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July 25, 2014

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State subpoenas CCSD employees in test-score investigation

The news might have prompted an unusual private huddle at School Booard meeting

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Paul Takahashi

Clark County Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky and Clark County School Board President Carolyn Edwards address the media after the seven-member board unanimously appointed him as the leader of the nation’s fifth-largest school system on Wednesday, May 22, 2013.

Seven Clark County School District employees have been subpoenaed in an ongoing investigation into testing irregularities at a Las Vegas elementary school.

The principal and six staff members from Matt Kelly Elementary School were subpoenaed by the Nevada Attorney General's office, according to KLAS Channel 8, which broke the story. Nevada Department of Education officials were not immediately available for comment.

School District officials at Thursday night’s regular School Board meeting declined to comment on the case, citing a pending investigation. Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky and School Board President Carolyn Edwards said they had no knowledge of the subpoenas.

Within minutes of Channel 8’s story being published, the School Board held an unusual 20-minute recess.

A little after 6 p.m., Edwards announced the board would take a three-minute recess. She gave no reason.

The five School Board members present — Edwards, Deanna Wright, Patrice Tew, Linda Young and Chris Garvey — Skorkowsky and two School District attorneys exited the Edward Greer Education Center meeting room and went into a private back room. School Board member Erin Cranor was absent and board Vice President Lorraine Alderman resigned last week.

Young spoke with district staff for a few minutes at the start of recess, but she too entered the back room. Several minutes into the recess, Wright poked her head out from the back room and motioned to a School District police officer to enter into the back room.

After about 20 minutes, the School Board members, Skorkowsky and two of the district's attorneys emerged from the room and re-entered the meeting room. Absent was School Board member Tew.

When confronted about the unusual 20-minute recess after the meeting, Edwards said that Tew had a “personal issue,” which apparently required the attention of the entire School Board, superintendent and two attorneys. Tew was not immediately available for comment.

“We don’t discuss business in the back,” Edwards said of the board members during the recess.

School District attorneys Carlos McDade and Mary Ann Peterson, who said they were present in the back room, maintained that board members didn’t violate Nevada’s Open Meeting Law.

State law prohibits publicly elected officials from meeting outside of regularly scheduled and properly agendized meetings. The seven-member School Board would violate the open meeting law if there is a quorum of four members present at any gathering.

“There was no meeting (in the back),” McDade said. “There is no story.”

“They didn’t speak of any business,” Peterson added. “We had a family emergency for one of the trustees. She’s our friend.”

The unusual 20-minute recess has raised the concerns of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a libertarian advocacy organization that focuses on government transparency. NPRI is embroiled in a lawsuit with the School District over access to teacher email addresses, which the organization argues is a public record.

NPRI spokesman Victor Joecks said he doesn’t know if School Board members were discussing anything during Thursday night’s recess, which would constitute a violation of the state’s open meeting law. Although Joecks wasn’t present at the meeting, NPRI staffer Karen Gray was there, and reported of the unusual recess to Joecks.

Joecks said the circumstances surrounding the recess — the legal team's involvement and the district’s “superficial answer” about the recess — were “extremely suspicious.”

“It raises a lot of questions,” Joecks said. “Usually, if a trustee has to leave for a family emergency, it wouldn’t involve the whole legal team and school police going back there at some point. They also gave a superficial answer. It’s one of those situations where if there’s a lot of smoke, there’s likely fire.”

Kelly Elementary School has been under investigation since August 2012, when the School District noticed a wide swing in math and reading test scores as it was compiling its first version of the school star-rating system.

Between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, the percentage of Kelly third-graders proficient in math jumped 25 percentage points, from 44.7 percent to 69.4 percent.

In reading, the gains were even higher: 43 percentage point increase, from 44.7 percent to 87.8 percent proficient.

When looking at the past five years, Kelly’s test scores showed extreme improvements, from 12 percent math proficiency in 2007 to 73 percent in 2012, a gain of 61 percentage points. For comparison, the state’s math proficiency only went up 10 percentage points from 2007 to 2012.

When officials found the wide swings in test scores, the district immediately notified the state education department and requested a full review of the school’s test scores. At the time, three other elementary schools — Elizondo, Hancock and Parsons — were also under investigation for swings in test scores, but they have been cleared by the state.

In spring 2013, the School District took the precaution of sending central office administrators to proctor state assessments at the school. Those test scores, which haven’t been released yet to the public, show that Kelly students scored much lower in 2013, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

As Nevada moves toward a teacher evaluation system that ties teacher performance and eventually teacher pay with student test scores, the validity of student test scores becomes more imperative. Although Nevada officials are investigating Kelly, several Clark County elementary schools have seen increases of 20 to 30 percentage points in test scores.

In March 2012, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that Clark County was one of 200 school districts across the country that had a high concentration of suspect test scores after looking at patterns of test-score jumps. In 2011, about 7 percent of all classes were flagged for suspicious test scores, according to the Atlanta paper, which investigated a massive testing scandal that led to the indictment of Atlanta’s superintendent and more than 30 educators.

Clark County is continuing to cooperate with state officials in its investigation into Kelly elementary, Skorkowsky said in a statement, released after Thursday’s meeting.

“In all of our schools, it is imperative that tests are being administered in accordance with established procedures,” Skorkowsky said. “Parents have the right to be confident that state assessment results accurately portray what their students know and can do.”

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