Las Vegas Sun

January 17, 2018

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School Board to feel effects of double dose of term limits

Loss of veterans means change, uncertainty

For nearly 12 years, they’ve served in, arguably, one of the most important elected offices in the state.

The job is almost entirely without glamour — unless you count standing up to wave when you are introduced at a fifth grade awards ceremony or the privilege of sitting onstage at a dozen high school graduations.

But it also entails responsibility for a $1.2 billion operating budget and 35,000 employees. As a result of last week’s Nevada Supreme Court ruling on term limits, come January, Ruth Johnson and Mary Beth Scow will no longer be members of the School Board that governs the nation’s fifth-largest district, the state’s largest recipient of tax dollars.

The ruling guarantees changes for the Clark County School District. The extent of those changes remains to be seen, and will depend, in large part, on whom voters choose as their replacements. But we do know the subtraction portion of the equation.

In Johnson and Scow, constituents have representatives with impeccable attendance at board meetings. Johnson and Scow drive hundreds of miles every month making school visits and talking with parent advisory groups. When they travel on district business they fly coach, stay in economy hotels and reimburse the district for personal phone calls.

Johnson takes particular interest in the building of new schools and remodeling of older campuses. She worries the district is tearing down buildings that might still be of use. Johnson pushed the district to do a better job of long-term strategic planning and seeking opportunities for community involvement.

Whether the subject is dress code, truancy or school start times, she rarely misses an opportunity to emphasize one of her core beliefs: Schools can do only so much for students; supportive families are necessary for complete success.

Scow is soft-spoken, and School Board audiences occasionally have to strain to hear her. She exudes calm, even after two hours of public comment from angry parents opposed to a stricter dress code or a zoning change. Scow’s questions are thoughtful, her comments measured. She expects the rules to be followed.

In 2004, for example, Carlos Garcia, then the superintendent, awarded raises to two senior administrators without explicitly informing the School Board ahead of time. There was a flurry of scrutiny and complaints. But it was Scow who pointed out that Garcia’s actions fell within the limits the board had set for him.

“If we want the superintendent to tell us about these kinds of things ahead of time,” Scow said, “then we need to give him specific instructions to that effect.”

Johnson and Scow have seen dramatic changes to the district during their tenure, including explosive enrollment growth, the highs and lows of overseeing a massive construction program and two superintendent searches.

Experience and institutional memory obviously can be beneficial, but so can an infusion of new blood.

Terri Janison took over the District E seat in 2005, and Carolyn Edwards was elected the next year for District F. Both have so far demonstrated a healthy touch of skepticism when it comes to staff reports. They often press for details when they believe the provided information is too superficial.

With Johnson and Scow out, the door is wide open for their challengers. Johnson faced three challengers for the District B seat and has thrown her support behind Gaya Guymon, a parent and school volunteer. Three people remain on the District A ballot, and Scow and has not made an endorsement. The candidate with the greatest name recognition is Edward Goldman, associate superintendent of the district’s education services division.

The changes to the School Board’s makeup don’t stop with the departure of Johnson and Scow, however. Shirley Barber, who opted not to seek a fourth term, will step down in January from the District C seat. She has long been relied upon as an advocate for the underdog, and stood her ground even when the other six board members were voting the other way.

Then there’s Larry Mason, the School Board’s elder statesman. He’s in his 14th year on the board, and the term limit clock doesn’t run out for him until 2010. But his departure could come sooner because he has indicated an interest in being appointed to replace Thalia Dondero on the Board of Regents. Like Johnson and Scow, Dondero has been ruled ineligible for reelection.

The newcomers to the School Board have significant challenges waiting for them.

Because of a state funding shortfall, the district had to cut $136 million from its budget for this year and next, leaving employees anxious and frustrated. Dwindling enrollment growth and budget woes prompted the cancellation of a $9.5 billion bond measure campaign, and more than $450 million worth of renovations work is yet to be completed. Decisions must be made about which of the older campuses will get top priority for replacement. And although the district as a whole has met state and federal requirements for adequate progress for a second consecutive year, the dropout and graduation rates remain among the worst in the nation.

Many of the problems predate even Mason’s tenure. Johnson and Scow appear to have given it their best since 1996. Now, someone else will have to take up where they leave off in January.

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