Welcome to Nevada, Mr. Superintendent

Education reformers tend to get flattened in Nevada. James Guthrie knew as much when he became the state’s new superintendent of schools last month.

To be run down on his third day of work just seemed a bit soon.

While Guthrie was walking from his building to the governor’s office, a car veered off the street and onto the Carson City sidewalk he was using. There would be no waiting for Superman – the 75-year-old leaped to the side, and the vehicle clipped his leg before speeding off.

Apparently, the teachers unions didn’t have a car fast enough to get the job done.

Guthrie shared that anecdote in a Thursday meeting with the Review-Journal’s editorial board. Fortunately, his injuries were minor, and he wasn’t discouraged by the rude welcome to Nevada. His sense of humor and his sense of purpose remain intact.

Already, Guthrie has given the education establishment more than enough reasons to run him out of the state. Odds are, he’s the first Nevada superintendent to be flipped off by a teacher during his first month on the job – he said the woman didn’t appreciate his assertion that more money alone wouldn’t make our schools better.

Among his goals for Nevada:

– Doubling the number of charter schools in the short term, from about 30 to 60, with the aim of having at least 120 in the not-too-distant future.

– Instituting vouchers and a “parent trigger” law to give Nevada families the authority to reboot failing schools.

– Shutting down lousy campuses and letting charter schools move into those buildings.

– Scaling back the state’s unwieldy education bureaucracy, including eliminating the Commission on Professional Standards in Education, the union-stacked outfit that sets protectionist teacher licensing standards. In fact, he wants to do away with teacher licensing altogether to better allow professionals and scholars to transition into teaching careers.

“You do not learn how to teach in an education school,” he said.

– Ending the practice of social promotion by holding back students who can’t pass a reading test at the end of the third grade.

– He wants to weed out the worst teachers and provide significant pay raises to the best instructors. He envisions a system in which the highest-performing teachers – about 10 percent of the total – are recognized as “master teachers” and paid salaries equivalent to principals and administrators, into six figures.

He said such a step would encourage some high-achieving, ambitious college students to pursue teaching careers instead of law and business degrees because their performance would be rewarded. In addition, Guthrie said, the best teachers would have an incentive to remain in the classroom and mentor their peers. He lamented that the state’s current compensation system chases the best teachers into administrative jobs because that’s the only way to make a great salary.

Most of these policy goals match Gov. Brian Sandoval’s education reform agenda – a good thing, considering the governor now has complete authority to hire and fire the superintendent.

“I intend to inject myself as forcefully into the legislative process as the governor will allow,” Guthrie said Thursday. “I don’t have time to wait around. I’m 75 years old, and a kid drops out of a Nevada school every 11 minutes.”

More Cops

Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie says he intends to ask the 2013 Legislature to impose an additional quarter-cent sales tax in Southern Nevada to boost local police budgets.

Way back in 2004, county voters approved an advisory question to increase the sales tax rate to allow police agencies to hire hundreds of new officers. The nonbinding question proposed raising the rate a quarter-cent in 2005 and another quarter-cent in 2009.

The Legislature authorized the first half of the plan. When the Great Recession hit, lawmakers increased the sales tax rate again in 2009, but imposed the hike statewide and kept the money for the state. The second half of the More Cops tax has been hanging in limbo ever since.

During a meeting with the Review-Journal’s editorial board, Gillespie decried the effect falling property tax collections have had on Metro’s ability to fight crime. He wants to overhaul the way his agency is funded.

More Cops money is supposed to flow into a separate budget to cover the salaries and benefits of newly hired officers. However, Gillespie said he might ask the Legislature to approve a sales tax increase that would support all department operations, not just the More Cops fund.

Gillespie will have a tough sell in Carson City. Gov. Brian Sandoval and many Republican lawmakers have said they’ll support extending the tax increases authorized in 2009 and 2011 for an additional two years – and not one penny more in tax hikes. And Democrats who want even higher taxes want to put new money into Nevada schools, not local law enforcement.

Considering it’s been almost eight years since Clark County voters approved More Cops, it might be time for another advisory question – one that better reflects what Gillespie would like.

North Las Vegas cuts

Coming up with ways to save money is easy. Actually pulling the trigger on spending cuts is another thing entirely.

Last week, the North Las Vegas City Council passed a budget that slashes $33 million in costs through the layoffs of more than 200 employees, including 57 Fire Department workers. Employee unions wouldn’t budge on concessions that would have covered much of that shortfall.

However, the city didn’t need union approval to achieve a small portion of those savings. According to a document I obtained last week, the exact concessions needed to bring the Fire Department in line with the city’s awful fiscal realities were outlined in April 2011, more than one year ago.

Of the 12 cuts recommended to then-Acting City Manager Maryann Ustick by City Auditor Philip Cheng, four did not require the blessing of the union through collective bargaining. Yet one was made just a few months ago, and the other three are only now in the process of being implemented, according to city officials.

The report recommended halting the practice of paying firefighters five hours of overtime for their annual physicals. Not long ago, the city contracted with a company that provides on-site physical examinations, eliminating the need for firefighters to visit an office on a day off.

The other three recommendations – limiting the use of a specialized vehicle that has a mobile air cascade system and portable lighting; limiting the hours of a roving paramedic captain; and cutting battalion chief staffing in half, from two to one – finally are under way. The four measures should save about $1.5 million per year, according to the document.

What took them so long? A million bucks is a million bucks. When you’re wrestling with the impossibly rigid staffing requirements and work rules that cover fire departments – standards that only drive up the public’s costs – you should rush to make whatever cuts you can.

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

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