Las Vegas Sun

November 21, 2019

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Columnist: CCSD plots to kill the messengers

KEN WARD, assistant managing editor of the Las Vegas SUN, writes about education. He can be reached on the Internet at [email protected]

TODAY'S SUN editorial urges the Clark County School District to take the high road in dealing with the special education issue. Sound advice. But, so far, it's been a road not taken.

Consultants Ed Sontag and David Rostetter produced a critical report on CCSD's special ed division. For their efforts, they have come under personal attack.

Last week, the attacks reached a crescendo. The head of the administrators' union floated news that a few recommendations were lifted from previous reports. Then, on the eve of the School Board's meeting to discuss the audit, former special ed chief Marsha Irvin abruptly announced that Rostetter tried to hit her up for a loan six months ago, with the clear innuendo that it was some kind of shakedown.

Substantive issues? Coincidental timing? Hardly. These stories -- specious to the core -- were planted in the media and were designed to distract attention from the real business at hand. They demonstrated that Hell hath no fury like a bureaucracy threatened.

Now that the auditors have left town, the School Board is left to compare their work with the administration's 33-page rebuttal. The defensiveness of the in-house document and its ambush-style distribution on Wednesday affirms the very essence of the audit's findings.

In their introductory passage, Sontag and Rostetter wrote presciently: "The reviewers have come to the conclusion that the division chose to aid and facilitate a negative response before the report is even received by the School Board. In the first days of the review, reports came back that managers were telling staff they would fight this review."

Sure enough, the administration has tried to confound or confuse any criticism of its special ed program. It has raised the red herring of inclusion. It has trotted out new, self-serving statistics. It has censored sections of the audit, then restored them. Its attorneys requested more details on malfeasance, then asked that sections be toned down on the promise that changes were forthcoming.

But aside from Irvin's move up to an area superintendent's job -- a move that Superintendent Brian Cram insists was independent of the audit -- nothing has changed. Nor is any semblance of reform likely with the report in Cram's hands.

Yet serious problems have surfaced. And they're not going away.

Thirteen specific violations of law have been identified, most involving the destruction or alteration of student records. These are civil rights and parental notification issues that federal authorities tend to take seriously, and that school districts obstruct at their peril.

The report criticized third-party slush funds, soaring transportation costs and top-heavy administration. In Sontag's words "The district has projections of a 60 percent increase in administration through 2001. The whole world is flattening out (organizationally) except for education." Those kinds of findings raise red flags with taxpayers and bond-issue voters.

There also is the matter of Medicaid money.

The SUN has learned that CCSD's general fund is being used to finance certain special ed activities, and that Medicaid reimbursements are not routed back to the fund. This is could amount to a multimillion-dollar raid -- and the reaction of parents of general education students could blow the special ed debate wide open.

But rather than look for ways to incorporate constructive criticism, Cram and Co. have gone into the bunker.

"It's a strange response to a report that suggests ways to save money," Rostetter says.

Their characters besmirched and their bill unpaid, the two consultants have gained a healthy skepticism about lofty pronouncements from top CCSD officials.

"Every time this district says something is fixed, our fax machine lights up," Sontag says.

That fax won't be taking staff and parental complaints in the months to come. And in an effort to seal the deal, Ms. Irvin was quoted Thursday as saying that trustee Lois Tarkanian made her special ed stint unbearable.

Irvin's pain threshold notwithstanding, Tarkanian is indeed a danger to the administration. She pushed hard for the independent audit, she is knowledgeable about the special ed field and she is learning where the bodies are buried.

In this light, Irvin's complaint smacks of orchestrated overkill. Much as it would like to, CCSD cannot and should not expect to unring the alarm bell that's been sounded.

So who's credibility is on the line now?