Believing that the Clark County School District’s next superintendent can solve its problems is like thinking you can turn “Hamlet” into a comedy by landing the right lead actor. In reality, the next superintendent will have the starring role in an oft-repeated tragedy but no chance to change the plot.
It’s starts with money. The district has a lot. It’s a multibillion-dollar organization. The superintendent controls almost none of it. The property taxes dedicated to building new schools must go to capital projects. That leaves the $2.4 billion general fund. Personnel expenses constitute 87 percent of that pot. The rest goes to things such as utilities, gas for school buses and textbooks.
State collective bargaining law prevents the superintendent from setting salaries. With the district having only three days’ worth of expenses saved, its negotiating team will have to beg employee unions not to ask for raises. The unions will demand more money anyway. An unelected, unaccountable, out-of-state arbitrator will decide the dispute — no matter who sits in the superintendent’s chair.
When an arbitrator chooses to hand out raises, like one just did with teachers, it’ll push the budget further into crisis. Once the district loses its appeal of the arbitrator’s decision, it either has to cut the budget or limp along with an ending fund balance equivalent to 18 hours’ worth of expenses.
This is going to get worse in 2019. It’s likely the Public Employees’ Retirement System will raise contribution rates. Currently, 28 percent of teachers’ pay goes to fund their retirement and to reduce PERS debt. Increases are split between teachers and the district. Heading into the 2019-20 school year, teachers could see their take home decrease and the district could see its costs go up — all to pay for teachers who no longer work there. The superintendent is going to take the heat for these outcomes, but he or she can’t change them.
The reorganization — a noble effort — also reduces the superintendent’s fiscal role. School Organizational Teams are supposed to control 80 percent of a school’s budget. The new superintendent will look like he or she is in charge of billions, but other people are directing how the money is spent.
The superintendent also can’t change his or her personnel. Private-sector CEOs come into failing companies and start cutting fat — underperforming and overpaid employees. Nevada’s collective bargaining law, once again, will prevent the district’s new leader from doing that.
Good luck even identifying underperforming teachers. The most recent state data showed that almost 99 percent of teachers have a rating of highly effective or effective. A more stringent evaluation system — once again from the state — is on the horizon, but expect Democrats to try to repeal it next legislative session.
The reorganization makes selecting principals extremely important, but the superintendent can’t just fire ineffective ones. State law allows principals to bargain collectively and provides them with enormous job security. As of 2013, the district had fired just two principals in 30 years.
Then there are the programs you’ve heard so much about — Victory Schools, Zoom Schools and Read by Three. State law mandates them. The superintendent, once again, will be implementing policies made by legislators and the governor.
The superintendent does have some influence, just not over things that could improve student achievement. Current superintendent Pat Skorkowsky had two high-profile proposals: The district considered teaching kindergarteners about masturbation in 2014 and is currently making some teen girls uncomfortable by allowing boys to change in their locker rooms. Parents successfully stopped the change in sex ed policy. The state Department of Education, however, is poised to mandate that districts allow transgender students to use the facilities of their choice.
The superintendent has the starring role in the public eye, but it’s the people off-stage — union officials and state politicians — who are writing the script.