Las Vegas Sun

September 22, 2014

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Scott Dickensheets:

In search of common ground on education spending

The comments under this paper’s story last week about the governor calling for teachers to accept a pay cut — while sometimes grammatically and syntactically challenging — were gratifying in their way. Fewer people than I expected barked the usual noise about pampered teachers needing to take a hit like everyone else.

Sure, several of the positive commenters were no doubt teachers, some were merely agitators, and a few were, I hope, the product of a school system other than ours. But there also seemed to be a dawning recognition that cutting into an already distressed system isn’t, in fact, the best way to make it work better.

Small reassurance, I know. But for those of us concerned about shoring up education, tiny handholds of optimism are all we have to cling to right now.

These are odd and frustrating times in education. The call to do more with less — not, in itself, a bad sentiment — becomes, in successive years, an ongoing mandate to do even more with even less. When I hear that Dwight Jones, the new superintendent of the Clark County School District, wants to commission a privately funded study of the district’s $2 billion budget to analyze “our return on investment,” I can both applaud his due diligence and rue the application of a business-model mind-set (“return on investment”) to an institution that we all should consider more of a public trust.

So, to be clear, I’m progressive on education. I think we need to pump money in, not suck it out, and if we have to, for example, rob the mining industry to do so, oh well.

Nonetheless, although I am (full disclosure) married to an educator, and (additional disclosure) know some educators, and (I’m on a roll here!) have been somewhat educated, I’ve never been an actual, sneakers-on-the-ground educator. There are limits to my practical knowledge. Which means, if I’m being fair-minded, there are times when I should yield the floor to someone who’s been there.

Enter “L.” That’s how I’m identifying a local teacher who recently left the profession after 26 years. She doesn’t want to publicly jump into the fray, but after one of my recent columns — I was berating Gov. Brian Sandoval for underfunding schools — she thought there were a few things I should know. So she sent me a passionate 1,704-word e-mail titled “Waste at CCSD?”

That’s a common theme among the School District’s harshest critics, that it’s heavy with trimmable fat, but L’s note was more rueful than scathing. She’s saddened by what she perceives as questionable decision-making, squandered materials and bureaucratic blind spots that are bogging down education.

Not all of her complaints sound compelling — show me a sizable operation that doesn’t waste copy paper or fritter away valuable time in meetings for meetings’ sake. Nor is it surprising that there’s some unwieldy bureaucracy. Anytime two or more people work together, the first thing they do is generate reams of paperwork covering their own asses. Given that this is the nation’s fifth-largest school district, there’s going to be red tape.

But she makes some good points, too, some small and specific (why ferry a couple of special ed students to school in full-size buses instead of a properly equipped van?) and others that highlight avoidable inefficiencies. Textbooks that didn’t get used; pricey science kits for grades in which science isn’t regularly taught; school-rehab projects in which fairly new materials get replaced with brand new. “A 1-year-old, perfect chalkboard, recently installed in my room — thrown in a Dumpster.”

Then, of course, there’s the testing, testing, testing.

“My friends tell me the greatest waste in their schools today is the endless red tape, documenting and testing which goes on daily,” she writes. “When I came to the district in 1981, teachers were constantly being cautioned not to ‘teach to the test.’ In today’s schools, there is no time for creativity because, if those endless tests aren’t passed, schools will lose federal funds. Well, guess what the teachers are doing to pass those tests?!”

Teaching to it, of course.

What a waste.

Point taken, L. For me, her e-mail was a nice reminder that somewhere between Sandoval (“Cut!”) and Dickensheets (“Spend!”) there ought to be a reasonable middle ground: Think of it as doing more with not quite so much less.

Here’s hoping Sandoval, the test-happy feds and the rest of us eventually decide to seek it.

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  1. Often, people that see "waste" are just "under-educated"...

    For example;
    "(why ferry a couple of special ed students to school in full-size buses instead of a properly equipped van?)"
    Probably because the full-sized bus is already on the road, has some free time betweeen regular-ed routes, has a driver that's already being paid, has the proper equipment, (wheelchair lift), & is MUCH safer than a similarly equipped "van".

    Yes, there is waste. Inherent in any bureaucracy is a waste factor.
    However, a LOT of TRIMMING has been done in the past few years in an effort to slim down the budget without affecting classroom students via draconian budget cuts.

    BOTTOM LINE:
    "The call to do more with less -- not, in itself, a bad sentiment -- becomes, in successive years, an ongoing mandate to do even more with even less."
    Exactly.
    And that AIN'T GONNA WORK.

  2. As a person who had a rigorous elementary and secondary school education at "Union Free School District No. 1" in New York, and as a person who benefitted from an excellent public and private education through the doctoral level, I must reiterate my view. The Clark County School District is the second-worst public school district I have ever encountered.

    I have watched as two young women who are family members, one very bright and one a special education student, have battled their way through CCSD's uncaring bureaucracy. Both of them have encountered teachers who are illiterate, venal, demeaning or racist. The number of bad teachers they have encountered is far greater than they number of good, caring teachers. The number of helpful school administrators in the CCSD who they have encountered can be counted on one hand.

    Union Free School District No. 1's students were the children of factory workers and tradesmen. So good was the school system, in each graduating class of 1200, at least 10% went on to Ivy League or equivalent colleges. When I think back to what Union Free School District No. 1 accomplished, with far less money, I can only conclude that the only way to "fix" CCSD is to abolish it, and start over with neighborhood oriented, parent managed school districts graduating no more than 1200 students per year.

    The difference between NY Union Free School District No. 1 and CCSD is that at UFSD every year the local school district's parents and taxpayers voted on the school district's budget. In contrast, CCSD is not directly unaccountable and receives boatloads of cash from the state. It was that direct veto power in the hands of parents and taxpayers which kept the UFSD administrators and teachers on their toes.

    Of course, I'm dreaming because CCSD's administrators, bureaucrats and principals will never agree to be accountable, or give up their power let alone their cushy jobs. And of course, Nevada's union funded Democrat legislators will insure the lack of school district accountability, and will insure the continued abject failure of CCSD in teaching the vast majority of its students, at all grade levels.

  3. How to shear a sheep:

    1- hold sheep still and firmly in place

    2- turn on shears, while calming the sheep with soothing, sheep-like, sound byte murmurs

    3- shear in even strokes, removing fleece, while carefully not cutting into the skin.

    4- Once fleece has been removed, release sheep and return it to its flock...until next year's fleecing.

    ------------------------------------------------------------

    Warning: Stop shearing at the skin level, unless you intend to eat the sheep.

  4. Who is Cynical Observer and why should anyone believe what it has written?

  5. Gmag in the 1950s the Clark County School District employed 1 person for every 24 students. Today they have one person for every 8 or 9.

    In what way have they trimmed down?

  6. "L." is speaking the truth. Just go past and inspect a school trash dumpster either at the end of the school year or beginning, and you will find incredible finds tossed in there as trash/waste. It has been to my personal horror, being a witness to this, reporting it to a site administrator, and well, not seeing much done about it. As a person who recycles and doesn't generate much classroom trash/waste, this simply stuns my sensibilities.

    Every year, instead of finding ways to recycle, sell, or just donate texts, kits, and etc. these items find their way into the dumpster. Some items ended up being needed for the next school year, and had to be ordered again. My head simply spins.

    It would do the new Superintendent well to have a way this could be reported, without an employee getting into trouble reporting it.

    Keep in mind most decisions as tossing texts, materials, and fixtures must be cleared by the school site administrator. And life is real hard if you cross them.