School District superintendent has eyes on the economy
Dwight Jones believes the district can — and should — become a greater asset in efforts to diversify Las Vegas’ business landscape.
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Dwight Jones has a deal for Las Vegas businesses and taxpayers.
Give him time to innovate and funding to invest strategically, the Clark County schools superintendent says, and the district will provide schools that produce qualified employees for the workforce and help attract companies seeking a place where their workers can find a good education for their children.
Jones has shown he’s willing to consider drastic business moves in his effort to improve the district, such as a proposal to save $52 million annually through such measures as outsourcing transportation, custodial and landscaping services and changing purchasing practices. Jones has also pushed a reform effort for the district, which is plagued by some of the lowest high school graduation rates, standardized test scores and per-pupil funding levels in the country. That effort has drawn support from business figures in the state, but it has rankled a significant number of longtime district employees, parents and union activists.
There’s a sense of urgency to Jones’ approach, but at the same time the native Kansan has a folksy, somewhat disarming style. A devout fan of the Dallas Cowboys — he wears a Cowboys ring on his right hand — Jones is often at his desk by 4 a.m. and begins meetings as early as 6 a.m. Observers of the school district say Jones, the former elected head of Colorado’s public school system, has a politically tricky challenge as he navigates among a mix of constituencies including federal and state lawmakers, the school district’s 38,000 employees, its seven-member school board, taxpayers and political pundits.
Jones built a strong relationship with Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval during the recent session of the Nevada Legislature, with both pushing for a toughening of teacher tenure standards and workplace rules that would make it easier to replace low-performing educators. The 49-year-old superintendent recently sat down with VEGAS INC to discuss economic diversification, tax policy and public education in Nevada.
There’s a lot of talk within this community, particularly among business leaders, about the need to diversify our economy. Is the Clark County School District up to the task?
I look at a company like Switch Communications, one of the top data storage and data management companies in the world. They’re growing like gangbusters. Their biggest deal is they think they’re going to be adding 100 to 150 engineers — stable engineering jobs — because they’re going to be here awhile; they’re growing. But their biggest concern is schools. They say they will bring us a stable base of folks, but they need good schools for their children to attend.
I’m hearing more and more in this community that we’ve got to diversify. I think this community has lots of smart kids, but we don’t challenge them as much as we did in other communities that I’ve been in, like in Cherry Creek (Colo.) and Boulder, Colo. I just don’t think we push them enough. We’re just so happy that they’re smart. We say, “Thank God they’re smart.”
Yet the mind-set remains for many that you can get a good job in this community without a high school diploma.
That did work against us, but somehow that’s working for us now. People say you used to be able to do that, and now they’re not sure if that economy is coming back. If that was a myth or not, there were parents who really did believe that their children would do just fine in the workplace without a high school diploma.
The community college has experienced a tremendous increase in enrollment. In some cases, they don’t have the money to attend. Folks are just waiting to get in. The economy has created a different mind-set about education here — that I’ve got to have a high school diploma just to get into the community college to learn a trade.
Educators argue that video games, smartphones and other aspects of technology have rewired the way we think and learn. Do you agree? And, if so, are we teaching digital-age kids in what are essentially slow-paced analog classrooms?
We have to get smarter in our delivery of lessons and how we do business. We’re doing an iPad initiative, putting algebra on iPads so students have it with them all the time. We’re going to give technology to kids who don’t have it — about 30 kids at some schools, eighth- and ninth-graders, to take algebra.
I need eighth-graders to take algebra. Some folks said, “Oh my gosh, that’s radical for us.” We’re one of the few school districts to demand they take algebra by the time they leave eighth grade, not by the time they’re 10th-graders. It’s not even that rigorous, but it’s rigorous here, and we’ve got to own that challenge. If kids learn this way, let’s start to learn to adapt with iPads. But, I say before I invest, let’s pilot it.
I’m an S-curve believer: You pilot, you incubate, then you figure out how you scale and how you sustain it.
Businessman Steve Hill, a leader of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce’s school and tax reform efforts, owns a concrete company. He says he became involved in the issues because he was receiving applications from Clark County School District graduates who couldn’t do basic math and lacked simple writing skills, both of which his company needs to work construction jobs.
The thing is, that isn’t unique to Clark County. I heard that as education commissioner in Colorado. I had pipe fitters say, “Kids can’t do the math that I need them to do.” I asked, “What level of math?” We finally figured out it was about Algebra II level. So you know where we set the standard?
We set it where every kid had to do at least Algebra II-level math.
Employers said, “I can’t take the time to teach them math. I can teach them to do other stuff on the job, but I need them to do at least this level math.”
So what I say to those business leaders is you’re right. You’re right, and if public education doesn’t figure that out in this country, no wonder some folks are reaching out to workers from other places. The school districts seem to have some disconnect of what business is saying about the quality of employee they need to have.
