LAS VEGAS — Critics have long blamed a thick layer of bureaucracy for holding back the Clark County School District, the nation’s fifth largest and home to a bulk of the students in a state that consistently ranks among the country’s worst performers.
The Nevada Board of Education made a decisive swipe at it on Thursday, voting unanimously in favor of a radical and rapid reorganization that puts principals in charge of about 80 percent of the money flowing to their school and diminishes the powerful central office by the 2017-2018 school year. Proponents hope it will make the 357 public schools in the Las Vegas area more responsive to their more than 320,000 students.
“We’re doing this because Nevada’s been the most underperforming school system in the country,” said board member Pat Hickey, a Republican former assemblyman who voted last year for the bill that got the reorganization process started. “I think it’s worth trying.”
The initial proposal, which legislators authorized at the last minute last spring, envisioned breaking up the behemoth district into a handful of smaller entities. It has since evolved into an “empowerment” model that vests more authority with a principal and a volunteer board for that principal’s “local school precinct.”
Principals would have authority over hiring decisions and their operational budget, buying the services they need a la carte from the divisions of central district administration. Associate school superintendents would oversee 25 schools, and those associates answer to the district superintendent.
Democrats who long resisted the Republican-led concept have come around on the idea in the year since a committee of lawmakers and other community leaders started digging into the details in nearly 20 public meetings. State Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, a former public school principal who’s running a competitive race for re-election against a Republican charter school principal, said she now has high hopes for a proposal she initially voted against.
“By all appearances, this looked like an attempt by a small group of legislators to slice up the school district along socio-economic lines, entirely to the benefit of wealthier neighborhoods,” she wrote in an op-ed published in July. But now, “I believe the plan that committee has recommended will ultimately have a positive impact on the district and its students.”
Critics have raised concerns about the details of the plan, saying it could lead to inequity and exacerbate disparities between richer and poorer schools. Some pointed to the lack of parent-teacher organizations in many of the schools, saying it would be difficult to quickly create effective school-based volunteer boards.
Others worried about the rapid pace of change.
“Change is exhilarating when it’s done by you and terrifying when it’s done to you,” said Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani. “Slow it down and do it right.”
But board member Tonia Holmes-Sutton likened the hesitation to when she was nine months pregnant. She said she was scared to face childbirth but her doctor said she had to go through with it.
“I think we have a moral and ethical responsibility to the children and the families that we serve to act now,” she said.
The board’s Thursday vote to approve regulations is the second to last step needed to kick off the project. Twelve state lawmakers on the Legislative Commission are expected to give the regulations final approval on Sept. 9.
Even proponents acknowledged there was still work to be done as the plan was implemented. But the lawmaker who first proposed the sweeping changes sounded a triumphant note after the vote.
“For far too long the Legislature tried to improve education through tiny changes with little accountability,” Republican Assemblyman David Gardner said in a statement. “With this plan, a fundamental shift in how we deliver education in Clark County has occurred.”