Schools reorganization meeting features productive discussion after tense start

A legislative meeting that began Thursday with a politically charged, dramatic swearing-in of witnesses turned anticlimactic when lawmakers sought compromise with the Clark County School District regarding the massive reorganization plan.

As the nation’s fifth-largest school district moves full speed ahead to create a school-centric organizational structure, bolstered by a restructured funding formula that could cost $1.2 billion if implemented statewide, committee members who crafted the state-mandated plan expressed a willingness to at least consider tweaking portions of it.

The ultimately productive nature of the meeting, however, wasn’t immediately clear at the outset: Republican Sen. Michael Roberson, who chairs the legislative committee, requested that all speakers be sworn in under oath to testify — a practice not common at these type of meetings.

“My trepidation was, when we heard about the whole swearing-in thing, that it might be more contentious,” said School Board President Deanna Wright, who was pleasantly surprised that productive dialogue ensued. “I really felt like it was more in the tone of ‘let’s talk about the issues.’”

Roberson said legislative legal counsel recommended administering the oath, but he declined to elaborate further after the meeting.

Tensions between the legislative committee and school district officials have mounted in recent months because of the ambitious reorganization plan, which the district must implement by the beginning of the next academic year. School trustees, in particular, have voiced numerous concerns about the reorganization and filed a lawsuit in December seeking a preliminary injunction.

Kevin Powers, the LCB’s chief litigation counsel, testified Thursday and said the trustees’ lawsuit doesn’t have a “reasonable likelihood of success” in court based on the bureau’s research. The lawsuit alleges the legislative committee exceeded the authority granted to it and that the reorganization plan is an unfunded mandate, among other claims.

Nevada Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, speaks about his concern of the Legislative Counsel Bureau discussing the pending Clark County School District litigation during the legislative advisory committee Thursday, Feb. 02, 2017, at the Grant Sawyer Building. Photo by Photoprizes LLC.

The testimony irked Sen. Majority Leader Aaron Ford, a Democrat who sits on the committee. He called it a “highly inappropriate” conversation given the pending litigation.

“This litigation hopefully is going to come to a cessation pretty soon — either because it’s settled or because the court is going to make a determination,” he said. “I do not think it appropriate for us to be having this conversation in public, on the record while litigation is pending over legislation we have passed.”

Roberson defended his decision to solicit the LCB’s legal opinion because of the “cloud of uncertainty” he said has been hanging over the reorganization effort.

Even so, Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky said the district is “moving at the speed of light” to reorganize the district by next school year. The newly minted school organizational teams (SOTs) — made up of parents, principals and staff members — have begun meeting to make budgeting decisions.

Weighted funding formula

A sticking point has been the much-discussed weighted student funding formula, which would allot more per-pupil dollars to special education students, children living in poverty, gifted students and students whose primary language is not English. Not all the weights have not been formally established, nor does the district have the money to implement them, Skorkowsky said.

The regulation to reorganize the district calls for the use of a weighted funding formula, but State Superintendent Steve Canavero indicated a willingness Thursday to allow the school district to proceed without full implementation of the formula. The district could seek a “variance” with the state on that issue, Canavero said.

That fix wouldn’t solve the looming funding issue, though.

Steve Canavero, superintendent of public instruction for the State of Nevada, testifies during the legislative advisory committee to reorganize the Clark County School District Thursday, Feb. 02, 2017, at the Grant Sawyer Building. Photo by Photoprizes LLC.

Skorkowsky said the district ran a simulation using estimated weights and discovered wide disparities in how it might affect schools. Under the simulation, the higher-performing Coronado High School stood to lose roughly $1.4 million, while the lower-performing Eldorado High School could have gained $1 million.

The district doesn’t want to create winners and losers under the new formula and risk jeopardizing student outcomes at those higher-performing schools. “That’s why we keep pushing for the additional funding,” Skorkowsky said.

The magic number to fully implement a weighted funding formula in Clark County? More than $600 million.

It would take roughly $1.2 billion to do so statewide, Canavero said.

District officials and multiple advocacy groups have been pushing Nevada lawmakers to tackle the problem during this year’s legislative session, which kicks off Monday. Roberson noted that reaching that billion-dollar sum will take time and shouldn’t be viewed as a reason to halt the reorganization.

“I just don’t want to get off track here on whether we can do this reorganization based on whether we fully fund these weights,” he said. “I don’t think that is a valid point.”

