EDITORIAL: New scrutiny for school budgets, programs

Pat Skorkowsky has been clear: He believes the Clark County School District needs more money to erase underachievement within the country’s fifth-largest public education system.

But the superintendent also made it clear Monday, during his first State of the District address, that schools do not use existing funding at maximum efficiency and do not provide taxpayers with an adequate return on their investment.

To accomplish the former, Mr. Skorkowsky knows he must fix the latter.

The core of his Monday address was a commendable display of honesty and optimism. For many years, the school district’s administration blamed failures on inadequate funding — even when tax money was pouring in faster than they could spend it. They claimed to have all the answers, but not the dollars. More money would, by itself, fix most problems, making accountability measures moot.

Today, with unemployment and underemployment still too common across Southern Nevada, with households and businesses still struggling to rebuild after being torn to pieces by the Great Recession, such arrogance and ignorance won’t sell.

Mr. Skorkowsky gets this. As reported last week by the Review-Journal’s Trevon Milliard, the superintendent vowed to put every dollar the school district spends — some $2 billion per year — under the microscope. His administration is analyzing every program, every contract, with a promise to change or ax whatever isn’t working. And he has accepted outside help to accomplish as much.

The superintendent said several local chief executive officers and former school superintendents have volunteered to help scrutinize budgets, starting this summer, to ensure funding flows to classrooms. And Mr. Skorkowsky pledged that the school district would not ask state lawmakers for additional revenue until his budget evaluations are complete and program changes are introduced.

He already has a big change in mind, one he’s not waiting for the Legislature to enact. As part of a “Pledge of Achievement” strategic plan unveiled Monday, the school district will require all children to be proficient in reading by the end of the third grade. Lawmakers previously gave scant consideration to bills that would have prevented the advancement of illiterate third-graders to the fourth grade, although support for such a requirement appears to have bipartisan support heading into the 2015 session. Exactly how Mr. Skorkowsky’s plan will work isn’t clear — he didn’t say whether students would be held back — but the need for such a plan couldn’t be more obvious. Achievement data indisputably show that students who lack grade-level readings skills in elementary school and are nonetheless advanced are doomed to fall further and further behind, making it impossible to learn advanced concepts in high school.

Another worthy goal of the plan: combatting grade inflation. Students who lag in core proficiencies are consistently awarded not only passing grades, but high marks, fooling them and their parents into believing they’re doing well. If a student can’t read or solve basic math problems, course grades should reflect it.

The Clark County School District has many excellent schools. Systemwide, however, achievement levels are well below national averages. The district’s glut of substandard campuses hurts economic development efforts because they create the impression that every school in the valley is lousy.

Mr. Skorkowsky has laid forth a righteous vision with the right approach. It’s an important step for the district, one that holds the potential to benefit students and rebuild the system’s credibility with taxpayers and businesses.

However, if the school district is serious about attracting more community support for the “Pledge of Achievement,” it has to present the initiative in a way that’s easy to understand. The website dedicated to the strategic plan, www.pledgeofachievement.com, is jumble of gibberish. There are more than 100 bullet points written in bureaucratese, many of them redundant. It’s an unfortunate irony that the school district, in launching a push for improved literacy, has delivered a document that’s impossible to read. It’s written for the education establishment, not the community.

For heaven’s sake, boil it down. Lift literacy, be honest and accountable, engage parents, put classrooms first. Is that so hard?

And if Mr. Skorkowsky is serious about efficient spending and return on investment, he’ll find a way to address the school district’s worsening building maintenance backlog. Reformed academic programs are decidedly less effective when students have to be sent home because the air conditioning is broken or the roof is leaking. In this area, especially, business leaders can lend expertise. Simply allowing infrastructure to deteriorate to the point that costly replacement is necessary isn’t a plan — it’s nonfeasance.

Those issues aside, Mr. Skorkowsky deserves credit for bringing forward big ideas that address some of public education’s most urgent shortcomings — and for not demanding more money to carry them out.