Monday, Aug. 25, 2014 | 2 a.m.
When the school bells ring this morning, 320,000 students will march back into the classroom a bundle of nerves and excitement, ready to start another year of school.
It also will mark the second full year for Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky. This year, Skorkowsky will have his hands full with projects and goals to improve a district that routinely ranks toward the bottom of national academic standings.
Here are five challenges and initiatives to watch out for this school year:
Time is running out for kids to hide what they’re up to in school from their parents. The School District is launching a new data system called Infinite Campus that tracks every facet of a student’s education and makes it available online to parents. Parents will receive real-time notifications about their child’s grades and class attendance, along with notification of any bullying incidents at their child's school. Teachers will update it live like a grade book, and administrators can use it to instantly see student proficiency scores to determine who is on track to graduate and what remedial classes are needed, among other uses.
“It has a great way of communicating across the system, which is something we’ve needed for a long time,” Skorkowsky said.
The program is expected to help engage parents who can’t make it to the classroom and increase communication about students among administrators, teachers and parents. The system has been launched for teachers, and the district is working to make it accessible to parents Sept. 30.
Schools are about to get even more crowded this year with an expected 320,000 students on the first day of school, which will be 4,000 more than last year. While that’s a positive sign that Las Vegas’ economy is growing again, it strains an already overcrowded school district, Skorkowsky said. The biggest area of concern is at the elementary school level, which is 17.9 percent over capacity. As a result, 10 more elementary schools will be going to a year-round schedule.
The district also added seven more magnet programs at schools allowing students to attend from across the valley, which would ease overcrowding in some areas. A plan to transform vacant strip malls and buildings for school activities is also being discussed and could be unveiled to the School Board on Sept. 3. Still, with the population growing, overcrowding will continue to be a problem for Skorkowsky and the district.
Last year, the School District had a maintenance meltdown when both air conditioning units at Durango High School broke down the first week of September. The incident caused classes to be canceled for a day and a half and highlighted the impact of deferred maintenance after years of budget cuts during the recession. The district was able to hire 17 air conditioning maintenance workers this summer, but it still faces several deteriorating schools like Bell Elementary School and Smith and Fremont middle schools, with little funds to upgrade them.
District officials have assembled a list of $3.5 billion in building and repair projects they say are needed to extend the life of older schools and reduce crowding. But because of budget limitations, they'll be able to spend less than a tenth of that amount over the next few years.
Once again, there is a teacher drought in Clark County. The district will start the year with more than 600 teacher vacancies. Even though more than 1,500 teachers were hired to start the year, the School District has struggled to fill its open positions. Part of the reason is due to a lack of available teachers. The pipeline of teachers graduating from UNLV has dwindled, while out-of-state schools are hiring the teachers the district often targets. Meanwhile, the district can’t keep up with the amount of teachers leaving. Since Aug. 4, there have been 150 unexpected teacher retirements or resignations.
As a result, schools have had to turn to Plan B — filling the positions with long-term substitute teachers. The subs were given new teacher training to start the year and have mentors to help ease the transition.
While Skorkowsky continues to work with business members in the community to use its budget more efficiently, he said the district still needs more money. One of the district’s main priorities heading into the legislative session will be to push for a new funding formula, with Skorkowsky contending the current formula takes money Clark County needs and distributes it to other school districts. The district will also push for new sources of funding whether that is through the margins tax or other means.
“We know it needs to come with new money. If not, it could hurt our rural counterparts, and that’s not my intent,” Skorkowsky said. “We have been sending much more money than we get back, out for too long and we can’t afford to let that happen.”