which they could both be proud.

It’s a nice story, but good intentions don’t always make for picture-perfect endings.

Last week, Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, noted with resignation that school districts simply did not follow through with a key provision of one education reform bill.

“We actually didn’t get the district plans done,” she said in a legislative committee hearing.

The law said that “the board of trustees of each school district shall establish a program of performance pay” for teachers within the bounds of the state collective bargaining law.

If they had followed the law, school districts should have defined the parameters of a performance pay program that would have included a plan for tying teachers’ salary increases to their annual evaluations. The plan wouldn’t get money right away, but the district plans were supposed to fit into a larger statewide plan that would have been funded this year.

The missteps on performance pay, however, hint at a broader communication breakdown between the various branches and subdivisions of government in charge of education during the 20-month gap between legislative sessions.

The jumbled bureaucracy governing education in Nevada has long been a complaint of those seeking to improve public schools.

The bipartisan education reforms in 2011 were supposed to roll a complicated organizational hierarchy into a tight chain of command with Sandoval in charge, but high turnover and the inherent reshuffling of duties under the new laws has led to confusions such as the performance pay matter.

It’s a problem that has surfaced in several education hearings at the Legislature and was explicitly acknowledged by state Superintendent James Guthrie earlier this month when he described the relationship between his department and a revamped Board of Education as “untraveled, untested ground.”

“That has become very apparent as we’ve gone through this session,” Smith said.

The failure of school districts to comply with the pay-for-performance planning requirement resulted in a frenzied finger-pointing session.

School district officials said the state did not put any money into funding the performance-pay programs, so some school districts assumed that they didn’t have to create the system.

“Statewide, the resources have not been set aside,” said Pedro Martinez, Washoe County School District superintendent.

Washoe implemented a limited pay-for-performance model via a federal grant, but Smith said the district still didn’t follow mandates to get a state-level plan in place so that money could neatly transition when a performance-pay council established under another 2011 law finished its work.

Clark County School District also has a district-sponsored pay-for-performance model at some schools, but its administrators did not submit any report to the Legislature pursuant to the 2011 law.

“It was a matter of miscommunication,” said Joyce Haldeman, associate superintendent for the district.

The district is waiting for recommendations from the Sandoval-established state council, said Pat Skorkowsky, interim superintendent for the Clark County School District.

Haldeman said she was “mortified” when she first learned at the legislative hearing last week that districts had not submitted plans.

At that hearing, Smith asked the state Department of Education why there was no follow-through after the bill became law in 2011.

“I would have thought it would have been a given for the Department (of Education) to, you know, be following this state-level legislation to make sure the plans were done,” she said.

Instead, nobody was tracking the legislation, she said.

Testifying at the committee was Rorie Fitzpatrick, a senior administrator for the department.

“There was no legislatively authorized role for the Department of Education within the scope of that work,” she told Smith. “I wouldn’t be the one to speak to whether or not districts followed through or not.”

The bill instructs districts to make plans, but Smith said the department could have helped shepherd along the process without a law telling it to do so.

Meanwhile, Guthrie, the state superintendent, was planning to stall the district-level plans until Sandoval’s Teachers and Leaders Council developed a pilot program for performance pay.

“We will start a two-year pilot program around the Teacher Leader Council evaluation system,” he said in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun last week. “I want to proceed cautiously but progressively.”

Noting that he was just hired in April, Guthrie pleaded ignorance to the 2011 reforms and apologized to Smith during the hearing.

Guthrie isn’t the only new face to the state’s education world, a fact that has exacerbated the growing pains of the new governance structure.

Martinez in Washoe County was hired in June, and former Clark County School District superintendent Dwight Jones made it two years before resigning this month.

The state’s new board of education, established under another Sandoval 2011 education reform, first met at the tail end of 2012.

“We should all be concerned about the current lack of stability and longevity in these top positions,” Smith said. “We have people who are smart and capable, but we need to be able to retain people.”

The Sandoval administration said reform doesn’t happen all at once and that growing pains should be expected.

“Implementing the reforms is a process — while some reforms have begun, others are still in transition — and we look forward to continuing to focus on the governor’s primary goal: improving education for all of our state’s children,” said Mary-Sarah Kinner, spokeswoman for Sandoval.

After the 2011 reforms, Sandoval now appoints the superintendent and three members of the state board of education. The remaining four members of the board are elected.

The hybrid board results in split allegiances, which can be confusing, said Elaine Wynn, chairwoman of the board and a Sandoval appointee.

“I am accountable to the governor; electeds are accountable to a district. ... It makes it sort of awkward,” said Wynn, a veteran education advocate and a director of Wynn Resorts. “We have brought it up as an issue with the governor’s staff.”

The new board has yet to assert itself into legislative business.

“The biggest issue with the governance structure is the elected state board doesn’t appear to have authority or autonomy, and yet half of them are elected and half of them are appointed by people who are elected,” Smith said.

As the law reads now, the board has a “very modest” regulatory authority but potentially has more power, Guthrie said.

“If one stopped there, it would be an understatement because when you’ve got an individual with the luminosity of Elaine Wynn, you’ve got a tremendous bully pulpit,” Guthrie said.

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