Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky talks about teachers, school funding, accountability — and dealing with that mercurial beast, the state Legislature
There are a lot of toys in Pat Skorkowsky’s office — an Etch-a-Sketch on the coffee table, a Hoberman sphere on the conference desk. Balls, puzzles, educational knick-knacks. Even his colorfully patterned pen looks like something to play with. Do kids visit him a lot? “Oh no, they’re for him,” a PR rep explains. “He’s a kid at heart.”
For the first 40 minutes of Desert Companion’s interview, Skorkowsky hid this lightheartedness well. His guarded demeanor may be explained by the answer he gave when we asked how he would sway public opinion in favor of taxes to fund education, should a repeal of Governor Sandoval’s funding system go to a vote. “That’s one of the challenges,” he says. “Positive media does not sell.”
Skorkowsky has reason to be wary: Concrete successes, such as raising the district’s graduation rate from 59 to 72 percent in four years, are continually eclipsed by fiascoes, such as a November cyber-attack that caused administrators to lose a semester’s worth of evaluations. The district can’t seem to catch a break. Nevertheless, Skorkowsky seems upbeat about what’s ahead: a revamped governing structure with more local control, greater funding for students who need it most, and, hopefully, testing scores that bear the fruit of hard-won reforms. Then, maybe, he’d be more inclined to let loose and play.
We spoke to the CCSD superintendent on Dec. 8, a day after the Summit on Nevada Education at UNLV, which brought out everyone from Gov. Sandoval to Google executives to, of course, Skorkowsky.
Two and half years into your tenure as superintendent, how are you doing?
I love my job. I think that we’re at an exciting time in education in the state of Nevada, and particularly Southern Nevada, where we’ve seen some great increases in some of our data points. We’ve seen unprecedented commitment by the legislature to education, and so it’s a nice time to be in this mix, to be able to see what’s going to happen.
If the controversial school choice/education savings account law (in which parents are eligible for $5,000 to send their child to private school) survives its legal challenges and becomes a reality, are you anticipating an immediate impact on the district?
There’s a first-year no-harm clause, so that if a student was enrolled in the district and we were receiving funds, that will stay with us the first year. That’s because of the 100-day requirement piece. In the future, there are potential financial impacts to it. The biggest challenge that we face is making sure it is equitable for every student to have that choice. And right now, I don’t know that it is.
We just received numbers from the Treasurer’s office, and there have been approximately 3,800 applications. We believe that, from indications from them, about 3,000 of them are students who reside in Clark County. So, there will be some impact. If they’re spread out across the valley, it won’t be as significant, but we don’t know where these students are coming from at this point in time. But if they’re entirely from one attendance zone, that has created a problem for that school. We would then potentially be required to change the attendance zone to increase it so that more students have the opportunity to go that school, yet, we can’t guarantee that if all those students were to leave that school and then come back, then we would now have created an overcrowding situation. So, this is … tricky.
Three thousand students qualifying for $5,000 means $15 million out of your budget. How does that make you feel?
It concerns me, and it would mean that we have to look at our budget even more closely as we go forward. That’s why it’s so essential to find out where these students are, so we can plan accordingly. It impacts my zoning decisions that we usually make by the end of February for the next school year. It impacts how we do budgeting, because if that school is on a flexible budget and we’re going to have that many fewer students, that’s that much less funding going to that school. So, there are so many factors that we can’t plan for, because we don’t have the data to support it. But we have to plan.
When these things are happening in the Legislature, what is your relationship to that? Are you kind of like, “What are they doing and how do I deal with it?”
I spend a lot of time up there. I make frequent day-trips up there to have those conversations and understand what the intent of the law is and to let them know the positives to it and any unintended consequences that will happen. This session, we all know, was a unique session — we’ve never seen anything like it in the state of Nevada, so that meant the typical methods of communication were changed.
It was a challenge, because there were so many moving parts, and things moved so quickly through committees that there were times when input was not fully given, I don’t believe, on the unintended consequences, or what should have passed and didn’t in that same aspect. So, it really was a challenge for everyone. People were spending literally days and days and days of 18-, 19-hour days, trying to figure out what was going on and prepare for the next day.
I have three lobbyists, and it was still intense. And whenever they call, I drop whatever I’m doing and take their call, and it may be a call that says, “You need to get up here tomorrow,” and I would go, because it was important to make sure our voice was heard.
We’d love to hear a story about one of those calls you got and trips you had to make.
