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Wait to replace Rulffes, or not?

The calendar isn’t kind to the members of the Clark County School Board.

And, as usual, neither are their critics.

About $30 million in additional budget reductions must be finalized a month from now, with 1,000 layoffs looming as the default solution. Superintendent Walt Rulffes is retiring Aug. 30, the very day a new school year begins. Two months after that, voters will select replacements for at least two, and at most three board trustees. Then, in February, the monumental 2011 Legislature will convene to decide whether to reform public education in Nevada or simply reload it through massive tax increases.

It will be the most consequential 12 months for the school district since, well, the previous 12 months. Today, no one can say for certain who’ll be at the helm for the second half of that stretch.

Hiring a superintendent is the single most important thing the School Board does. It’s generally a twice-a-decade opportunity to switch gears or further entrench the special interests that feed off the status quo. And given the economic, political, demographic and instructional challenges facing the valley’s public schools, finding a dynamic, unconventional replacement for Rulffes will be as significant as the election of Nevada’s next governor.

So the board had to make a difficult decision this month. Should trustees move quickly to find a permanent replacement for Rulffes and install him or her before the board membership turns over, running the risk that new trustees won’t support that hire when they take office, but giving the new chief executive time to get up to speed and perhaps shake up the bureaucracy in advance of the legislative session? Or should they wait until after November’s election, giving new trustees a say in which person they’ll have to answer for throughout their terms, but trying to carry out a search and interview process while the biennial legislative follies unfold in Carson City?

Trustees have opted to hire right away — the search process could be initiated as soon as this week — and that has some School Board candidates unhappy.

“This is the board attempting to lock in its failed policies before voters can put a stop to them,” said District F candidate Ken Small, one of three challengers to incumbent Carolyn Edwards. “This would seem to indicate they’re going to go for an insider, because an out-of-district candidate can’t get a guarantee of full support from a lame-duck board.”

Martin Dean Dupalo, a candidate for the District G seat being vacated by term-limited Sheila Moulton, said this superintendent search “is a unique opportunity to hit the reset button on public education in Nevada, and it’s my understanding the board is going to short-circuit the process.”

District D candidate Javier Trujillo, one of three people seeking to succeed the term-limited Larry Mason, said he “definitely would love to be part of the process of selecting a new superintendent. The new board members are going to have to work with the new superintendent. I definitely support holding off on the selection.”

For these candidates, the School Board’s decision to act now will cost them much more than the chance to choose a superintendent that shares their vision of public education. It represents a lost opportunity to raise the profile of their down-ticket campaigns and turn June’s primaries and November’s general election into referendums on what kind of leader taxpayers want for Clark County’s schools.

“We’d be criticized by either side, whichever way we went,” School Board President Terri Janison said of trustees’ resolve to begin the hiring process. “We know how important this decision is. But we’ve got to keep this school district moving forward.

“I don’t know that the next superintendent has to be an educator. … From my perspective, we have a huge opportunity,” Janison said. “We have already taken a shift, with our empowerment schools, to more of a business model.”

Janison noted that during an April 7 public budget workshop at Chaparral High School’s theater, Moulton asked whether the board should wait until after the election to find a permanent replacement for Rulffes. No one at the meeting spoke in favor of doing so. Small and Trujillo weren’t at the meeting. Dupalo said he was just outside the theater at the time.

Erin Cranor, running against Dupalo and three others in District G, wants the board to hire a new superintendent before November’s election.

“The real issue is the 2011 legislative session,” she said. “We need to have somebody in place in advance of that. … The superintendent will have to be familiar with our funding, legislative and governance structure.”

Elected bodies are generally wise to hold off on major policy moves when an election is around the corner. But those who want the School Board to delay the selection of a superintendent should be careful what they wish for. Hanging up the hiring process until January or February would almost certainly require the appointment of an interim superintendent — the kind of “insider” who typically gets in the way of needed, meaningful reform.

That’s precisely how Rulffes got the superintendent’s job four years ago. He was promoted to interim co-superintendent after Carlos Garcia resigned, then he won the permanent job after the school district’s unions helped scare off a field of finalists — including bona fide reformer Eric Nadelstern of New York — one by one. Rulffes was the last man standing.

And, despite parents’ and taxpayers’ professed frustrations with the system, voters haven’t exactly embraced School Board candidates who champion change. Of the current board members, Janison is most open to considering policies that have helped increase student achievement and school accountability in other states. Four years ago, she threw her support behind Nadelstern — and had her head handed to her.

It comes down to this: When the School Board hires a new superintendent is far less important than making the process open — and getting it right.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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