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Superintendent: Cuts won’t yield better results

The financial outlook is bleak.

Nevada’s measure of academic success is in flux.

But the Clark County School District’s new superintendent isn’t flinching. He’s already unpacked his suitcase, launched a search for permanent housing and chatted up Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval about football and school reform.

“We all have to make sacrifices,” Dwight Jones said he told Sandoval on Wednesday, the superintendent’s first day on the job. But, “I also wanted the governor to understand we can’t cut our way to better results.”

The former Colorado education commissioner, who once tried out for the Dallas Cowboys, is no rookie at receiving tricky passes. As the 48-year-old educator steps into the job that retiring Superintendent Walt Rulffes held for almost six years, he knows he confronts a grim fiscal outlook. District officials anticipate state funding reductions of as much as $150 million next year because of the weak economy.

Sandoval and the Legislature, which convenes in February, also are likely to change the way progress is evaluated in public schools. Sandoval has proposed assigning letter grades to schools based on student performance. He also advocates creating a voucher system. Public school students could use the vouchers to attend private schools, which would receive state money that otherwise would have gone to public schools.

Jones has already told Sandoval that they are “in alignment” on many educational issues. But he cautioned that a proposal for a school ratings system should not be used as a way to punish teachers and school staff.

“Teachers don’t mind being held accountable,” Jones said Thursday. “They just want the system to be fair.”

Instead of assigning schools letter grades, Jones prefers a student growth model that was developed in Colorado while he was education commissioner. The Nevada Department of Education plans to roll out something similar to it next year.

It will chart schools’ academic performance from year to year so the public can see whether student achievement is improving. Because the model is based on growth, inner-city schools that start out with low-performing students could rate higher on the chart than suburban schools that have always had high-performing students.

The model will enable schools serving similar kinds of students to share information about what’s working and what’s not, Jones said.

“Right now if we compare schools with different demographics, I would say it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison,” he said. “This will be an apples-to-apples comparison.”

Jones said Colorado Associate Education Commissioner Richard Wenning will fly to Clark County next week to explain the model to district officials. The federally funded Southwest Comprehensive Center at WestEd, which provides educational assistance to regional states, is picking up Wenning’s tab, said officials from the Nevada Department of Education.

Nevada schools are under pressure to perform. Outgoing Gov. Jim Gibbons’ Blue Ribbon Task Force has set goals for 2014 of achieving a high school graduation rate of 85 percent, reducing student achievement gaps between ethnic groups by 50 percent and increasing the number of high school graduates enrolling in college by 50 percent.

Jones agrees the state should set a high bar.

“To set expectations low would serve no one,” he said. But “in setting the bar high, you just can’t hope that it will happen or think it will happen by luck.”

That’s why Jones may seek outside help for Clark County. He is considering hiring the global consulting firm of Alvarez & Marsal to analyze the school system and make recommendations on how to reorganize for maximum efficiency.

The firm, however, was criticized in 2007 for a busing controversy in New York City that left students stranded in winter and parents fuming about disrupted service. New York officials, however, took responsibility for poorly executing the firm’s recommendation.

Some St. Louis school officials also have blamed Alvarez & Marsal’s advice for making their financial situation worse when it was hired to identify potential savings. But others said St. Louis officials “dropped the ball” when the firm left, according to media reports. The firm could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Jones is looking at the firm because of its record of working with big urban districts.

“They’re really good at looking at big systems and finding economies of scale,” Jones said.

Jones, who has been in contact with the firm, said he would like to raise private donations to pay its consultants. Their fees were as much as $450 a day for New York City public schools, according to the New York Times.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.

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