Las Vegas Sun

August 20, 2017

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To protect schools, chief ready to plead case with Legislature


Justin M. Bowen

Among the myriad goals of Dwight Jones, the Clark County School superintendent, are holding teachers more accountable for their performance and knocking on doors to reach out to parents.

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Dwight Jones had his work cut out for him the instant he set foot in Las Vegas last month.

Although he is still learning the ropes, Clark County’s new school superintendent must negotiate a contract with the teachers union and others, plead with Gov. Brian Sandoval to not gut schools in the upcoming state budget and lobby the Legislature to override the governor if he does.

And he must save the struggling public schools of Clark County, where three-quarters of Nevada’s students live and whose test scores and graduation rates are among the lowest in the nation.

Those aren’t the only issues on his plate.

In an interview this week, Jones said he shared many education goals with Sandoval, including holding teachers more accountable for their performance.

He said he would keep an open mind about implementing school vouchers, which the governor favors but the School Board opposes. Such vouchers would allow parents to use public funds to send their children to private schools.

But Jones emphasized it is impossible for the district to cut its way to better results.

It has endured nearly $400 million in budget cuts in the past three years, including less money for school buses and textbooks and $37 million in givebacks by the teachers and other unions.

“There was some slack in the rope,” Jones said about the budget. “That rope is tight now.”

But he said it won’t cost as much as others have estimated to install computer database systems to track teacher accountability. The price tag will be closer to $400,000, not the $20 million some computer experts project, Jones said. Such systems, based on approaches in Colorado, will be used to direct more resources to schools and teachers and penalize inadequate teachers and schools.

Also, Jones said that when his schedule permits, he plans to knock on doors and talk to parents.

Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, the union that represents most of the county’s teachers, responded on accountability that “teachers are not afraid of being held accountable as long as the assessment is fair and takes into account all of the factors impacting student test scores. There are factors beyond the teacher’s control, including the student’s home life and adequate adult supervision.”

Jones grew up far from Las Vegas.

In the 1960s, he was one of nine siblings on a wheat farm in Kansas. His father was one of the few black farmers in rural Wallace County, which even last year numbered fewer than 1,500 people.

His parents were stoical. “They expected a lot of me,” he said. “Skin color, socioeconomic status, none of that could be an excuse.”

Now 48, with degrees from Fort Hays State and Kansas State universities, Jones was the state education commissioner in Colorado.

Last month, Jones took over the fifth-largest school district in the nation, with a $2 billion annual budget.

Some questions and answers from the interview:

Compare and contrast Colorado and Nevada.

There are 178 districts in Colorado and 17 in Nevada, with Clark County the largest. In Colorado, about 80 percent of the adult population has a college or an advanced degree and 20 percent do not. In Nevada it’s almost the reverse of that, with 20 percent having a college degree or more and 80 percent who do not. That creates different levels of expectations for how the schools should operate.

Some computer experts say it will take $20 million to develop something like that in Nevada, what is known as a “living academic history” for each student and all their teachers and schools. Do you agree?

I totally disagree. In Colorado, we used open source software. Our estimates are that the entire state could implement it for anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000. If you build in training time, it would be more, but I’m just talking about the computer tool that could go out publicly. We were able to implement it during my 3 1/2 years as commissioner in Colorado. In Clark County, I think we can do it in a year. We can determine how effective a teacher is and make critical decisions in the career of a teacher.

Hiring, firing, demotions, promotions?

I like to start with what supports teachers need, what development and training they’ve had, what have they got to have to perfect their trade. I don’t immediately go to punitive. I want to use the data to determine what I need to do to help my teachers do better.

How are you going to cope with budget cuts?

The best strategy is for us to continue to work with the Legislature. The governor will give his budget, but there are a lot of changes that are going to happen over the course of the session. My best strategy is to make sure that the governor and the Legislature clearly understand what the local challenges are in this School District.

How do you feel about Gov. Sandoval favoring school vouchers?

I want to learn more about the vouchers he’s talking about. The School Board members have said they are not supportive of vouchers. If the governor moves forward with vouchers, then ultimately I’ll have to make some determination and put together what vouchers might look like.

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