Decentralization of some services remains unresolved

The district also is figuring out how it will reach the reorganization mandate of funneling 80 percent of unrestricted dollars to schools. In the midst of the decentralization effort, school officials encountered issues moving special education staff, custodians and computer technicians from a central services budget to individual school budgets, he said.

As a result, the district only has transferred about 73 percent of unrestricted funds to schools, Skorkowsky said.

Committee members and school officials batted around several fixes but didn’t settle on any specific solution. Roberson said this is the kind of dialogue that’s been needed all along to work through kinks in the reorganization regulation.

Nevada Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R- Henderson, listens while Kevin Powers, Chief Litigation Counsel for the Legislative Counsel Bureau, testifies during the legislative advisory committee to reorganize the Clark County School District Thursday, Feb. 02, 2017, at the Grant Sawyer Building. Photo by Photoprizes LLC.

“I think we made a great deal of progress today,” he said after the meeting. “I am incredibly confident these issues can be resolved.”

Many of the problems can be fixed with “minor changes to language,” which could be accomplished in a relatively short period of time, Roberson said. The legislative committee likely will meet again in Carson City during the legislative session, but an exact date has not been set.

Caption: Pat Skorkowsky, Superintendent of the Clark County School District, is sworn in during the legislative advisory committee discussing the CCSD budget Thursday, Feb. 02, 2017, at the Grant Sawyer Building. Photo by Photoprizes LLC.

The Indy Explains: Southern Nevada education groups

Call it the education ecosystem.

In the past few years, a number of education-related organizations have sprouted to address varying concerns in Southern Nevada. Some are parent-led. Others boast heavy representation from the business community. Many advocate for similar policy reforms.

“The last couple of years, there has been a real bonding of nonprofits,” said Judi Steele, president and CEO of The Public Education Foundation. “We have so much work to do in this valley, and there’s a maturing, I believe, in the leadership of these groups, where we all see the value of working together.”

Still, go to a Clark County School Board meeting and it’s easy to be confused by all the education players — specifically, who they are, what they do and how they’re funded. And if you pay any attention to politics, you’ll likely hear many groups mentioned more often during the 2017 legislative session, which kicks off next week. Several intend to lobby for education policies, including money for the weighted student funding formula, which would allot more per-pupil dollars for special education students, children living in poverty, gifted students and students whose primary language isn’t English.

The Nevada Independent has begun untangling the education web, although there are certainly more organizations than the ones described below. Consider this an initial primer to understanding the education world of Southern Nevada.

H.O.P.E. for Nevada

H.O.P.E., which stands for “Honoring Our Public Education,” is a parent advocacy group that formed before the 2015 legislative session. It’s a nonprofit, nonpartisan group made up entirely of volunteers, said Caryn Shea, the group’s vice president.

“We didn’t really have an informed parent base that was helping to inform our legislative decisions,” she said.

The fledgling group met with as many legislators as possible leading up to the 2015 session and advocated for issues such as bonds for building new schools, better professional development for teachers, a K-12 “rainy day” fund and full-day kindergarten, Shea said.

The group is gearing up for the 2017 legislative session and wants to see lawmakers direct money toward the weighted funding formula, which would allocate more per-pupil funds to special education students, children living in poverty, gifted students and students whose primary language is not English.

“I would say our biggest stance overall is that if we had properly funded public education in years prior, we would not be facing this ‘choice’ buzzword war,” Shea said. “People would not be looking for alternatives that have less accountability as real choices for our children.”

H.O.P.E., which counts participation from 900-some families, does not accept funding from any individuals or businesses because it doesn’t want to be beholden to other entities’ agendas, Shea said. “It is strictly out of our own wallets,” she said

Rogers Foundation

The Rogers Foundation focuses on “transforming lives through arts and education,” whether that involves students scholarships or grants to related programs or initiatives in Southern Nevada, said Michelle Sanders, the director of finance and administration.

Local philanthropists Jim and Beverly Rogers founded it in 2013. Jim Rogers, a former chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, passed away in June 2015, so the foundation serves as a single channel for charitable efforts made to honor his legacy as an education champion.

The foundation does not affiliate with any political party, instead opting to pick the side that it deems will better student learning, Sanders said.

“The only thing we care about is improving education in Nevada,” she said.

Rory Reid serves as the foundation’s president, while Beverly Rogers remains its chairwoman. Reid was a Clark County Commissioner from 2003 to 2011. The foundation only uses legacy funding from the Rogers family.

