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Nevada schools superintendent resigns, gives no reason

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

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.

Updated Friday, March 29, 2013 | 6:45 p.m.

Jim Guthrie announced his resignation as Nevada superintendent overseeing the state's 17 school districts on Friday.

Guthrie — whose ideas surrounding class size reduction sparked controversy among teachers and legislators recently — did not explain his reason for leaving.

“All I can say is I’m resigning, effective immediately,” Guthrie said when reached by phone Friday afternoon. "I just cannot tell you (the reason)."

Guthrie, 76, came to town less than a year ago. His one-year anniversary would have been Tuesday.

Guthrie sent a three-sentence resignation letter to Gov. Brian Sandoval at about 2:30 p.m. Friday. The letter said he was honored to have served as superintendent of Nevada and expressed regret over his resignation.

“Thank you for having given me the opportunity to serve this state,” Guthrie said in the letter.

Sandoval issued a press release just minutes after Guthrie's announcement.

“Dr. Guthrie moved to Nevada and helped the state transition from an elected to an appointed Superintendent,” Sandoval said in a statement. “I thank him for his service to our great state and I wish him the best.”

Sandoval named Deputy Superintendent Rorie Fitzpatrick as interim superintendent. A process for appointing a permanent superintendent is forthcoming, Sandoval's press release said.

The state superintendent is appointed by the governor and reports directly to the governor. There is no term limit.

Guthrie was chosen among five candidates for the superintendent position in March 2012. Previously, the state superintendent was chosen by the state school board, but a new law gave that power to the governor.

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Guthrie became a somewhat divisive figure in an otherwise cautious administration. He was known for his bluntness and criticized for a less-than-eloquent delivery of the governor's education agenda.

During his tenure as state superintendent of public instruction, Guthrie came under fire for his school reform proposals as well as controversial comments to the public and media.

Guthrie's proposals to end automatic teacher raises, implement a new teacher evaluation system and expand charter schools were met with immense pushback from teachers union.

Guthrie also made public gaffes, most notably when he told the Reno Gazette-Journal that the Washoe County School District "looks like a dream" when compared with Clark County."

In a subsequent interview, Guthrie told the Las Vegas Sun that the governor's chief of staff called Guthrie the next morning and told him to "kiss and make up" with former Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones. Apparently, Jones was "so mad at me, he couldn't even say my name," Guthrie said.

Perhaps Guthrie's most controversial comments came when he recently suggested to state lawmakers that a high quality teacher in the classroom could handle large class sizes.

The superintendent's comments — perceived by many to be against class size reduction — were derided by many legislators, who argued class sizes, especially in Clark County, were too high. His class size comments sparked a couple of demonstrations by teachers union members in the past several weeks.

Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, said he was not surprised by Guthrie's resignation in light of his recent comments.

"Superintendent Guthrie was a bit out of step with reality in terms of class size reduction," Murillo said. "I kind of had a feeling that his wouldn't be reappointed, but didn't think he would resign."

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Guthrie’s resignation comes less than a month after Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones announced his resignation. Jones said he was leaving the nation’s fifth-largest school district to tend to his elderly mother in Dallas.

Both Jones and Guthrie were polarizing school reform figures who brought significant changes to Nevada. Guthrie and Jones were in the middle of implementing a new statewide school rating system when they announced their resignation.

Their resignations also came about halfway through a critical Legislative session where a proposal to change the state's funding formula for local school districts is being hotly debated.

While Democrats often criticized Guthrie, Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Reno, said his departure is troubling.

"I'm distressed to see a change in leadership midsession," said Smith, who chairs the influential Senate Finance Committee. "We have a lot of work to do, and we need strong leadership from in our state, and I certainly wish Dr. Guthrie well."

She said legislators are halfway through the session, and they'll be looking at the state education budget without consistency in leadership.

Smith said Fitzpatrick is a competent replacement for Guthrie.

"She's a walking encyclopedia of information, but how's she going to do it all?" Smith said. "She's great, but we still have one less set of hands and one less brain to help us."

Guthrie's departure only compounds the lack of clarity and instability of leadership that has confronted legislators as they began to craft education policy this year.

Legislators had often clashed with Guthrie, most pointedly on the issue of class-size reduction. Guthrie, however, maintained to legislators that he was only advocating for the governor's positions.

"They just shot the messenger," said a source at the Legislature familiar with the state's education system.

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Gary Peck, the executive director of the Nevada State Education Association, said he did not know Guthrie's resignation was in the works. Despite their disagreements over the past year, Peck wished Guthrie well in his future endeavors.

"While we didn't always agree with Dr. Guthrie on important education policy and reform issues, we wish him well," Peck said. "We look forward to working with Rorie Fitzpatrick."

The Clark County School District spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said the state's largest school system will continue to work with the Legislature and the governor to advocate for its priorities.

"We wish Mr. Guthrie well and will continue to work well with the (state) Department of education team and interim Superintendent Fitzpatrick," Fulkerson said in a statement.

Clark County School Board president Carolyn Edwards said Guthrie didn't have enough time to implement his ideas for changing Nevada's education system.

"He had a huge learning curve to overcome," Edwards — a former state school board president — said. "Nevada is a very diverse state with different challenges. (Guthrie) was still figuring out all the issues.

"It's unfortunate that our first (governor-)appointed superintendent had such a short time," she continued. "The timing (of his resignation) is awkward."

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On Friday, Guthrie said he hoped the best for Nevada's struggling education system, which has the worst graduation rate among states, according to the federal government.

If the state continues with his reform efforts, Nevada children "will have a better opportunity to succeed," Guthrie said, adding he has no immediate plans for his career future.

Guthrie was previously director of education policy studies at the George W. Bush Institute and served as an education scholar at Vanderbilt University and the University of Southern California. He has consulted with various governments overseas in Africa, Australia, Asia and South America, as well as authored 20 books and more than 200 scholarly articles.

Guthrie was aware of mounting pressure from his critics. In a February interview with the Las Vegas Sun's editorial board, Guthrie hinted at the precarious nature of his position as the executor of Sandoval's school reform efforts. Sandoval's press secretary did not return a call for comment on Friday afternoon.

"I told (the governor) once that if he fired me, I'd leave the way I came in," Guthrie said. "Fired with enthusiasm."

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