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Back to school: the issues that will mark the coming year for CCSD

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Superintendent Dwight Jones heads up a school district that ranked last in the nation in a recent KidsCount report.
Photo: Mona Shield Payne

It’s that time of year again. Immunization shots and colorful school supplies, crying kindergartners and mounds of paperwork to sign. More than 309,000 Clark County public school kids will head back to campus this Monday, kicking off yet another year for the nation’s fifth-largest school district.

A lot has happened since Superintendent Dwight Jones took over Las Vegas’ 357 public schools last year. The new administration and the school board pushed forward a bunch of “reforms,” such as new school zones and rankings, a “turnaround” program and a student outreach initiative that helped bump up the district’s graduation rate by six percentage points to 65 percent. Still, despite some improvements, a recent KidsCount report ranked Nevada’s public education system dead last in the nation, illustrating just how difficult a task it is to raise student achievement in Las Vegas.

As crowds of students stream through school doors again, the Weekly takes a look at some of the major issues facing the CCSD this year.

Budget cuts

Like most Las Vegas Valley municipal governments, the school district faced multimillion-dollar budget cuts—in this case, to the tune of $64 million. To bridge the shortfall, the district eliminated more than 1,000 positions this summer—including 419 teachers—after an arbitrator ruled with the local teachers union over pay raises.

That’s on top of other cuts last year and again this year, including the elimination of some 200 bus routes, a 20 percent reduction in the central office and a 50 percent slashing of the school supply budget.

There was some good news, though.

Higher-than-expected teacher retirements and resignations allowed the district to invite back the 419 teachers who were laid off. However, the district will still be operating with fewer teachers. That means average class sizes will be around 35 students this year. Although studies are mixed on how higher class sizes affect student achievement, Las Vegas will still have the distinction of having one of the highest student-to-teacher ratios in the country.

The takeaway: Teachers will definitely have their hands full, and students will have to cram into classrooms. And because the district and union are in arbitration again, teacher protests and district push back are likely to continue.

Capital improvement plan

In addition to facing a multimillion-dollar budget gap, the school district estimates it’ll need to raise more than $5 billion over the next decade to fix up older schools.

During the recession, necessary repairs were put off to save money, but for some schools, these costly repairs can’t be kicked down the road any longer. As School Board President Linda Young put it recently, the district’s oldest and most dilapidated schools are “literally falling apart.”

That’s why the school board is putting a question on the November ballot asking voters to approve a tax increase that would generate $660 million to kick-start school repairs. On a house assessed at $100,000, the proposed new tax would be an additional $74 per year for six years. If approved, the tax money would help renovate schools like 58-year-old J.D. Smith Middle School, which floods whenever it rains and suffers from air conditioning breakdowns in the spring.

However, critics of the tax hike point to the average age of Las Vegas schools—22 years—which is relatively low compared to some East Coast or Midwest schools. The matter became more contentious after local libertarian think tank Nevada Policy Research Institute filed a lawsuit against the school district earlier this month in an attempt to kick the tax question off the ballot. NPRI alleged a Clark County committee reviewing the ballot initiative failed to take public comment, thereby nullifying its approval two months ago to print the tax question.

The takeaway: As lawyers duke out the tax increase question in the courts, the fate of school maintenance hangs in the balance.

Beyond No Child Left Behind

Earlier this month, Nevada received a waiver from the feds that State Superintendent Jim Guthrie said would free the state from the tough standards of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Under George W. Bush’s signature education law, states were mandated to have all students 100 percent proficient in math and reading by the end of next year. The problem? Critics argued that meeting No Child Left Behind’s goal was unrealistic. Case in point: The majority of Las Vegas schools—61 percent—failed to make the federal government’s educational benchmark last year.

With the waiver, a sort-of “Get Out of Jail Free” card for 34 states now, Nevada will move forward with a new accountability system, which includes a more rigorous curriculum, new school and teacher evaluations and a different method of measuring student achievement that focuses on “growth” from year to year. Guthrie’s goal is for Nevada to be at or above the national median on all educational measures, including graduation rates, by 2020. It’s a tall order for the new state superintendent, but the challenge will be eased without the shackles of No Child Left Behind.

The takeaway: With Nevada receiving the waiver, expect to see some new education bills in the upcoming 2013 Legislative session that will focus on school and teacher accountability.

Technology

The school district began heavily investing in technology over the last couple of years, purchasing iPads for administrators and students and installing digital “smartboards” in some classrooms. All Clark County schools now have Wi-Fi Internet access, which allows students to bring their own laptops and tablet computers to campus. Some schools—like West Career and Technical Academy—are already piloting this new use of technology.

The school district is now looking at plans to push more technology into schools, which would require an investment of more than $60 million in servers and replacement computers over the next decade. In addition, some of district technology policies will have to be amended. Currently, students are banned from using smartphones in many classes because of a broad “no cellphone” policy on school campuses. That is likely to change.

The takeaway: In addition to graphing calculators, future school supply lists for Las Vegas students may include smartphones and laptops.

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