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October 25, 2014

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Skorkowsky woos business community with talk of greater transparency, educational gains

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CCSD Superintendant Pat Skorkowsky addresses the crowd, including Station Casinos executives, staff and partner schools principals during the CCSD Smart Start School Partners’ Breakfast at Green Valley Ranch Resort on Friday, Oct. 4, 2013.

Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky urged local business leaders today to partner with him to create a new vision for the Clark County School District.

In his first major speech to business leaders, Skorkowsky called for more business and community engagement to transform education — and the economy — in Las Vegas.

Last year, more than 60 businesses relocated to Southern Nevada, infusing 2,600 new jobs and $1.5 billion into the local economy, according to the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, an economic development organization with more than 300 members.

However, Southern Nevada has historically struggled to attract businesses to the region, primarily because of its lackluster education system, officials said. Despite some improvements in recent years, the Silver State has some of the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the country.

Addressing a crowd of 400 business, community and political leaders, Skorkowsky vowed change but warned “we are not going to turn this ship around overnight.”

“I’m doing my part to increase these (education) rankings,” Skorkowsky said. “I’m committed to our children and I’m committed to our community.”

Skorkowsky outlined the district’s successes, challenges and goals during his hourlong speech, which took place at the Four Seasons hotel on the Las Vegas Strip — the city’s economic hub.

The superintendent touted the district’s improved graduation rate, which jumped nearly 10 percentage points to 71.5 percent last year. The School District graduated 900 more students in the class of 2013 than the previous class.

Because a high school graduate in Nevada earns $6,237 more than a high school dropout, the 900 graduates will earn an additional $5.6 million each year, Skorkowsky said.

“That’s economic growth,” Skorkowsky said. “That will make a difference in our economy.”

While national rankings still peg Nevada toward the bottom of the nation for education, Skorkowsky said students in Las Vegas are making great strides in their test scores. Nevada eighth-graders posted the third-highest gains in reading scores in the nation, Skorkowsky said.

“We’re not at the national average yet, but we’re growing,” Skorkowsky said. “We’re making some positive gains in Nevada.”

The School District faces significant challenges that threaten to derail its upward trajectory, Skorkowsky said.

The district is struggling to address its student enrollment growth with rapidly depleting funds for school renovations and construction. Although the district’s official count this year is 314,643 students, it's now closer to a record-breaking 316,000 students, Skorkowsky said.

In January, the district enrolled 900 new elementary school students, who collectively could fill up another elementary school building, Skorkowsky said. Without additional capital money, the district may be forced to tap into its general fund for school operations to fix outdated heating and cooling systems, he said.

Clark County students also face many hurdles in their path toward graduation, Skorkowsky said. More than half of students receive free and reduced-price lunches from the federal government, and a growing number of students struggle to overcome language barriers.

In the wake of one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history, the School District has a growing number of homeless students who live in weekly budget motels, vacant homes and in cars.

“That’s a sobering statistic,” Skorkowsky said. ”We have to — as a community — take care of these kids because they’re our future.”

Skorkowsky thanked the Nevada Legislature for providing $39 million in additional funding to help educate English-language learners this year. The money went to 14 “Zoom” schools, which offer full-day kindergarten classes with fewer students, special reading centers and 17 additional school days, to give non-English-speaking students a chance to catch up to their reading peers.

Skorkowsky said he plans to advocate for more funding for Clark County students by changing the state’s K-12 funding formula, which hasn’t been modified since 1967. The current funding formula has been criticized by many Las Vegans for transferring money from Southern Nevada school districts to Northern Nevada districts.

“I’m expected to do more with less, but sometimes, when we keep on cutting, it’s less,” Skorkowsky said. “The funding system has to change. … It has to be fair and equitable for every student in every classroom.”

Like his predecessor, Skorkowsky promised greater transparency over the school budget and more accountability over how it spends taxpayer dollars. The superintendent said he is looking at every expenditure to ensure the district is receiving an adequate “return on investment.” Several classroom programs that aren’t working are now on the chopping block, he said.

“No longer will we be standing here and saying we need more,” Skorkowsky said to applause from the audience. “(The ask) will be for something specific, and we will have specific deliverables we have to be held accountable for.”

The School District has several goals this year that will be outlined in a white paper Skorkowsky plans to publish in April. Among them:

• Calling on legislators to approve funding for full-day kindergarten classes for all Clark County students.

• Lowering the disproportionate rate of expulsions and suspensions for black students, hiring more diverse teachers and placing more minority students into advanced placement courses in math and science.

• Working with higher education to ensure that more students are entering college prepared for college-level work. Skorkowsky said he plans to change senior year curricula to push more students into advanced placement courses or remedial courses to prepare them for college.

• Increasing engagement among parents, staff and the community.

Businesses can help the district by “adopting” schools, sponsoring events, programs and materials for campuses, Skorkowsky said. Even if businesses can’t afford to donate money, they can encourage employees to mentor children and attend school events and parent-teacher conferences, he said.

“It isn’t just about money,” Skorkowsky said. “It’s about time and resources.”

Business leaders said they supported Skorkowsky’s effort to transform education in Southern Nevada. Businesses should play a greater role in education, because Clark County students are their future employees, officials said.

There has been a lot of finger-pointing in the past, LVGEA President and CEO Tom Skancke said.

Businesses blamed the School District for its poor performance, and education officials blamed businesses for doing too little to help out. That must change, Skancke said.

“We must engage in helping (the School District) out,” Skancke said, after Skorkowsky’s keynote address. “They can’t do it alone. If we’re going to transform education, we have to help them.”

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