COMMENTARY: New script for the Clark County School District

Last week, the Clark County School District took an important step for the more than 40,000 people who work in and on behalf of our schools. But it’s just a first step in a journey toward what our team and our students need and deserve.

Here’s the great news: The trustees and three more of our employee unions reached tentative agreements on contracts for this school year that include additional one-time pay in all cases and ongoing increases in some. These agreements cover support professionals, principals, administrators and police administrators. We are close to finalizing an agreement with our police officers. Funds came from a central office hiring freeze, as well as other operational efficiencies.

This is in addition to the historic, three-year contract with teachers approved by the School Board in September. Our agreement with teachers, the largest of these groups, is through 2021, making it the longest agreement we’ve achieved in a decade.

Having a contract in place with our employee groups is a big deal and one we can celebrate together. It ends a period of difficult and time-consuming negotiations — which has hurt morale for many — and creates clarity and stability for the district budget. This new beginning helps all our schools, and it reassures a community tired of seeing headlines about budget cuts and disagreements between the district and its employees. More important, it represents an effort to find creative ways, despite tight funding limits, to say that we value the people who work in our schools and whom we entrust with the future of our children.

Virginia Mills, president of the Education Support Staff Association, said the agreement “is more than just a much-needed bump in members’ paychecks, it represents an acknowledgment of the role support professionals play in student success.”

I’m also happy about what this means for teachers. Even before I arrived in Clark County, I heard over and over that teacher morale was a chief concern, and that pay was a big part of the problem. As part of the agreement, we set aside a portion of new funds above our base funding formula that will go to increase teacher salaries in the future. That proportion — 70 percent — is driven by the number of district employees who are teachers.

The agreements we reached don’t do everything our employees want — or that I want. But they’re a crucial step. I’ll always keep fighting for the resources our schools and our team need to do their vital work. But I’m glad that, for now, we can put a period of tough negotiations behind us and put our singular focus on achievement for our students.

We have our work cut out for us.

We’ve seen progress in student learning in recent years — but we have a lot further to go before we can honestly say that all of our students have the education they need and deserve. It doesn’t help that class sizes are far too large or that the content of their learning — curriculum — is outdated and therefore inconsistent in quality and sequence across grades and schools.

Some of what we must do requires new resources. That will require a deep confidence, by voters and the Legislature, in our plan to do better by our kids. And that’s where our focus will be.

And then there’s the question of trust. In my first 90 days, I completed 124 community meetings large and small and toured 110 schools and departments. To name a simple if brutal truth that’s come across loud and clear: Neither our community nor our schools trust us to get this right. Indeed, they don’t believe they’re getting accurate information on our budget, on student learning and on what they can expect from our district. To me, earning back that trust is fundamental to everything that needs to happen.

I believe we can make our schools No. 1 for kids — that we can offer our children an education worthy of their families’ hopes. That’s not about rhetoric. It’s about some clear, hard work. To me, it comes down to three challenges.

The first is offering rich and rigorous learning to every single student in Clark County, deeply engaging our kids in ways that will make them lifelong learners. That means excellent teachers and principals with the support, freedom and resources they need to create a climate where kids are challenged, pushed and excited to reach their true potential.

The second is simple: All means all. The truth is that, by every measure, we offer excellence to some of our students. Whether by advanced placement scores, national academic championships, Shining Stars schools, Blue Ribbon schools, magnet schools or a variety of other measures, it’s clear that the highest expectations and that excellent achievement exist in our schools. But not for all our kids. That’s why I’m determined that equity and access will be our watchwords — that we’ll continue to keep our focus on rich and rigorous learning, while ensuring that every child, in every ZIP code of our county, can gain access to that kind of excellence.

The third is making sure all our operations support that mission of rich and rigorous learning for all kids. That means efficient, effective management of every part of our organization, from buildings to budget. Everything we do must serve student learning. Schools are the heartbeat of our system.

How we do all that matters. It’s my commitment to do that through open, honest information sharing and setting goals you can hold me accountable for reaching — because that’s how we earn back trust. It will take time and the dedication of everyone in our schools to change that — and I’m committed to it.

For a long time, our community has been stuck in a narrative about what our schools can’t do. It’s a story that shortchanges everyone — starting with our teachers, principals and the rest of our team and ending, of course, with our children. That’s the story we must rewrite together. I know without question that we can.

Jesus F. Jara is superintendent of the Clark County School District.

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