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New Clark County schools chief faces angst over selection process

Depending on who you talk to, the Clark County school trustees either executed their fiduciary duties faithfully or completely ignored their constituents when they chose a new superintendent this week.

The split in community opinion — similar to the divide that saw the School Board approve Jesus Jara, deputy superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Florida, by a 4-2 vote on Wednesday — largely depends on whether the speaker was a strong supporter of Mike Barton.

A broad coalition of community members turned out to support the school district’s current chief academic officer for the top post throughout the search process for a successor to retiring Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky.

While many of Barton’s backers are now pledging to support Jara, some are bitter over what they see as a rejection of their values by the trustees, who voted Barton down by a 4-3 vote before endorsing the outsider.

“Every one of them … are sitting on the dais because the community supported them in their election,” said Yvette Williams, founder and chair of the Clark County Black Caucus. “… These are elected representatives that are supposed to take into consideration what the public wants. They don’t seem to want to represent what the public wants.”

‘We’re very displeased’

“We’re very displeased, we’re very upset by this,” said S.S. Rogers of the Greater Mt. Sinai Missionary Recruiting Ministries, another strong supporter of Barton.

But Sylvia Lazos, a UNLV law professor and a longtime education advocate who supported picking an external candidate, said such reactions show a lack of understanding of the trustees’ role.

“I just don’t fundamentally understand why people think this is how it goes, that the public weighs in and the trustees should make the decision based on how many people show up and support Candidate X,” she said.

Jara will assume his position sometime in June, to overlap briefly before Skorkowsky retires at the end of the month. This week, Barton said he has no plans to leave the district and hopes that some of his ideas are of interest to Jara.

“I’m about supporting the organization,” said Barton.

Brent Husson, executive director of Nevada Succeed, an education nonprofit focused on policy work, and a Barton supporter, said he was a great candidate who possesses many qualities that would be good to keep in the district. Another reason he endorsed Barton, he said, stemmed from the common practice in business of promoting from within, since internal candidates know the system well.

“I just always found him, more so than any of the other leadership folks at the district, he understood the need to do things differently at a systemic level,” he said “To make real change for student, the system has to change. When I talk to Mike about that, he got it.”

Will the slighted come around?

Those keeping a close eye on the district think it’ll be interesting to see how the dynamic plays out.

“I think that’s always a tough question what to do with a No. 2 or No. 3 that has competed for the job,” Lazos said. “I have every confidence Jara will be fair to Mike Barton. I believe he’s not the kind of guy who isn’t insecure and wants to have the best talent on board.”

The broader question is whether those who feel slighted by the trustees’ decision will follow Barton’s lead once Jara arrives. Many, including Williams and Rogers, appeared to be taking that line after this week’s vote, saying they’re looking forward to working with Jara, although they’ll be keeping an eye on him.

“We’re going to make sure definitely that he performs as we had asked for our superintendent to perform,” Rogers said.

Lazos said in the best case, Barton can work as a bridge to help bring about unity.

“He has an opportunity to show that loyalty in this transition period,” said Lazos.

But Jara’s going to have a long list of priorities upon entering the school district, including rebuilding low morale among the district’s employees, said John Vellardita, head of the teacher’s union. To do that, he should have the ability to build his team however he wants, he said.

“Barton is a passionate educator, I think the fact that those elements of the community that spoke in favor of him is a statement of his accomplishments and the reputation he has. I think around instruction, he’s an asset,” Vellardita said. “But in the end, this guy should have the luxury and the ability to build and create his own team.”

Contact Meghin Delaney at 702-383-0281 or mdelaney@reviewjournal.com. Follow @MeghinDelaney on Twitter.

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