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December 21, 2014

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Window opens for School District

Slower growth allows shift of focus from quantity to quality

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The economic realities that prompted the Clark County School Board to pull its $9.5 billion bond measure off the November ballot could also force the district to change the way it views itself.

What is the Clark County School District if it can no longer boast the fastest enrollment growth in the nation? Or when hiring 3,000 new teachers each year isn’t routine?

No one knows the depth or length of the downturn that has slowed new arrivals to Southern Nevada, but a sharp drop in enrollment could change the identity of a district where rapid growth has long been a convenient explanation for lackluster classroom performance.

“We’re going to have to redefine our brand,” School Board member Larry Mason said. “This is an opportunity to build a new identity.”

To be sure, the district isn’t shrinking — yet.

Even if enrollment remains flat this year, there are still more than 308,000 students to be educated. Twenty-three new and replacement schools, under construction or being designed, are expected to move forward. And nearly $450 million in renovation and modernization work is scheduled for the next two years, funded by the 1998 capital campaign.

But there is no question things are different. The bond measure, when combined with hotel room tax and property tax revenue, would have generated $9.5 billion for school construction.

Now, the district will likely wait until 2010 to seek voter support.

Superintendent Walt Rulffes said the decision wasn’t motivated by a fear of failure.

“We never, ever considered that we would lose on the ballot,” Rulffes said. “But with enrollment well below projections, and the economic conditions changing so dramatically, we owe it to the voters to have a more accurate model of what we expect to need.”

To Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who spent nearly 30 years teaching special education in the district, growth-related issues have been more than just a distraction.

“It was their excuse for everything,” Giunchigliani said. “It allowed people to run things under the radar.”

Rulffes acknowledged he’s never liked it when, while attending out-of-state conferences and workshops, he is invariably introduced as chief executive of the nation’s fifth-largest school district.

“I would rather be introduced as superintendent of a district with world-class academic programs,” Rulffes said.

But the superintendent disputed that growth-related issues have distracted the district from improving student achievement. He pointed to a dropout rate that has inched downward in recent years, the success of the expanded career and technical education programs, and more schools meeting the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

At the same time, Rulffes acknowledged that an enrollment slowdown would be helpful.

“Growth issues will be less of a distraction,” he said.

Rapid growth, coupled with a transient population and a huge influx of at-risk students and English language learners, created “something of a perfect storm,” said Veronica Davey, senior director of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, who oversaw a grant the foundation awarded the district several years ago.

“If things slowing down provides them with some breathing room, they should take full advantage of that,” she said.

Growth issues should never displace student achievement at the top of any district’s priority list, said Davey, adding that she has no reason to believe that’s been the case in Clark County.

Giunchigliani said she expects the district’s enrollment to begin rebounding in a couple of years, leaving a small window of opportunity for the district to take stock of its performance.

“They have to take advantage of it,” Giunchigliani said. “Are they going to examine whether they’ve taken a scattershot approach to school programming? Have they taken teachers out of classrooms and stuck them in special assignments when they didn’t really need to go? This is an opportunity to really evaluate what’s worked and what hasn’t.”

School Board member Carolyn Edwards said there is no better place to start than with the district’s attendance zone boundaries, which were last overhauled in 1994.

What has evolved since then is a baffling school boundary checkerboard, with some students bused past four campuses closer to their homes before reaching their destinations. To the frustration of parents, elementary schools have been forced to go year-round to accommodate crowding while neighboring campuses were allocated extra portable classrooms and allowed to stay on a nine-month schedule.

A host of equity issues need to be addressed, Edwards said, and with fewer new students needing seats, the time might be ripe.

If the School Board is looking at the lull as an opportunity to try new approaches, it should start by extending the school day, said Davey, who oversees the foundation’s nationwide initiatives to improve urban public education. It’s no surprise that the more time students spend on task, the better they perform academically, she said.

Adding minutes to the school day can be costly, but districts across the country are coming up with innovative ways to do it. Clark County might soon be in a position where such an undertaking isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

Admitting that a change of course is needed, as the School Board did in pulling the bond measure off the ballot, isn’t always easy for elected officials, Davey said.

“I would commend them for being upfront about the numbers and not seeking more taxpayer dollars than needed,” she said. “Honesty with their constituency is critical.”

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