I think we get it, so what are we now going to do about it? In some cases, it may take some investment. We may have to invest to get that level of worker, because in some cases we’ve gotten down so low that we may have to invest to build it back up.
Meaning an investment in the schools. Meaning an investment in technology. I was so frustrated when I had some media outlets trying to take us to task because principals were using iPads to do evaluations and do their work quicker. I said, “Really, so you want the schools to get better, but you want them to stay with the oldest, most broken down technology?”
Now, what’s nice is the community got it. Did you notice those stories had no legs? Folks said there’s a lot you can punish the schools for, and if you want to attack the district, you can find stuff, but that’s what you’re finding? I actually thought it was laughable.
We’ve got to move it forward, but not with technology that sits in a computer in a classroom. We’ve got to get it connected for kids. We’re getting ready to take these iPhones, and we’re going to be able to start shooting lessons and things kids can do right on their phones. That’s part of why I emphasize online and blended technology in our reform agenda. That is going to be a major driver in how we reform this district.
How and where will students use such technology?
It will be at home. It will almost be anywhere, anytime. It’s about time we got on board with how folks have been reaching kids based on how kids learn, and now folks are learning how to do it a lot cheaper. We highlighted a chemistry teacher in Woodland Park outside of Colorado Springs, up in the mountains, and this person is teaching kids in Canada because he’s using their smartphones. They were doing lessons, and when a kid is away on a trip or sick at home, they could actually access what was going on in the classroom. It all got posted, and it was in real time. That was a rural community. It’s not as though that’s only happening in Silicon Valley or where people are wealthy. It’s happening in communities across the country.
How are you tying in that experience with the Clark County School District?
Nevada State College has industry technology and equipment, and they’ve offered to show our kids what’s available to them, but I’ve got to get my math and science teachers out there first. We’re working on a partnership for next summer in which teachers will do internships so they’ll know what’s in those classrooms. I’ve said I can’t change the culture in the public school classroom until teachers know what kids know and are able to do and how much it’s changed. I think some might be aware. I don’t know.
How have things changed?
It’s the technology. It’s how the kids learn. I think it’s what’s expected of them. Going back to Switch Communications, they said bring kids out here. Let them see all the different jobs. It’s making that connection. I think if I can connect to Switch, connect them to Nevada State College and get teachers to understand, we can build a whole workforce and put kids into really good jobs.
Invariably, this conversation comes back to money. You know the arguments: We need a higher business taxes, a higher gaming tax, greater taxes on mining and other business sectors in the worst of times and the best of times. The business community wants better employees, wants smarter employees, but are business interests paying enough right now when it comes to taxes?
I always think a more diversified tax base really matters because it helps protect you against one segment that may be in a downswing. At some point, I really think Nevada needs to have a look at a diversified tax base.
Wouldn’t that mean a broader tax base?
Definitely broader. And a tax base that is stable and doesn’t fluctuate and bow and bend so much.
A higher sales tax? A higher gaming tax?
It could be. Some folks in some states could tell you how it could be a lot more stable, and we might even learn some things from Utah, which has stayed pretty stable during the downturn in this economy. There might be a variety of reasons for that, but I think it’s worth paying some attention to. So then the question remains — do we potentially need more money? We might.
Even the wisest business leaders in this community would agree that we’re probably underfunding our schools, but before we as a school district can ask for more money and before I think a business leader would say I’m going to give them more money, they have got to feel that we’re getting in a position where we’re going to deliver a better outcome.
It’s not much different from what I’m asking for in this system. I said in our reform agenda that, at some point, there’s going to be a license to operate. A license to operate means you don’t get rewarded for failure. So if the school district doesn’t turn the corner, I’m not sure I feel comfortable looking leaders in the eye in this community and saying, “Give me more money.”
Why? If we don’t actually give you some hope or optimism that we can actually deliver a better outcome, why would you invest more in that? Most folks would say we’d better split it up. We’d better shut it down. We’d better do something different.
The clock’s ticking on this license to operate, and at some point I’m not going to keep pouring in more money. Or, if the school board says it’s going to keep doing that, it’s probably going to have a new leader because I’m going to say we can’t keep investing in failure.
Now, I’m going to do everything in my power to help you get better. I’m willing to invest and partner with the federal government and the state to put another million dollars into Chaparral and Mojave high schools. But if we fail after three years, we’ve got to seriously take a look and admit it’s not just more money.
What kind of programs are we doing? How much have we trained and supported the teachers? All of those factors really make a difference, and in some cases more time, more training do take money.
So I think we’ve got to have a serious conversation about school funding in Nevada. But an equal expectation is that the community should say — before it’s automatically approving more funding — that it believes we’re going somewhere and have the chance to get better results than we get now. And you know, we’ve got to own that as a system.