Seven Questions for School Board Trustee Linda E. Young

The longtime educator on what inspired her career, why the school district isn’t too big and what teachers can learn from Sidney Poitier

Photo by Anthony Mair

Photo by Anthony Mair

Since Linda E. Young took a job as a school psychologist with the Clark County School District in 1976, she has seen 10 superintendents (including interims) come and go, and the district grow from 83,000 students to more than 311,000 today. She served in a number of roles, including high school teacher, coordinator for special-education programs, high school dean, assistant principal and director of the district-wide Multicultural/Diversity and Equity Educational Programs before deciding in 2008 to run for school board trustee in District C. “The one thing I know,” she says, “is we are all here to complete a mission that we’ve been assigned, and I know I have to complete my mission. And my mission is education.”

Why pursue education as a career?

My mom lined my siblings and me up almost every other day when we were 4, 5 and 6, and told us that we were going to be teachers. We used to play teacher. She had a blackboard. We had to go to the library and get a book. We had to practice our times tables. We had to know the states and capitals.

How come you chose psychology as an emphasis?

I was a teacher, and I worked with students in the ninth grade and I was appalled at the kids who couldn’t read. They were psychologically troubled by it, and so I started to go for my master’s in counseling and they told me about school psychology, and I thought maybe I could determine what happened—why were some of these kids in the ninth grade and they couldn’t read or write? You have to work with students early—as early as 9 months, no later than a year—and you have to start helping them begin to understand the language process. You have to read to them and help them understand what words mean. Sometimes students had parents who waited until [their children] were 5-6 years old.

Why did you run for the school board?

I wanted to make a difference. I understood the issues for the most part. I understood the diversity and cultural differences and racial issues, but at the same time I saw the need for the district to grow and develop. It was a calling. It was an inner goal to be a voice for the disenfranchised, a voice for people who felt disconnected and disengaged—to try to make a difference in the lives of people and their children, and to bring some form of hope that education is still the gateway to a successful future.

What about Las Vegas inhibits the school district from performing at its best?

There’s [only] a surface appreciation of education; I don’t think there is a real deep-seated support. In [the tourism] industry—you’re not going to have someone with a master’s degree busing tables; you’re not going to have somebody working on their doctorate parking cars or cleaning rooms. The tourism industry can’t pay those kind of wages for highly educated people. … Really educated people have to, to some degree, move on or go to a community that supports that. [But] I think we’re moving in the right direction. We have companies coming in, and we have city managers, city councils and mayors who recognize this, and they’re trying to build a more diverse economy that promotes more of an educated workforce.

Was there any blessing from the recession?

We all had to rethink and reposition. We had to start collapsing programs, and we had to start being more analytical about what works and what doesn’t and start differentiating—we’ve got 10 here, we can only take five; which are the top five? Any time you have to pare down in any kind of economy, even in your personal finances, it puts you on another trajectory—another trail—and that can ultimately be good. Instead of going out to the movies, you just stay at home and rent a video. You got more family time, and instead of buying that $8 popcorn you buy a little something at the supermarket. … We’re learning; I don’t think we’ll go back to some of the things that we did before, and we won’t be as frivolous, either.

The notion of breaking up the district, which is the fifth-largest in the country, comes up periodically. Would there ever be a time in which you would support that?

If you structure your district in a manageable way, it’s like a large family. You set up little management systems where everybody [pitches in], and everybody gets what they need. I always get concerned when you break off a chunk where this group has a little more than that group.

What’s your favorite movie about education?

The one I remember a lot is To Sir With Love (1967) with Sidney Poitier. He really worked with those young people and captured them and let them know who he was to gain their respect. They would grow up and be somebody. And I just appreciated that. He was the epitome of a teacher.

In almost all of the photos of you, you’re wearing a hat. How did that start?

When I came on the board, I thought, “My God, do I want to do this? This is so hard; I don’t even know how to begin to do anything like a school board, and it’s going to be tough because I’m not really a politician.” But my compromise to myself was, well, you’re on the school board, you’re not working in the district, you can wear your hats. When I was working in the district, I couldn’t wear the hats—I don’t know if it wasn’t allowed; it just wasn’t protocol. I have 80-90 hats—black or red are my favorites. And I don’t have to worry about hairstyles!

What has surprised you the most about your time on the board?

How much work it is—how much time [you must devote] if you do it right. It’s so much work to stay on top of all the paper and to try to be aware of the issues and to read the backups and to study the budgets and to be informed about your 60 schools and your 230,000-some constituents and the phone calls, and to keep in mind the people who come after you [to resolve their problems].

Were there any “good old days” in the CCSD since you been here, when the kids were better educated, the teachers were more fairly compensated and there was less animosity among the leaders?

Each period is different and they have their uniqueness based on the time. During the era of Superintendent Kenny Guinn (1969-78), there was such an appreciation for education with him and the board and the community. I bet if we looked at statistics at what happened with students during that time it would reflect a higher achievement level. [The city was] much smaller, too.

Any misconceptions out there of what you can do as a trustee?

They think we have more power than we have. We as trustees don’t hire people. People call me about getting hired or wanting to get a position or wanting to be at a certain promotional level. And there’s a whole system and a process for that.

What was your impression of the superintendents you’ve worked for?

The first was Kenny Guinn, who had a magic touch, and in spite of all the things people might have said, he brightened the room when he came in. I didn’t know him much, but I liked him a lot. He was gracious under fire. Brian Cram (1989-2000) was a very committed man who understood the community. He took a lot of hard hits, but he was very gracious, [and] he would try to work with people. He would invite you in and sit down and try to talk about it. Carlos Garcia (2000-2005) came in at a time when the English Language Learners issue was very important. He tried to address that, tried to bring those diverse cultural groups together. Walt Ruffles (2006-2010) understood all the financial issues. He was just stellar at being able to take numbers and programs, and find the best results. Dwight Jones (2010-2013) opened up a new era of innovation and people talking about education in a different way. He got people off the dime and [out of] a rut and came up with another plan.

If you could snap your fingers and get one thing done, what would you do?

I want people to respect one another, care about each other and not have these barriers—racial, language or other diversity issues. I know it’s not the way the real world operates, but if we all come together as a group of people that truly respects and acknowledges each other, we can make a huge difference.

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