Las Vegas Academy of the Arts on Monday, Jan 16, 2017. Photo by Sam Morris for The Nevada Independent

Educate Nevada Now

The Rogers Foundation powers Educate Nevada Now, an offshoot organization that focuses entirely on equity issues and uses legal means to achieve that goal.

“We’re kind of a law firm with a policy arm focused on education as a civil right,” said Sylvia Lazos, the policy director for Educate Nevada Now.

ENN has supported parents who filed a lawsuit against the state’s voucher-style Education Savings Account program. The lawsuit alleges the ESA program’s funding mechanism is unconstitutional, and, in September, the Nevada Supreme Court agreed; however, proponents of the program are trying to find a constitutional funding fix. The law firms representing the parents who filed lawsuit have an alliance with ENN, Lazos said.

During the upcoming legislative session, the organization will be lobbying for funding of the weighted funding formula, which grants per-pupil dollars based on students’ needs. Without actual dollars put toward the formula, it won’t be successful, Lazos said.

The organization receives 90 percent of its funding from the Rogers Foundation, with the rest coming from private donors, Lazos said. It has no public funding.

Nevadans for the Common Good

Nevadans for the Common Good, as its name suggests, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group trying to elevate the lives of the state’s residents.

The group is made up of 42 member organizations, most of which are churches, synagogues and nonprofits in Southern Nevada, said Rev. Dr. Marta Poling Schmitt, who serves as its vice president. She said a central question guides their work: “What’s the best for our citizens and families?”

The group identifies its key issues based on concerns voiced by members and then trains citizens to advocate for better laws, she said. Education ranks high on members’ list of concerns and, in the past, Nevadans for the Common Good urged lawmakers and the Clark County School District to address the teacher shortage.

Like other education-minded groups, Nevadans for the Common Good will be asking lawmakers to fund the weighted funding formula during the upcoming legislative session, Poling Schmitt said.

In terms of issues affecting public education, Poling Schmitt said, “We are in it for the long haul.”

Nevadans for the Common Good, which has an office and small staff, operates on member dues of no more than $12,000 from each participating organization, Poling Schmitt said. The group also is launching a donor campaign to raise funds and recently received an anonymous $100,000 donation, she said.

The Public Education Foundation

The Public Education Foundation, a nonprofit formed in 1991, provides programs and sources to improve teaching, learning and educational leadership in Southern Nevada.

Among other programs, the foundation runs an Executive Leadership Academy, Teacher Leader Academy and 21st Century Site-Based Leadership Program. The latter program is designed to equip Clark County School District officials with the skills needed to operate under the new reorganization model, which grants more decision-making power to individual schools.

The foundation also boasts a literacy initiative, scholarship program and teacher exchange, which provides supplies to public school educators. By the end of this year, the foundation will have awarded roughly $11.6 million worth of scholarships since its inception, said Judi Steele, president and CEO of the Public Education Foundation.

The foundation, which does not get involved in politics or advocacy work, relies on private sector donations for the bulk of its funding. About 15 percent of the nonprofit’s funding comes from governmental entities and the Clark County School District, Steele said.

The school district this year provided $750,000 worth of in-kind donations in the form of a counselor, support staff and several accountants to help the foundation, Steele said. The arrangement is essentially a “reassignment of school district staff to support what we are doing,” she said.

Some of the foundation’s largest private donors include the Another Joy Foundation, Caesars Entertainment, Engelstad Family Foundation, Kids In Need Foundation, Las Vegas Sands Corp., MGM Resorts International, Station Casinos, Wells Fargo and Wiegand Trust.

Communities In Schools Nevada

The Nevada arm of Communities In Schools, a national organization, tries to prevent students dropping out of school by addressing their needs from kindergarten through graduation.

Poverty serves as a barrier to graduation, so the nonprofit organization works with more than 100 state partners to connect students and their families to resources they need, said Chip Carter, the marketing director for Communities In Schools Nevada. For instance, if the child is hungry, the organization will work with Three Square food bank to provide meals.

“The poverty is just so intense here in Nevada,” Carter said. “One of the things we say over and over again is we can’t really hold the children accountable if their parents can’t provide for them.”

Communities In Schools, which receives funding from public and private sources, also has site coordinators in 47 Clark County schools, and it’s their job to serve as a “caring adult” for students who might need someone in their life to help with homework, getting to class on time or even combing hair, Carter said.

Susie Lee chairs the local organization’s board of directors. Prominent Las Vegas resident Elaine Wynn serves as chair of the group’s national board of directors.

