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April 19, 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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  1. Half the state board only won because Elaine Wynn endorsed and bank rolled their campaign with obscene amounts of money. That doesn't create a "half elected board," it creates a "half bought board," with the other half being appointed by even more elected officials that big business has bank rolled.

    Even Guthrie isn't qualified or experienced to run things. He is a highly partisan economist not an education expert.

  2. Legislators keep painting us into corners obligating and spending our tax revenue without any hind of stewardship, prioritization, cost-effectiveness. Another poorly written BDR (why do we pay LCB?) became another INEFFECTIVE STATUTE. Further, the administration of the SD's simply have NO EXCUSE for callously ignoring the OBLIGATIONS they have to Nevada taxpayers. ENOUGH. Privatize K-12. Start now by funding vouchers and expand on that each and every Legislative session. In the mean time, IF any SD gets it together, we can re-consider. America has been doing K-12 for decades and we can't find any best practices? We can't teach students to read, write, calculate? We must spend upwards of $16K per student and get no return on investment?

  3. What did they say? "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."

    All the position shuffling has left education in Nevada a mess! High turnover rates due to those either leaving a position for a higher (paying) position, or leaving the state or profession, due to the Nevada Lawmakers not funding education in this state in a SUSTAINABLE AND CONSISTENT manner. All this does have a "trinkle down effect" into our Nevada classrooms, with lower academic and social performance. How's that working out?

    All this chaos kills motivation and morale with school employees. Programs get started (at great expense, resources, and effort), only to be cancelled for the next school year. The top down management system has virtually alienated parent involvement at schools, whereas parents don't feel any kind of ownership with their neighborhood school their child attends.

    These are NOT "growning pains" as the Governor suggests, these are real problems of politically legislating laws that were NOT thought through, nor funded! Come on, take some responsibility on that and not dismiss the problem!

    The Citizens of Nevada should be outraged over this, but half of them aren't literate enough to follow such events in the news. Educators simply throw their hands in the air and say, "There's nothing we can do about the students' homes/parents" and keep hitting their heads on the wall, doing the same worthless solution over and over and getting the same results (what? the definition of insanity?).

    If we want Nevada education to work, we ALL must participate and make it happen.

    A parent is a child's first and lifelong teacher.

    Blessings and Peace,

  4. Ive sat through hours of legislative meetings this session.

    Tons of programs have not been funded because of -- lack of funds. Dropped especially in Vegas because the Nevada Plan unfairly redistributed Vegas money to northern schools. And we dont have a ton of mining proceeds funds to add to our DSA amount like many northern counties receive too.

    Class size reduction has been ignored. A law for 24 years. When will this be funded and implemented?

    English Language Learners have been ignored. $175 million would be required to begin to support 95,000 students in Clark County.

    The sequester is supposed to take $9 million in federal money from Nevada affecting mainly special education.

    We have 400 openings STILL. In a district that just won an arbitration based on an expressed willingness to hire more teachers - which has not happened yet. We are going to spend a lot of money to travel and recruit teachers from across the USA. Instead if retaining ANYONE - we destroy working conditions with "reform".

    Im not understanding the rush to implement Michelle Rhee reform by a democrat? Michelle Rhee's Student's First Organization contributed in Nevada to extreme conservative candidates - instead of donating to great education advocates like Joyce Woodhouse. Yep money to Woodhouse's opponent.

    So things are tight. But we need to hurry up and implement a pay for performance system? Where exactly has such a system worked? What is the formula thst has been developed that would be fair? Who will be evaluated- Art, PE, Music, Library, Computer, Special Education teachers -- will be evaluated how? We are only going to use standardized test scores? When have such scores ever been fair to minority students? Or students of poverty?

    How about Debbie Smith implements this in her own district. And sees what happens first. Before we oppress three-quarters of the state's children and teachers with this ALEC sponsored legislation. Keep your rural school improvement ideas in Reno until they aren't half-baked anymore.

    Our urban school district is also tired of non-funded reform. Vegas money should stay in Vegas -- and then we can see if money isn't the real issue after all.