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Four days before Christmas, the Board of Trustees for the Clark County School District dropped a bombshell.
The trustees filed a lawsuit against the State Board of Education and the Nevada Department of Education to stop the reorganization of the Clark County School District.
That reorganization is already underway.
Principals, staff and teachers are in the midst of leadership training. Parents have been solicited to volunteer to be on their school’s governing committees. Budgets are being put together to allow each school to run itself, like a franchise, in what is being called the Empowerment School Model.
But the Trustees want to put the brakes on this planning. The question is: Do they want to permanently stop the reorganization? Or do they just want more time?
And the biggest question is: What are the issues the Trustees have with the way reorganization is going?
First, let's get some background. In 2015, the legislature enacted a bill mandating that the Clark County School District be broken up in some way.
The Legislature then appointed a legislative committee, which was tasked with overseeing that reform. Then the legislative committee appointed the Community Implementation Council, and then the CIC hired a consulting firm.
Then, outside of this chain of command, sits the Clark County School Board.
Trustees Outside the Process
That outside part may be part of the problem. The board doesn't feel it had a meaningful role in the process and that its concerns were not taken seriously. Filing a lawsuit, they say, may just be a way to get the other players in the field to stop and listen to the concerns of the school district - sort of like a parent who finally starts yelling when their kids won't listen.
But the Trustees are also responding to criticism that they waited too long to become a part of the process.
"What we did was we waited for the committee to actually make recommendations and come out with what they were going to do," said newly elected Trustee President Deanna Wright. "We were trying to let the process work. We were trying to give as much information and input as we could but we were trying to stay out of it not trying to lead the discussion."
Wright would not talk about the lawsuit directly, but she did say that the district was "asking the judge...to freeze what is happening right now so we can work with the Department of Education to get some changes in the regulation."
Sylvia Lazos, the policy director at Educate Nevada Now, an education advocacy organization, pointed out that 97 percent of lawsuits get settled before they make it to court, and she thinks this one will, too.
It's not reorganization that the district has an issue with, it's how the reorganization has been implemented.
"My interpretation of this lawsuit is that 80 percent of the regulations are sound, great, wonderful, the community is 100 percent behind it… and 20 percent of the regulations just don’t work. That 20 percent is what the lawsuit goes to," said Lazos.
What's the Lawsuit About?
The lawsuit can be characterized in three broad categories:
State Senator Mo Denis, a Democrat from District 2, who sits on the legislative committee that approved the plan, agrees that his committee's actions may have crossed a constitutional boundary.
“This particular legislation was done differently than we’ve done anything before,” Denis said, “Where we’re actually crafting law when we’re not in session.”
Denis explained it was a “small sub-section of the legislature creating a law during the interim.” He believes some of the timing issues brought up by the Board of Trustees can be traced back to how quickly lawmakers put everything together.
But Ed Gonzalez, who as policy director for Assembly Republicans in 2015 helped craft the legislation, disagrees about the regulation's constitutionality.
He pointed out that the Legislative Council Bureau, which is essentially the attorney for the legislature, signed off on allowing the committee to come up with and implement a plan.
"The idea was for [the committee] to do the interim and do exactly what they did, which was to sit down and come up with a plan and recommend exactly how to do this," Gonzalez said.
It always comes down to money.
In creating the reorganization legislation, lawmakers promised it would be revenue neutral, but training costs money.
Moreover, the law requires statistical reporting that the district can't do, because its software management systems are 22 years old. To upgrade would cost anywhere from $14 million - which would put the district only 13 or so years behind - or as much as $40 million.
Lawmakers, Gonzalez said, did not know this was an issue when they crafted the law.
Senator Denis would not commit to allocating money for technology infrastructure.
"I know that we're going to look at this issue during the session."
The other issue - and sticking point - for the Trustees is the hiring of a consultant.
The consultant - the TSC Squared Group - was not hired by the State Legislature. It was not even hired by the legislative committee tasked with overseeing the implementation. It was hired by the Community Implementation Council that the legislative committee appointed.
They were hired with a no-bid contract. For $1.2 million. And the Board of Trustees had no say in making that hire.
That said, Trustee President Wright is grateful that TSC Squared's first report confirmed what the district has been saying for years: CCSD is underfunded. The report even pointed out the antiquated computer systems.
And it pointed out that the school district pays more money to educate higher-needs kids - money that is not compensated as of yet.
Trustee Wright argues that the reorganization cannot take place unless a weighted funding formula is put in place. But that formula is not scheduled to happen until 2021.
The lawsuit, said Lazos, may be a way to move that date up.
Gonzalez pointed out that the scope of the lawsuit is about more than weighted funding, technology and consulting fees.
"If it was about the consultant, the $1.2 million, if it was about the weighted funding formula, people will understand. But what they asked in this lawsuit for relief is to toss out the entire regulation. That is what is disheartening," said Gonzalez.
Ultimately, Lazos said that the Legislature, the Nevada Board of Education and the district need to get together and make things work - quickly.
"We need a compromise going forward so that we can have everybody on the same page as quickly as possible. Because it’s about kids, right now it’s about adult politics," she said.
Deanna Wright, newly elected president, Board of Trustees; Sylvia Lazos, policy director, Education Nevada Now; State Sen. Mo Denis, District 2; Ed Gonzalez, former policy director, Assembly Republicans