Guinn Center

The Guinn Center, founded in 2014, is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization that conducts research and policy analysis on issues affecting Nevada. A major focus: education.

“We are not an advocacy group,” Executive Director Nancy Brune said. “We want to make sure those advocacy groups have the best data possible.”

The center has released policy reports looking at school facilities, financing for K-12 public schools, the Clark County School District reorganization and full-day kindergarten, among other issues.

While the center doesn’t do any advocating, it does train groups how to navigate the legislative process, Brune said. Its funding comes from board memberships, corporate foundation support and national and state grants, she said.

Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce

The Southern Nevada business community realizes that education is key to their success because the region needs well-educated employees and people willing raise their families here.

That’s why the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce has participated in a number of education-related initiatives over the years, said Cara Clarke, the chamber’s associate vice president of communications. The chamber currently is helping connect community business leaders with “school organizational teams,” made up of principals, staff members and parents,” which will be making budgeting decisions for each Clark County school under the new reorganization plan.

The idea is to leverage the resources and talents of the Las Vegas business community to help advance education reform in the county, she said.

The chamber also runs a longstanding program called “We Care,” which pairs chamber members with new teachers to answer any of their questions about the region, and engages in public policy discussions. The chamber supported a number of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s education reforms in 2015, such as funding for Victory and Zoom schools as well as the Read By Grade Three initiative, she said. The business association did not take a position on AB394, the bill to develop a plan to reorganize the Clark County School District, but now supports the plan.

The chamber is privately funded through membership dollars, events and sponsorships, Clarke said. It receives one grant from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority for a joint program but otherwise doesn’t get any government funding.

Photo courtesy of Nevada Succeeds.

Nevada Succeeds

Nevada Succeeds is a nonprofit that aims to involve the Southern Nevada business community in education policy issues.

President Brent Husson noticed a problem that led to the creation of Nevada Succeeds in January 2013: Business leaders generally left their education advocacy work to other business organizations, such as the chamber of commerce, which deals with numerous policy concerns — not just education.

“I wanted to make sure that business had a voice in education that didn’t get pushed to the bottom of the list,” Husson said.

The four-member staff of Nevada Succeeds develops a policy agenda and receives input from the board of directors, which includes members from companies like Station Casinos, Wells Fargo and Nevada State Bank, Husson said.

Nevada Succeeds will be lobbying for the weighted funding formula in the 2017 legislative session as well as funding for previous education reforms so that programs can continue, Husson said. The nonprofit also has been working with teachers, principals and parents to craft policy for better school leadership, teacher recruitment and retention and school culture.

All of Nevada Succeeds’ funding comes from private donors.

The Nevada Independent is taking suggestions for other education groups to profile as well as success stories about efforts to improve education in Nevada. Send ideas to jackie@thenvindy.com

Updated 9:27 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct information mistakenly given by a Las Vegas Metro Chamber official yesterday.

Disclosure: The Beverly Rogers Trust is a $150,000 donor to The Nevada Independent.

Source for feature photo: Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Andrei Niemimäki from Turku, Finland.

Clark County School District's $1.2 million turnaround man defends qualifications

Tom Skancke has been “a skilled transformational specialist” for 24 years.  

So said a social media post by his company, TSC² Group, on Thursday. The tweet included a statement-as-bio from Skancke emphasizing his “fundamental problem identification skills.”

Skancke is the man whose consulting firm recently received a $1.2 million no-bid contract to help the Clark County School District reorganize. Whether Skancke’s experience translates to the educational realm is a question school trustees and other community members have raised.

A Republican-controlled legislative committee approved the contract, requiring the school district to foot the bill, and created a Community Implementation Council (CIC) in October. The school district did not have a say in the matter.

The secretive nature of the process drew criticism along with doubts about TSC² Group’s qualifications for the yearlong gig. Skancke and Glenn Christenson, a former Station Casinos CFO who was appointed to chair the CIC and advocated for the contract, finally spoke to The Nevada Independent for the first time Thursday after repeated requests for Skancke’s resume over the past week.

The two men have worked closely together in the past, including at the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, where they pulled together leaders from the business and education sectors to talk about how to improve education in Southern Nevada.

“From any available information, it appears that the consultant does not have prior experience in education,” said Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada. “I cannot imagine the school district hiring someone based on that experience alone.”

But Skancke said his involvement should not be construed as an education project. It’s a business project designed to change the flow of money to give individual schools more budgeting and decision-making power, he said.

