As the Valley’s population has increased over the past three decades, so too has the number of residents calling for the breakup of the Clark County School District—which, at 319,000 students and counting, is the fifth largest in the country. Well, those multi-district proponents are about to get their wish—sort of.
One of the final bills to pass before the 78th Nevada Legislature adjourned was AB 394, which involves breaking the CCSD into smaller parts. When Governor Brian Sandoval signed the legislation June 11, many assumed it was simultaneously a death sentence for the CCSD and a green light to create multiple school districts within the county. Not so, says Assemblyman David Gardner, who sponsored the bill, which he says calls for “autonomous zones” within the CCSD. “The idea was mostly to give educational control to smaller subgroups within the district,” says Gardner, R-Las Vegas.
Under the new law, the reconfiguration of the CCSD into “precincts” is to be completed by 2018, with a nine-person committee tackling all the various components over the next three years, including deciding the final number of precincts and their boundaries. When it comes to educational matters, Gardner says each precinct will operate like its own school district, but the plan is for the county to continue to oversee many of the logistical and support issues. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to have individual precincts handle things like transportation, purchasing, food service,” Gardner says.
If you’re equal parts curious and confused as to how this new system will eventually come together, you’re not alone. “We’re fascinated to see how this is going to play out,” says Joyce Haldeman, CCSD’s superintendent of government affairs. “The district will be cooperative, but, except for the fact that the [Clark County] School Board gets to appoint one member to the committee, we’re not consulted on how the breakup will happen.”
Opponents of dismantling the CCSD have long argued that doing so would only exacerbate some of the biggest problems that have been plaguing student achievement, namely overcrowding, transiency and poverty. Put simply, there’s been concern that splitting up the district would result in a pie with several uneven slices. “The fear [was] that the monies distributed to the different districts [wouldn’t] be similar,” says Dr. Jeffrey Gelfer of UNLV’s Department of Education and Clinical Studies. “In the lower economic area you may have more people to provide for and not as much money to provide with.”
Gardner says such concerns are why the Legislature opted for the plan it did. “In the past, people who had been trying to do this had burned a lot of bridges by basically trying to stick it to certain groups or make it so certain groups did really well,” Gardner says. “We didn’t break up the school district [because] we didn’t want some people to win the lottery and other people to get screwed.”
Gardner insists that, regardless of precinct, each school will receive the same amount of per-pupil funding, with one exception: He says a separate bill will create a weighted formula that will give additional help to schools in need. “There will be more funding for schools with a high English-language learner population or high-poverty population,” Gardner says. “They’ve [done this] in a lot of other states to some benefit. Some communities have more [financial disparity] issues than others. The extra money is supposed to try to help overcome that.”
Should it come to fruition, this additional funding for schools in need would be a case of better late than never. A recent study by the Education Law Center and Rutgers University about school-funding fairness measured (among other things) how much money students in high-poverty districts receive compared with low-poverty districts. Nevada ranked last. Dead last. As in, one spot behind North Dakota, where high-poverty students get 80 cents to every dollar that low-poverty kids receive. In Nevada, it’s 48 cents.
The plan for rectifying that inequity figures to fall to the nine-person committee, which will lead the three-year study that’s expected to cost about $1 million. Once the committee draws up a basic plan, Gardner says the public will be allowed to weigh in during a series of meetings “to see if there are any significant issues that somehow we all missed.”
Two questions the public almost certainly will want answered are ones Haldeman is already asking: Is this really going to improve student learning? And how much will it all cost? “We want to make sure there’s not an undue cost that [would] take away from spending in the classroom,” Haldeman says.
For now, it seems the only concrete thing we know is this: The way Clark County goes about educating its students is about to change—perhaps drastically.