I remember one day where we gathered up four superintendents from the state of Nevada, and we went and, literally, had to go in and meet with every leadership position in both the Assembly and the Senate to make sure they understood that the focus of education needed to remain where it was at, but that there were challenges that they were going to face if they didn’t get things going. So, you go up and have those tough conversations and sit down — the phone calls on the weekend from legislators who said, “OK, we may have to give them this to get this.” And you have to sit there and weigh those situations and think about the greater good of the Clark County School District and remember that those decisions that are being made up there by 63 impact 320,000 students, and how do you balance those difficult choices, saying, “OK, you know, I can do this, but this has got to be put in place.” It’s a game, a political game that teaching first and fifth grade didn’t prepare me for.
Some of your predecessors — Superintendents Carlos Garcia and Dwight Jones, for instance — were out-of-state hires. You’ve spent 27 years in the school district, starting as a first-grade elementary school teacher. How has that influenced how you approach this job?
I think it’s definitely given me an advantage to be able to navigate the system. I know all of the players that have been involved and have worked with most of them throughout my entire career. I know when a situation arises I can pick up and call that person, so I can get things done more quickly in some aspects.
It’s very hard for me to go anywhere in a community and not run into somebody who works in the school district and to take the time to say hello, especially if it’s somebody I recognize from a different role I was in. It’s an amazing opportunity for me to remain connected to the classroom. And there’s not a day that doesn’t go by when I don’t miss being a classroom teacher.
There’s still quite a bit of soreness about No Child Left Behind. With that having come to an end now, have you had to work to heal that rift?
I think with the changes in the way that accountability is going to happen, and then with the uncertainty of our current teacher evaluation system and that student accountability piece that’s in there — that has really made it difficult, because there’s uncertainty in the teaching profession right now as to what it’s going to look like and how it’s going to play out. So, we’re constantly trying to reassure teachers. But my challenge is, I’m reassuring them based on the same information that they have. So, I don’t know that I’m being that comforting at this point in the process.
You mentioned that at the UNLV Summit on Education, that uncertainty around evaluation and accountability. What’s your level of input into that process?
Until the new bill gets authorized — I believe the Senate is voting on it today and it’s a 1,078-page bill, so there will be lots of interpretations that have to be done — both at the federal and state level, we’ll have our own group start interpreting what it means and where local control can be. The biggest challenge is, how do we effectively measure? In the past, all our assessment systems were based on multiple choice, and it was easy to get an answer fairly soon on how a student had progressed. That doesn’t measure the skills that were talked about yesterday by (keynote speaker and “chief education evangelist” for Google) Jaime Casap. It doesn’t mesh with where the world is going. So, you have to balance those pieces of accountability with the skills we need to be measuring for our students to be successful in the world of the future.
And outcomes, the new target, are hard to measure, right?
What was exciting yesterday, though, was that we have classrooms that are doing what he talked about: project-based learning, collaboration. I’ve seen amazing classroom lessons where kids get together and solve problems in a collaborative way and are able to have discourse about the answers in groups to get to the rationale for what’s the best solution to a problem. So, it’s using technology. It’s been exciting to see that, but we have to replicate it on a larger scale. But then comes the measurement piece. If they’re not able to transfer that into an assessment that’s standardized so that we can be measured against other students and other districts, then it’s a major challenge.
Over the last 20 years, there’ve been a number of district reorganization plans, from a 10-district plan to five subregions to 15 performance zones. Your plan is to create seven instructional precincts. What sets your idea part?
I’ve worked under all those, so I understand where all the challenges and successes were, and how they could have been more successful. The difference in my mind and what we put down on paper is that we have created a system for stakeholder groups to have input at a more local level, meaning that parents have a system where one is elected from each school group to serve on a larger committee that is an advisory committee to the instructional precinct, and that committee selects one person to sit on the overall advisory board. So, there’s almost like a structure set up so that people are guaranteed a say in what is going on through different groups. We never had that in the past iterations. It gives support staff, it gives our administrators and teachers all a say. It gives business and community a chance to sit at the table and have input on what we’re trying to accomplish within the instructional precinct.
But there are some important things we still have to look at: One, it has to increase student achievement. Two, it has to make sure the voice of the community at the local level, down at the school level, is heard, and that they have a voice in decisions made at a higher level. Three, it has to make sure we don’t create any barriers. When you look at all the iterations of the 1995 report (proposing a 10-district plan), it created barriers to student access, choice, opportunity. The minute we do that, we’ve created bigger problems for our students. Four, the reason that I went for was, I needed to ensure that we protected the $4.1-billion (construction) bond we were given at the beginning of the session. I needed to make sure we kept the overall district intact so that we did not cost taxpayers more, or force them to pay more in interest, with less money going into rehab, modernization and building of new schools.
