Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2019

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Superintendent talks about why dean positions need to be cut and where to go from here

Clark County School District Superintendent talks about why dean positions need to be cut and where to go from here

Jesus Jara

Christopher DeVargas

Clark County Schools Superintendent Jesus Jara speaks Friday, June 14, 2019, with the Las Vegas Sun on issues facing the district.

For Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara, the past two weeks have been packed with turmoil.

First came an announcement June 4 that although Nevada legislators have approved an infusion of new funding for school districts statewide, CCSD was still $33 million short of its budget needs over the biennium, including $17 million for the 2019-20 school year.

Then came the kind of difficult decision that superintendents occasionally must make: how to make up that gap. The painful choice, which Jara announced by video this past Monday, was to eliminate the 170 dean positions in the district’s middle and high schools.

A furor followed. District principals in the administrative union cast a no-confidence vote against Jara, a first for a CCSD superintendent. Jara was questioned — and criticized — during appearances at a community education forum Wednesday and at a packed CCSD board meeting Thursday.

The reaction stemmed from the deans’ role in addressing discipline, one of their main responsibilities. Parents and staff said that removing them would leave schools less safe.

Jara issued apologies for the abrupt way in which the cuts were announced, but maintained that they were necessary and, unfortunately, were the best of a set of bad options.

On Friday, Jara sat down with the Sun for an interview about the legislative session, the developments of these past two weeks and what comes next for CCSD. The interview follows, with Jara’s responses edited for clarity and brevity.

It seems that a lot of the media coverage of the dean reductions has been about the reaction and not the decision-making process behind the cuts. Can you walk us through that? Why was it necessary, and what other options were explored?

We needed $166.5 million going into the session and we ended up bringing in $154 million, which is more than we’ve received in the past. But we’ve had an increase in costs to operate the district, to fulfill the commitment from the governor’s office on raises for teachers, and then to address our 5% increase in health care. So the gap is $33-35 million for the biennium.

So then you ask, “How do we minimize the impact to the classroom?”

We have the largest class size in the country. For our parents, our students, our teachers and our administrators, this is a frustration. So increasing class size to me was not an option.

So then you start asking, “Where else can we find resources (to reduce or eliminate)?”

We have magnet schools — we spend $19 million in our magnet schools. But that’s our pride and joy; it’s a gem of our school system. We have nationally recognized magnet schools, so obviously that’s not an option.

You can cut athletics. But when you really look at it — and we heard a student last night at the board meeting saying athletics was important to him and is a critical part of the fabric of the school — that directly impacts children. Then you look at the performing arts, which is another direct impact to kids.

Then the other option was transportation. Do you eliminate secondary school transportation, which would have saved us $30 million? We already have a problem with chronic absenteeism, and our neediest families rely on our transportation services to get their kids to school. Do you eliminate transportation for all children except all those we must serve by law, which would have saved $50 million? That would get us to the bottom line, but it’s another direct impact.

Then there are the dean positions.

As you know, the Legislature approved funding specifically for school safety. This gives us an opportunity to rethink how we do discipline; we can maintain our campuses’ safety, then with the safety dollars we can add personnel.

We know very clearly that suspending kids — sending kids who aren’t doing well home — is not the answer. And our data shows that we are suspending our children of color at a higher rate than others.

So how do we think differently? These are the things we’re starting to work on with our principals. But it’s really about addressing the toxic stress that the children are bringing from the community into our campuses.

We’ll know the amount of safety funding we’ll receive today or early next week, and then we’ll start appropriating some of the dollars.

I go back to when the legislative session started, and we were going to lose 1,500 jobs if we didn’t have an influx of resources. So do I think it’s an ideal situation? No. But when you look at in totality, the possibility of 1,500 jobs lost to displacing 170 employees who are still going to have a job, to me it’s a win.

I then look at the individual 170 deans, I understand and I’m sympathetic. I appreciate their work and their commitment. But maybe it’s an opportunity now, with the safety money that’s coming in, to address the needs of the students. And it may be the same person.

I’m bringing in a group of principals this afternoon to really look at what that job is, so we can really change the impact to our children and ensure our campuses are safe.

What happened during the legislative session? Lawmakers filled almost all of CCSD’s budget needs, but not quite enough.

I’ll answer the question this way: 24 hours before the session adjourned, it would have been an $80 million impact. So I thank the Legislature for the money we got, because it would have been catastrophic to cut $80 million over two years. I’m in a better spot and I thank the Legislature; I just wish we could have gotten over the finish line.

Can you expand on the district’s new approach to discipline? How will that work? Who will pick up the slack with those dean positions gone?

We’ve (started) in public education in this country, (with) zero tolerance — that doesn’t work. We’re moving more into the preventive, proactive approach, which really impacts changing the behavior. You look at these kids, there are parents at home who are helping them adjust, understand, question and teach them — we have kids that don’t have that. Does it become our responsibility? Yeah, it does. So we’re moving into rethinking discipline.

Obviously if you’re violent, we’re not going to tolerate you bringing weapons to school. We’re not going to tolerate you assaulting an employee. My staff needs to be safe. I want to make that very clear.

Bottom-line question: Will schools be safe next year?

Yes. I’ve already directed our (law enforcement) to place two police officers in every high school campus. We’re looking at what that is going to look like for the middle school. Right now, they have one (on each campus).

We’re going to continue with our random searches. Obviously, that’s not something we’re going to stop. We also have our K9 officers for weapon prevention. We’re looking for four more so then we’ll have eight across the district.

There’s some sentiment in the community that the cuts should have been made to central administration positions. But you’ve already cut significantly in that area in recent years, correct?

That has been done. Central office has also been cut. I just want to be clear; $17 million this year, I still have to cut another $17 million next year unless there’s more money.

We’re going to be reducing about $7 million in central office this year as well.

You’ve been forthright in apologizing for the way the reductions were announced. In hindsight, what might you have done differently?

In hindsight, I think the message was clear. I think what I would have done is send the video out at the end of the day once everyone was notified. What I’ve also learned; once you say something to one person, then everyone is going to know. I felt with the video, everyone hears from the superintendent.

The Legislature and Gov. Steve Sisiolak this year authorized counties to implement a quarter-cent sales tax increase to help fund education and social services, but Clark County commissioners have been mostly cautious about it. In fact, Commissioner Michael Naft called raising taxes a“last resort.” Have you been in talks with commissioners on this issue? What have those talks been like?

Yes, I’ve been in conversations with the chairman. I’m encouraged with the conversations. I don’t want to speak for them, that’s a decision they have to make, but it’s really an opportunity to see where there’s ability for us to partner with the county. I’ve been saying all along that I need more partnerships — not just from the Legislature and the business community, but also from the county and other government officials.

If commissioners ultimately decided to raise the sales tax, how would you like that money be used toward funding CCSD?

If I was king for the day, if you will, early childhood would be something that’s really important for me.

As far as the relationship with the principals amid the no confidence vote, how are you feeling about that situation?

I made a decision as a superintendent. I was hired to improve the outcomes of those students. I think that change is hard. When you push on the system to do things a little bit different, the system sometimes pushes back. I stay focused on the outcomes of the children.

Have there been discussions on how you would work with the deans to help them get hired back into the classrooms?

Yes, absolutely. I think my HR team is working on that. We have 900 vacancies right now in our classrooms. I also know some of them are getting hired as assistant principals. They have that flexibility.