Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Goodbye, deconsolidation. Hello, decentralization.
After four months of daylong meetings, hours of public comment and hundreds of pages of reports, decentralization is a word that’s popping up more and more in the debate over what to do with the Clark County School District.
Legislators and community leaders have been meeting since last October to figure out whether reorganizing the nation’s fifth-largest school district will cure what many view as a vast, unaccountable bureaucracy that leads inevitably to underperforming schools.
One idea that has fallen off: deconsolidation, or breaking the district into several smaller, independent ones. In its place, an idea that has started to gain traction is to put decision-making back into the hands of people closest to schools, like parents, teachers and principals, as opposed to district administrators.
“That’s the one thing where there is consensus,” said Dr. Nancy Brune, executive director of the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities.
Many feel the district’s central office exerts too much control over the county’s 356 schools, even though the district contends it is already pursuing efforts at decentralizing. It commonly points to a policy of flex budgeting currently in effect in 180 schools, where principals are afforded more latitude over duties like hiring.
But a growing number of legislators and community leaders are saying that’s not enough. This month, the committees will hear testimony from officials in districts that have taken steps to relinquish control to schools.
Autonomy was the main ingredient in state “empowerment schools,” though research indicated at the time that it wasn’t a cure-all for a school’s problems.
It’s not an uncommon thing in other districts. In San Francisco, for instance, school site councils made up of parents and teachers help principals craft budgets and review student achievement data.
“That’s the kind of direction we’d like to see — where educators have a very important role,” said John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association, the local teacher’s union. “If we’re being held accountable for student achievement, then we should have a role in the [decision-making] for students.”
The union has presented its own plan for decentralization, calling for a system similar to what’s in place at San Francisco Unified. And, in an ironic twist, the union’s plan seems to have support from some of the committee’s more conservative members.
“That sounds like a great idea, to tell you the truth,” said Republican Assemblyman David Gardner, a primary sponsor of AB394, the legislation that started the reorganization process. “Everyone seems to agree that the central administration has too much power and we need to bring it down.”
Stephen Silberkraus, a Henderson Republican and assemblyman who co-sponsored the bill, agreed.
“Anything that gets more local control down to the schools is beneficial,” he said.
The conversation around decentralization is a departure from how the debate started in last year’s legislative session.
Back then, the hot topic at the Legislature was whether CCSD should be split up into smaller districts, specifically ones that would be run by officials in incorporated towns like Henderson, North Las Vegas, or even Moapa Valley.
But that idea quickly succumbed to fears that dividing the county into wealthy and low-income school districts could trigger federal lawsuits.
Similarly, a plan unveiled by Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky also is off the table. Committee members, particularly the conservative ones, viewed it as a sneaky attempt to pre-empt the process while largely keeping the status quo in place.
“We’re working collaboratively to come up with a plan that works,” said a school district spokesperson.
There are some who view the new focus on decentralizing as missing the point. Dr. Magdalena Martinez, an education researcher at UNLV’s Lincy Institute and proponent of smaller districts, pointed to recently conducted surveys showing a majority of residents were in favor of reorganizing the district.
“The overwhelming majority say yes,” she said. “At what point do they start to take into account the feedback that these groups are providing?”
Legislators still have a lot of time to hammer out the specifics of a plan. It’s due by the start of next year, with implementation slated for the 2018-2019 school year.
“At the end of the day, what people are really frustrated with is [the lack of] community control,” Brune said. “They don’t want their own district, they just want to be able to hire their own local plumber rather than having to go through the central office.”