Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2017

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Where I Stand:

Can’t we reform and invest in education?

For stubborn Sandoval, ideology trumps long-term solution to our economic woes

It is a tale of two pities.

There are no best of times in 2011. These are the worst of times for Nevadans: thousands of homes in foreclosure, tens of thousands of Nevadans out of work, millions of dollars in bank debts unable to be paid, and billions of dollars in debt that hamper needed investment in Nevada’s future.

There is some reason for hope, though. Just three years ago when the worldwide economic meltdown hit the United States and focused most of its attention on Nevada, the challenge became simple: to do whatever was necessary to be standing three years later.

It is almost three years later, and Nevadans, most of them, are standing. We are shaky and still unsteady on our feet, but we are standing. So now the question remains: What do we do and where do we go next?

The Sun’s Dave Berns wrote a story for Monday’s edition contrasting the styles, if you will, of UNLV President Neal Smatresk and newly arrived Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones. The story compared the two academic leaders’ approaches to the looming budgetary dismantling of our K-12 and higher education institutions as seen through the eyes and heard by the ears of a couple of local casino executives.

The executives wished to remain anonymous for the story, and their identities really don’t matter. Every casino in town has been hit with the realization that budget cuts, dramatic ones, were imperative because the alternative was bankruptcy or worse. It seems natural to me that the position Jones fronted would be met with greater empathy by the two businesspeople.

First, the difference. Smatresk spoke about the utter devastation to the university and its mission should Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed cuts to higher education go through. The superintendent looked at the looming cuts as an opportunity to regroup and refocus the community on better tomorrows.

In my mind, both men are right. We need to know that by taking an ax to the education budget at UNLV, the governor is destroying the good that has taken decades to create. And, by forcing us to make deep and meaningful cuts to programs, teachers and school options, we have the opportunity to create a leaner and more responsive education product going forward.

This, however, has always been the case. No one could ever argue that the old “waste, fraud and abuse” thing didn’t exist throughout our academic institutions. Or throughout government for that matter. The challenge has been to weed out the bad stuff while advancing the good in our education system. For too long, we have insisted on the former before we would consider investing in the latter.

Now we come to that time in our young history when the choice must be made. Dwight Jones has no choice but to say that we will rebuild, we will refocus and we will create a better education model. He is new to town and his alternatives are few. Likewise, Neal Smatresk, who is also relatively new, is correct to profess his grave concern for the mission of higher education should the Legislature rubber-stamp our ideologically possessed governor’s march toward mediocrity. He has to live with the inferior product advancing from the School District into UNLV. He has to spend precious dollars trying to teach incoming freshmen what they have failed to learn on their way through Clark County’s high schools.

But Smatresk has a much bigger issue to contend with as the man responsible for the growth of the state’s largest university in the state’s largest city.

Because of the economy, our K-12 education system has taken a forced breather from years of unprecedented student growth. Nowhere else in America do communities grow high schools and elementary schools faster than most places grow students. That is no longer the case, so the School District can focus on quality rather than quantity.

At UNLV, they have been focused on quality. We finally reached a point at which those who pay attention to UNLV can point to some real academic achievement. No, we aren’t yet Harvard of the West and may never get there. But we can get closer to that goal and, as we do, we will grow as a community in ways we could only imagine.

What has happened, though, as a result of the governor’s steadfast refusal to accept the inevitability of revenue increases to help offset cuts too deep to contemplate, is the requirement for Smatresk to let his faculty know that their heads and their programs could be on the chopping block. And there is the first pity.

Most sane people still believe there will be a deal at the end of the Legislature to stave off the worst of the cuts by finding sanity in some new revenue sources. By that time, though, the damage to UNLV will already have been done. For what professor, researcher or other contributor to the academic health and the future wealth of UNLV will stick around waiting to see if his job has been saved.

If we know anything about the academic world, it is that the folks who dwell within it crave stability. And there is no stability at UNLV. Some or many of the most talented people at UNLV are likely not to be there when the fall semester starts, regardless of what “deal” comes together in June.

I can’t go into it now, but it is beyond dispute that the quality and quantity of university graduates in this community directly affect the quality and quantity of jobs and business diversification that could be ours for the taking. And there is the second pity.

By accepting, superficially, the concept that we need to cut and reform education — which we do — without also accepting the imperative that we must invest in education for the future, we miss the real opportunity that lies before us.

Both Smatresk and Jones are right in their assessments and they are right in the way they each approach the problem. We are the people who are wrong because, so far, we continue to accept the false choice of a governor who insists that ideology trumps wisdom.

Oh, if we were all just a little bit smarter.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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