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COMMENTARY: Success of school district reorganization will depend on a change of culture

It is fashionable to critique the Clark County School District. You hear it all around the community — there is always one malady or another afflicting our schools, and whatever good happens is not good enough.

Ultimately, this means legislators impose new mandates on the district, and the district staff feels beleaguered. My own role as chairman of the Community Implementation Council is a direct result of one such mandate: The reorganization of the district to give greater power to individual schools.

The council is charged to monitor the reorganization. If there was greater trust between the district and the community, there wouldn’t be a council. Instead, legislators responded to the concerns of their constituents and created us.

In a perfect world, the district would be open and transparent, and money would follow the student to each school. Schools would be empowered to make decisions that are best for their students. Why isn’t this happening? It’s a question of culture.

Let’s be clear: There is great work happening in our schools. But if we want sustained, transformative change that results in better student outcomes, then there must be fundamental change in the culture of the district.

Within the district, we have witnessed a culture of fear. There is fear of losing jobs, relationships and the ability to influence decisions. The reorganization is intended to reduce fear and empower district employees, both in schools and central offices, to do what is best for students.

Some have embraced this new culture of empowerment, and some have not. Our team has seen a cohort of leaders in the district rise to the challenge of empowering local schools. Since the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 469 and cemented the reorganization in law in May, we are beginning to see a cultural shift of district employees rethinking how they can better deliver services to schools. Our team has also seen territorial people resistant to change.

There are some who call for heads to roll, all the trustees to be replaced, and for the central office to be ripped apart. Frankly, there are days when I wonder if this is not the only way forward. But this assault-the-barricades approach naturally leads to defensiveness and the further entrenchment of poor cultural practices. Instead, we must disrupt the status quo to obtain buy-in for the changes that need to take place. The goal must be to advance efforts to empower local schools — including making necessary transfers of responsibility and dollars from the central office to individual schools.

The work of the Community Implementation Council ends later this year. The district may need further outside prompting to achieve more rapid and sustained progress, but lasting reform must happen from within, and that will require leadership.

The district must be willing to more quickly reform, be more transparent, and undergo a fundamental cultural shift to regain trust and credibility. Otherwise the community will take matters into its own hands.

Glenn Christenson is chairman of the Community Implementation Council, which is monitoring the reorganization of the Clark County School District.

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