“We are changing the culture at the Clark County School District,” Skancke said. “That is not easy and that does not require education experience. That requires someone who is a change agent and understands how to effectuate a cultural shift.”

Skancke, who has been a business owner much of his career, still would not supply a resume or curriculum vitae. Instead, he passed along a list of career highlights.

Among them:   He led the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance through a transformation, created a “vision framework” for the Interstate 11 effort, and has been involved in telecommunications industry deregulation, regional flood control initiatives, and K-12 education policy changes in Nevada. The document TSC² Group created for The Nevada Independent did not provide further detail about his involvement in K-12 policy.

Skancke points to his work as the former head of the LVGEA as proof of a successful turnaround. He said he rebranded the former Nevada Development Authority, increasing the budget from roughly $1 million to $3.5 million and more than tripling its number of employees — from six to 20.

The school district employs nearly 42,000 people, making it the second largest employer in the state.

Skancke, who also has worked on transportation projects across the country, dismissed the notion that the size of the school district affects his ability to reorganize it. He said he has a specific formula to effect cultural change, which he declined to detail, that encourages employees to think differently about their operations.

Skancke said his mantra is an Albert Einstein quote:  “Without changing our current patterns of thought, we will not be able to solve the problems we created with our current patterns of thought.”

Decentralizing the school district and empowering principals, teachers and parents requires a new mindset within the giant organization, he said. So his task is changing the way people think and behave.

Skancke acknowledged the process is a “challenge” but said his passion for transforming education in this county is what drove him to accept the project.

“The children of our community and our country are the future of this nation, and we can’t ignore them and we can’t ignore certain groups of people,” he said. “My personal reason for doing this is I don’t want certain kids ignored. We must invest in these one- and two-star schools.”

And he has a team of help surrounding him.

Skancke’s two full-time employees at TSC² Group are heavily involved in the work. Michael Vannozzi, vice president of creative strategies, previously served as an aide to former Sen. Harry Reid and worked on K-12 and higher education issues. Andrew Doughman, vice president of communications strategies, is a former reporter who covered politics. (Doughman was an intern for the Nevada News Bureau, the parent company of The Nevada Independent, during the 2012 session of the Legislature.)

The group also is subcontracting with two education experts:

  • Michael Strembitsky, a Canadian educator who worked for the legislative committee and authored the reorganization plan.
  • Brian Knudsen, principal of BP2 Solutions, who previously worked on education initiatives with the city of Las Vegas and also served as president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Nevada.

In addition, Christenson said the group is working closely with Nevada Succeeds, the Nevada State Board of Trustees, Clark County School Board of Trustees, and the superintendent and district staff to implement the school system's reorganization.

“I can’t stress enough — it’s a team effort,” Christenson said. “It’s a connecting-the-dots effort.”

The group has completed its initial fact-finding phase and has moved into the deployment of transition recommendations. The consultants have been training administrators and staff under the new organizational model, helping district officials evaluate new technology systems and coordinating parental engagement efforts, Christenson said.

Even so, Story questions whether a business-oriented consultant firm was ever really needed, especially at the expense of taxpayers. “This is not a business,” he said. “This is a school district.”

Felicia Ortiz, a State Board of Education member who sits on the Community Implementation Council, disagrees. She said it’s crucial for the school district’s departments to function more efficiently under the new organizational structure because that’s how more money will wind up benefiting students in classrooms.

The district needed someone like Skancke with the business acumen to achieve that, she said.

“If (the school district) were to try and do all this work alone, they wouldn’t have enough resources,” she said.

School trustees filed a lawsuit, which mentions the consultants’ contract, against the Nevada Department of Education and State Board of Education last month over the reorganization.

Christenson acknowledged the reorganization work got off to a “rocky start” with some members of the community, but he thinks relationships are on the mend. He hopes the council and consultants will “win them over” over in the end when the community begins to see academic progress in classrooms.

That will take time, though. And to that end, Skancke offered a plea to current and future lawmakers:  Give the reorganization a chance.

“Every time we try to undo something that has never been fully implemented, who gets hurt?” he said. “The kids. The teachers.”

This story has been updated to say that Andrew Doughman was an intern for The Nevada Independent's parent company in 2012.

7:54 a.m. - 1/20/17

This story has been updated to take out the words "what he called" in the phrase "what he called a list of career highlights."

8:54 a.m. -1/20/17

Disclosure: Station Casinos has donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.