Two superintendent candidates scrutinized at public forums

Two finalists for Clark County School District superintendent began a marathon of public scrutiny Wednesday in their bids to take the helm of the nation’s fifth-largest school system.

Both Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa and Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones used their first encounters with Clark County parents and stakeholders to try to put to rest the controversies that have followed them to Las Vegas.

Jones explained why he had to reimburse the state of Colorado for two years of personal calls made on a state cell phone while Hinojosa acknowledged that he was “ultimately responsible” for a $59 million shortfall that led to massive layoffs in Dallas in 2008. Both men will be interviewed today by the Clark County School Board, which hopes to name a replacement for retiring Superintendent Walt Rulffes next month.

Hinojosa explained that Dallas experienced financial woes because “we had overspent the budget. We had to take drastic steps to correct it, and it was very painful.”

“I’m responsible for everything that happened,” Hinojosa said. “Part of the responsibility is having a corrective action plan. We have put systems into place where that could never happen again.”

He predicted that the Dallas district’s financial reserves would be “back to whole” by June.

“I’ve learned a lot of lessons on that,” he said. “I’m better equipped to handle those kinds of issues as we move forward.”

Jones, who had to pay Colorado for more than $700 worth of personal calls made on his state cell phone, also said he’s learned from the past.

“When you’re working hard in the system, sometimes you make a mistake or have an oversight,” Jones said. “I take full responsibility for the oversight of use with my cell phone. What it was is that I hate to carry two cell phones, which means I needed to keep track of my private calls to my wife and to family. The taxpayers should not be responsible for it. … It does not matter if it was $1.”

Jones added he corrected the error and began posting all his receipts for his expenses on the Colorado Department of Education website.

“You have to develop a process where you don’t repeat it,” Jones said. “You can see one of the posts is where I reimburse for my cell phones.”

Dallas also experienced problems involving employee misuse of procurement cards. If selected to lead Clark County, Hinojosa said he didn’t know whether he would establish an “Office of Public Responsibility” to root out corruption here as he has in Dallas. He said he would, if it’s necessary.

Hinojosa is a proponent of “dual language” programs for non-native speakers of English and Spanish, which would allow them to be taught both languages at the same time.

However, he did stress that English must be mastered. “It’s the language of commerce,” he said.

A native of Mexico, Hinojosa emphasized that he is a U.S. citizen because “that issue has come up.”

The candidates began the day with breakfast interviews with board members and ended with an evening forum at Cimarron-Memorial High School.

Hinojosa described the schedule as “fast and furious” but likened it to any work day in a big school district.

Clark County is offering an annual superintendent’s salary of $270,000. Dallas, the nation’s 14th-largest school district with almost 160,000 students, pays Hinojosa $328,000 a year. Jones earns $223,860 for managing the Colorado Department of Education.

The finalists met with various stakeholder groups for most of the morning and early afternoon. A Review-Journal reporter was asked by School Police Chief Filiberto Arroyo to leave a 1 p.m. meeting for the board members’ invited guests at the Greer Educational Center where there were plenty of empty seats.

Several School Board candidates attended the 1 p.m. meeting. Absent was Ken Small, who is challenging School Board Vice President Carolyn Edwards in District F. Small said he was not invited. Three of seven board seats will be decided in November elections. Incumbents Sheila Moulton and Larry Mason were barred from seeking re-election because of term limits.

Jones said he has experience in working with state legislators and is a member of the Colorado governor’s cabinet. He is the only cabinet member not appointed by the governor. The education commissioner is appointed by the state’s Board of Education.

Jones said he already has spoken to Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Keith Rheault.

“We already have had some good conversations, I’ve got a pretty good perspective on the challenges” Nevada faces, Jones said.

If selected, Jones said his 7-year-old child would be a student in the Clark County School District. He said he makes it a practice to take his family to school functions such as a sporting event, a play or musical every Friday night so he can be available to the public.

Jones also is a big believer in empowerment schools and has been impressed with the career and technical high schools in Clark County.

Jones said he is “not a big program guy” and believes that quality teachers make the difference in education.

Jones said he is qualified to lead Clark County schools, which have 309,000 students, because he works with more than 800,000 students and more than 1,000 schools in Colorado.

Jones spoke of his experiences as a former superintendent of the Fountain-Fort Carson School District, a suburb of Colorado Springs that has many military families. Jones estimated that the district, which has about 6,000 students, has lost about 250 parents to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After listening to both candidates at a forum at Harmon Elementary School near Mountain Vista Street and Hacienda Avenue, parent Ahlak Lim said he preferred Jones because he seemed “very approachable.”

Hinojosa was too much like a “general,” Lim said.

Michael Flores, who also attended the forum at Harmon, said he liked both candidates but preferred Hinojosa. “I like what he has done in Dallas.”

At the Cimarron-Memorial forum in the northwest valley, parent Steve Phillips was concerned that the public was only getting “snippets” of each candidate’s qualifications. That’s not enough for him to shape an informed opinion, he said. The evening meeting with the finalists drew about 100 people and was mostly cordial, as was the forum at Harmon.

The School Board could ask the McPherson & Jacobson search firm for a third finalist. The board will discuss its options after this morning’s interviews .

Stephen Augspurger, executive director of the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-technical Employees, had concerns about both finalists but said officials of the district’s employee unions have agreed among themselves not to endorse anyone this early in the selection process. Augspurger was satisfied enough with the finalists to say that he does not think the board needs to invite another candidate to Clark County.

The Dallas school board will meet in closed session this afternoon to discuss whether to fight to keep Hinojosa, according to The Dallas Morning News. The board might vote on whether to offer Hinojosa a contract extension.

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

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