So, what’s the relationship between your reorganization of the district and the bill mandating the study to break up the district?
Mine was a response to that, to get them at least an idea of how it could work. And, the only reason I chose trustee districts is that has gone through a formal vetting process, when we redistricted. But I will go back to the 1995 study and then to the Guinn report that came out that said there is no equitable way to divide this district into sub-districts without creating minority districts or barriers for kids. So, it may be changing the way we do business. Instead of necessarily restructuring, completely, everything, maybe just changing the way we do business and providing that decision-making at the local level with accountability measures to support the money that’s going to those schools.
What would happen if the referendum to repeal the tax package were successful?
It would devastate all the major programs that we have. Zoom Schools — we now have 33 Zoom Schools; 50 percent of those would go away. The Victory Schools, all but 22 would go away. We would lose the momentum for the Read by Grade 3 initiative, which we’re already working on. We got the first round of grants to plan for the second year. We’d lose the one-to-one technology program that was talked about yesterday. All of that would be gone. So, we would then have to come up with the money on our own to continue all these programs, which would severely hurt student achievement across the board.
What else can you do as the person who’s in charge of 74 percent of the students in the state, to help change the conversation and change voters’ minds?
When I talk to people, I talk about the positives in Clark County School District, they all look at me and say, “Why didn’t we know this?” That’s one of the challenges: Positive media does not sell. It does not get priority booking on any media outlet whatsoever. And we work hard, we generate positive media stories out of our office on an almost-daily basis to get the word out. We have to now take it to the people ourselves, as opposed to trying to rely on the media. So, we’re beginning to start with a media advisory group from business and community members who have the same passion and the same commitment to giving the information out to all of our constituents. When you look at our perception outside of the state of Nevada, Clark County School District is seen as a leader. When you look at taking a graduation rate that was 59 percent to 72 percent in a four-year period, with a major large urban district — and the hundreds thousands of students of that we’re dealing with — it’s unheard of. When you talk about our advance placement numbers, and the number of students at the high school level who are not only taking AP courses, but who are also passing those so that they’re ready for the rigor of college — and whether or not the credit is accepted, they’re ready for that rigor when they walk in the door. When you look at our rates, no other district is able to come even close to those numbers. Yet, I don’t get the chance to make sure that we give credit. And our teachers and our administrators and our schools are the ones that really deserve it, because they’re making these things happen.
The “Pledge of Achievement” on the district’s website has a list of goals and benchmarks. Which goals are seeing progress, and which need improvement?
The easiest one to point to is the graduation rate. The career tech education and advance placement numbers are phenomenal. We’re well on track to meet those goals, both in graduation and in career and tech ed. The most difficult to measure is family and community engagement, but we have seen a significant increase in parent participation. We have created the family and community engagement services department, which now is working to get parents engaged and to become advocates for their children and teach their neighbors how to become advocates for their children. We had 80 participants in our parent university last year. They went through an extensive training program, where they learn to not only help their child, but also help them navigate the system and teach other parents how to do it too. We have eight centers across the valley where we’re doing these parent engagement advocate activities, creating parent ambassadors, so that every school has an ambassador who can come to the central office. Then, these parent ambassadors go back and share information and can create that groundswell of information to share and make sure their neighbors and community know what’s going on.
Is there something you wish you could do but can’t with the tools and funding you have?
What I wish is that we could — I don’t want to say glamorize, but that’s what we need to do: make teachers, and the profession of teaching, become the new… the new “It” thing to do. The challenge is that teachers are struggling, and they work so hard to do what they do on a daily basis, and they do it for the right reasons, and that frustration when there are substitutes and not enough substitutes to cover the classes, and they have to pick up extra kids or classes— it’s exhausting. And teaching has become one of those fields where we have to build back up the respect and ensure that our teachers are seen as shining stars. It’s one amazing thing about our partnership with The Smith Center and their Heart of Education awards, which will recognize up to 800 teachers with an event. Of those, 20 finalists will receive $5,000, which is an amazing thing.
It actually, then, helps to recognize the teachers who go above and beyond every day, and to send that message to the community that we value our teachers and teaching is a noble profession, a viable profession for people to go into.