Las Vegas Sun

September 1, 2014

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Columnist Tom Gorman: On N.Y. candidate’s folding while holding a winning hand

Eric Nadelstern wanted to make our schools better, and then he chickened out.

Nadelstern is the highly lauded New York educator, something of a visionary, who apparently had cornered enough votes to be named Friday as the next superintendent of the Clark County School District.

He had been courted by a consortium of civic leaders and, if you believe the insiders, had landed the support of four School Board members -- just barely enough -- to get the job.

But he said four votes weren't enough to get the job done. He was on his way to the altar, and then bolted like a runaway bride. It makes you wonder how committed he was to his vision. Would five votes out of seven have given him the confidence to take the job? Six? A unanimous vote?

I suppose you can't fault a fellow for getting cold feet if nearly half of his employers were giving him a cold shoulder.

"Hey, Hon, we're moving to Las Vegas, but let's just rent for the first year or two."

"Sweetie, I'm taking that Vegas job, but let's keep those New York plates on the car."

"Hey, Love, that Vegas opportunity is too good to pass up, but let's keep our season subscription to the Met and the membership at the gym."

Poor Nadelstern, he was afraid to give up New York for New York-New York. And I suppose some people wouldn't blame him.

A lot of folks who don't work in the School District offices were squarely in his corner -- business and civic leaders who wanted someone gutsy to step up to the plate and take his best swing. They searched for a slugger and thought they found him in New York.

But not everyone in the dugout was on the same team. Or, at the least, they weren't playing with the same gamebook. They were rootin' for Walt Rulffes, the favorite son who already shares the superintendent's office with another administrator.

Rulffes is an expert on finances and budgets. If these two guys were competing on the season finale of American Idol, Rulffes would be singing standards and show tunes and Nadelstern would be performing a rock opera.

But Nadelstern apparently was worried that, without the full support of the School Board, his vision, his mission, would be stifled from the get-go. He'd be spending too much time counting to four. One wrong sneeze, one bad hair day, and it could be sayonara.

But c'mon, Nade, be a man. You work on the mean streets of New York. With high school kids. And teachers. It can't get much tougher than that. When's the last time you had the whole team behind you?

I Googled you this week, my layman's way of checking out your credentials. And I came across a profile of you in 2002, published on-line by Phi Delta Kappa, an international organization of educators that promotes innovative programs and visionary leadership. The author described you as "an intensely practical man among the romantics and idealists of the small-schools movement."

Practical schmactical. You wanted a unanimous vote? Sounds like a romantic notion to me. I doubt this School Board could agree unanimously on where to eat dinner. They were dead split a couple of years ago on something as simple as deciding how easily a school could set its own dress code.

So of course there would be dissension over whom to hire for the top job, especially given all the challenges facing the district. With this School Board, I bet if Superman -- or someone who walked on water -- applied, there'd still be a split vote.

So fine, Nade, duck and cover.

If you were nervous about only having four votes, it's probably best that you didn't come. At the blackjack table, you probably sit on an 11 when the dealer is showing a six.

Vegas isn't a place for wimps. We want people who will embrace a board majority and run with it, not cower in a corner.

But talk about cowering, just put yourself in Rulffes' shoes today. If Nadelstern had only four votes, Rulffes only has three.

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