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Will next superintendent ever say, ‘You’re fired’?

As the Clark County School District Board of Trustees holds town hall meetings on selecting a new superintendent, status-quo supporters have started rumbling that the system doesn’t need an “outsider” at the helm to rock the boat.

And for many years, few leaders in the district have dared to challenge the status quo. In the past three decades, the district has only fired two principals, one during the 1996-97 school year and another during the 2012-13 school year, according to information provided by the district in response to a public records request.

During this same period, the district has become one of the country’s worst school districts. Education Week reported that Nevada’s 2007 graduation rate had plummeted to 41.8 percent, falling more than 23 percentage points in just a decade

Even though Nevada’s high school exit exam covers primarily ninth-grade level material, thousands of CCSD students fail the exam and subsequent retests every year. Many CCSD schools have become dropout factories, dooming tens of thousands of kids to a lifetime of limited opportunities.

Numerous teachers from across the district can, when asked, provide insight into the dysfunctional dynamics operating within multiple schools — sharing with NPRI, for example, revealing accounts of bullying principals who intimidate teachers in thoroughly unprofessional ways.

Even if such reports are only isolated incidents or don’t tell the full story, when coupled with the abject failure of the district to successfully educate hundreds of thousands of students over the past 30 years, it’s clear the district has deep and systemic problems.

In the private sector, from businesses to baseball teams, it’s normal for leaders to be held responsible and fired when their organizations perform poorly.

Why weren’t district principals held responsible, with the poorly performing ones fired and the excellent ones given more authority?

The obvious starting place is that principals are unionized. Yes, you read that correctly. The principals — management — have a union. And, therefore, dismissing a principal is a laborious process consisting of multiple hoops to jump through and a time- and paperwork-intensive appeals process.

Even if you believe government employees shouldn’t be able to hold taxpayers hostage through collective bargaining, you can understand union arguments justifying collective bargaining for the average worker. What makes no sense, however, even by union logic, is extending those powers to management employees.

No management employee in government should have collective-bargaining power. And every principal in the district should be on an at-will contract or — at the very least — have a single-year contract renewable at the school year’s end.

It’s understandable that some principals would go ballistic over a proposal like this. The system is so broken, thanks to legislatively mandated collective bargaining, that principals have little control over rewarding their best teachers and firing their worst. The Clark County School District has around 17,500 teachers, but in the 2010-11 school year, it only dismissed five post-probationary teachers and didn’t renew 10 probationary teachers. As of May 2012, the district had only dismissed one post-probationary teacher and didn’t renew 18 probationary teachers for that school year. That’s a removal rate of around one-tenth of 1 percent in a district everyone acknowledges is failing.

For decades, the teacher union has fought tooth and nail against even the smallest reforms intended to remove or improve bad teachers. This is especially damaging to students, because research consistently shows that teacher quality is the most important school-controlled factor in student achievement.

So the district has a chicken-or-egg problem. How can you hold principals responsible for results when they don’t have the authority to get rid of bad teachers and reward the best ones? And how can you allow principals to remove teachers when the district can’t or won’t get rid of bullying, abusive or unsuccessful principals?

For the past 30 years, subservient to its unions, the district has let both the worst-performing principals and teachers continue working with students.

There’s yet another reason why principals aren’t fired: To do so would undermine the “we need more money for education” narrative, which has successfully fed a corrupted education establishment for decades.

During the same period when only two principals were fired, per-pupil education funding in Nevada rapidly increased, growing from $2,088 in 1980 to $8,865 in 2009. Adjusted for inflation, that’s an increase from $5,830 to $8,950. In 1998, the district also began a $4.9 billion bond program that sprinkled new schools across the valley and provided hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades to existing schools, financially rewarding the architects and contractors who then funded school trustee campaigns.

These per-pupil funding increases have made working for CCSD very rewarding, financially. According to salary data from TransparentNevada, principals — regardless of quality — routinely receive $135,000 a year in total compensation, and many teachers — regardless of quality — make more than $100,000 a year in total compensation.

Along with financing more teachers and administrators, the funding increases have enriched and empowered union bosses, who wield enormous clout and political checkbooks in both Carson City and the Clark County School District.

Thus, many adults, with de facto lifetime tenure in their well-paying jobs, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo — even though that status quo fails tens of thousands of students.

This is why the selection of a new superintendent is so important.

Whatever may be said about Dwight Jones, at least he recognized the district’s significant problems and took bold steps to fix them. Of course, behind the scenes, defenders of the status quo fought him continuously.

If the School Board does not seek and appoint a superintendent who will candidly acknowledge that the status quo is unacceptable and commit to changing it (notwithstanding the unhappiness of vested interests), why should anyone, especially School Board members, expect anything but another 30 years of failure?

Victor Joecks is communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org.

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