MONA SHIELD PAYNE / SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Wednesday, March 25, 2015 | 10 p.m.
When Gov. Brian Sandoval took to the podium at the Legislature and announced his support for splitting up big school districts and appointing school board members, more than a few in the audience groaned.
It was the only passage in his otherwise widely praised State of the State speech that elicited audible discomfort.
The plan that could break up the state’s urban school districts is now on its way through the Legislature, much to the chagrin of many in the state’s largest school authority, the Clark County School District.
AB394 would give individual municipalities in Nevada the ability to form their own school districts, and all the power that comes with that. Though proponents shy away from the term “splitting up,” that’s basically what it could do to CCSD.
Under the law, communities like North Las Vegas, Las Vegas and Henderson could break off from the district to do things their own way. It would also allow the state’s rural districts, some of which oversee fewer than 100 students, to consolidate with other small districts. The final decision to approve the new districts would fall to the state department of education.
Breaking up the school district isn't a new idea. In 2000, Republicans in the Legislature clashed with then-Mayor Oscar Goodman, who said doing so would cause “a terrible rift between rich and poor.” Reaction from school board members ranged from outright disagreement to a tepid willingness to consider the implications.
The bill is part of a package of Republican-led accountability measures, including a proposal to appoint school board members and a plan to create a state-run Achievement District that would take over a number of failing schools and convert them to charters.
Proponents argue it would provide more local control over schools and sidestep CCSD’s centralized bureaucracy, which critics say often takes a one-size-fits-all approach to very different problems in very different communities.
They point to studies like one recently released by the right-leaning Friedman Foundation showing widespread public support in Nevada for intervention in low-performing districts. A study by a Michigan free-market think tank concluded that the savings from breaking up larger districts is much higher than consolidating smaller ones.
Assemblyman David Gardner, who proposed the bill, said lawmakers have stood aside for decades while district officials failed to fulfill promises that schools would get better.
“If it was going to be fixed, it would have been fixed by now,” Gardner said. “We’ve been playing the game for 40 years.”
Officials in Henderson are perhaps the most enthusiastic about the idea. The bill is sponsored by Assemblyman Stephen Silberkraus, who represents Henderson, and Mayor Andy Hafen and the city council voted unanimously to support the idea earlier this month.
“The people of Henderson know they can do this better if they are given the freedom to run the schools the way that they want,” Silberkraus said.
While the bill lays out a clear process for how incorporated cities could take control over their schools, it also raises a lot of questions.
CCSD has operated for decades under the assumption that individual cities would never have the ability to form their own school districts, and much of the county’s current infrastructure reflects that.
All but one of CCSD’s seven high-performing Career and Technical Academies are on county land, for example.
If every incorporated city formed their own district, it would leave Clark County in control of those academies as well as a number of food, police and transportation facilities vital to schools around the valley.
It’s a similar story for CCSD’s magnet schools, high-performing programs that are in large demand by parents. While other schools are preparing to offer new magnet programs next year, the majority of them are currently located in schools within Las Vegas. If the city decided to form its own district, it’s not clear what would happen to the magnets or whether CCSD would retain control.
Gardner said all of these issues would be worked out in the planning phase, but it would likely mean a complex set of agreements would need to be reached to keep many of the valley’s most popular education programs in place.
“If you have all this co-mingling, why even break up the districts?” said Anna Slighting, a parent and charter school teacher who volunteers on CCSD’s zoning board.
The bill currently makes no mention of how zoning would be handled. Many schools in the valley straddle the borders of different municipalities, like Liberty High School, which is located in Henderson but draws most of its students from unincorporated Clark County.
“Cutting a school in half like that is going to cause a zoning domino effect,” Slighting said.
She said students would have to be siphoned from Coronado High School and then Foothill High School in order to make sure Liberty had enough students to keep its doors open. Doing so could separate friends and require families to make drastic life changes they didn’t plan for.
Gardner said those kinks would be worked out by the planning committee and the state board during a review process. He estimated that process would take around a year.
“A year is not enough to iron out those kinks,” Slighting said. “It's just going to be very messy for up to five years when families could have kids split at two elementary or two middle schools.”
They haven’t come to a consensus yet, but the Nevada Association of School Boards is leaning against it, said President Erin Cranor, who also sits on CCSD’s Board of Trustees.
She said the group is in favor of an alternative proposed by Sen. Scott Hammond. He penned a resolution last week that would require a state study on the feasibility of passing such a law.
If commissioned, that report would be complete in time for the 79th Legislature.