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How tough is new school district chief Dwight Jones?

The school district’s new chief has a reputation as a consensus-builder. Translation: Slow and methodical.  But those in the know say: Don’t underestimate him

In January, Dwight Jones, the new superintendent of the Clark County School District, posted a white paper on the district website. He acknowledged funding the cash-strapped district would be a challenge but

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“the greater imperative is outlining the vision we want to achieve.”

But so far, in these early months of his tenure, funding has been the big imperative. The school district, in early April, tentatively approved a $1.8 billion budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year that would require some $407 million in cuts. More than 1,800 positions would be eliminated; staff would take pay cuts that add up to 8 percent. (But even those figures can change in either direction in the budgetary tug-of-wars that will surely mark the waning days of the 2011 Legislature.) Class sizes would increase. All this in a state already infamous for being one of the nation’s leaders in poor student performance. In short, Jones is expected to do more with a lot less.

In laying the groundwork for guiding the school district through a tight budget and into the future, Jones seems to be telling stakeholders things they want to hear.

Ralph Cadwallader, executive director of the Nevada Association of School Administrators, and a former school district associate superintendent, says he’s highly impressed with the new superintendent. At a meeting with school principals, Cadwallader noted that Jones’ approach was humble.

“He said, ‘I need your help.’ That was an approach that resonated with the group.” (The Nevada Association of School Administrators is a 1,000-member professional development group, not a collective bargaining group.)

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In fact, by all appearances so far, Jones is a pleasant, well-spoken consensus-builder. Just the kind of even-tempered, mild-mannered adult the school district needs to steer a struggling ship. A Las Vegas Sun article noted Jones’ “contrition and humility” at a meeting of business and education leaders in late March.

Though Jones hasn’t much advertised it himself, word is starting to trickle out about importing his reform methods from his previous post in Colorado — a “growth model” that zooms in on student progress rather than schools’ test scores. And the early buzz is promising. The question becomes whether Jones is tough enough to make that reform happen here in Clark County, where mediocre education seems to be an entrenched status quo.

When I spoke with him, Jones noted, quite bluntly, what his job was. “I have been brought to CCSD to be a game-changer. Change will not happen overnight. It will not happen by luck. Rather, change will happen by design.”

Maybe that’s a feel-good quote, but many agree that Jones is a lot more formidable than he may seem.

“He’s a very strong person and people wouldn’t want to underestimate him,” says Peg Bacon, the former dean of education and current provost at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. “He’s a change agent wearing slippers instead of hobnail boots.”

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While Brent Husson, chairman of the Business and Education Alliance for the Children of Nevada, or BEACON, sees Jones as a consensus-builder, he notes that his position allows him to be much more.

“Maybe he’s so good he’ll never need to crack the whip,” Husson says. “I do know the superintendent’s position is authoritative enough that if you want to get something done, you can. It’s a dictatorship if you want it to be.”


Eyes wide open

Jones came to Las Vegas with eyes wide open. I asked him if he knew what he was getting into, taking the reins of one of the largest school districts in the country at a time of tightening budgets.

“What made me want to take the job is I think it’s a great opportunity for redesign and reforming a large urban school district,” he says.

Of course, one of Jones’ first steps has been fairly prosaic — he’s commissioned a study (funded privately by the Lincy Foundation) to analyze the school district’s budget and look for ways to improve. From there, he may begin to push the kind of agenda that marked his tenure as the commissioner of education for the state of Colorado, the position he held before coming here. There, he championed a bill to overhaul the way teachers in that state are evaluated. The Colorado teacher evaluation bill, SB 191, linked half of a teacher’s evaluation to growth in student performance and tied it to tenure.

In his white paper, Jones notes the bill “allows educators to be treated as are their professional colleagues in other fields; they will be evaluated with a variety of measures and will earn salary increases commensurate with the results achieved with their students.” He referred to this bill and another, one designed to give schools more freedom to try out new educational ideas, as “aggressive reform legislation.”

These days, “reform” is often a synonym for a “blame the teachers” approach. While the Colorado chapter of the American Federation of Teachers supported the teacher effectiveness bill, the state’s chapter of the National Education Association opposed it. Mike Wetzel, spokesman for the Colorado Education Association, says his group’s main opposition to 191 was that it was too focused on consequences and punishments for underperforming teachers and didn’t do enough to establish benchmarks for success.

“It was all about the procedures of letting a teacher go. It didn’t say anything about why a teacher was let go. Do they need more training? Do they need more support?” After chiding Jones for backing SB 191, the union pulled its support of the district’s bid for a federal Race to the Top grant, which may have been a factor in Colorado being ultimately passed over for the $175 million grant.

Still, Bacon says that Jones’ tenure in that state helped change the educational culture to focus more on student achievement, which to that point had not been a big priority. But, he says, “I don’t think teachers in his school district ever thought he was anti-teacher.”


Empower play

Jones certainly positions himself as a big supporter of the empowerment model of schooling, which gives local administrators and teachers more autonomy in conducting their affairs.

“We need to invest in our teachers and administrators and at the same time we have to up the level of accountability,” he says. “If we’re going to hold them more accountable, we have to give them more autonomy.”

His relationship with the local union may ultimately hinge on whether they feel his focus leans toward “autonomy” versus “accountability,” but Jones describes his relationship with the local teachers’ union as a good one.

“If you look at empowerment schools, teachers’ unions are a tremendous upfront player,” says Jones. While he says there will be areas where the union and district disagree, he thinks the union is open to fundamental changes that have to happen, from decreasing the district’s dropout rate to making sure more kids can read at grade level.

The Clark County Education Association, the county’s teachers’ union, supports empowerment schools as well, but Ruben Murillo, the union’s president, is cautious in describing the developing relationship.

“It’s an interesting relationship right now. We’re trying to get to know each other right now. We’re trying to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle fit.” The union’s relationship with the last superintendent, Walt Ruffles, was collaborative and congenial. With Jones, it’s still too early to say.

They agree on some things — “we agree that a lot of school reform has to occur and that we both have to be involved in order to make sure school reform occurs collaboratively,” Murillo says. But there are areas where early conversations are a “mixed pot” — Murillo opposes the lack of due process in the Colorado bill. “Everybody should have the ability to defend their ability to do the job.”

Murillo says the union will have a better idea of its relationship with Jones over the next year. It remains to be seen whether Jones really cracks the whip here in Clark County.

“He knows that there’s hard decisions that will have to be made,” says Cadwallader. “If he doesn’t get some concessions from his unions, there will be further layoffs. There are no ifs, ands or buts about that.”

Ironically, Jones’ biggest challenge may end up being the very school board that brought him in. Karen Gray, education researcher with the Nevada Policy Research Institute, recalls a meeting in March where Jones told the board the budget needed to be cut and “the trustees spent an hour and a half telling him no — he needs to go after new revenue sources.”

Gray says that may be the status quo Jones has to fight.

“Jones has said that publicly, money is not the solution to our problem. He’s very public about that. That’s where I see his biggest obstacle. The board is saying your number one priority should be generating more revenue resources.”


Word as bond

It always comes back to revenue, doesn’t it? This year’s budget debates notwithstanding, the situation at the Clark County School District has been urgent for some time. Over the last three years, the school has cut $370 million from its budget and eliminated 1,800 employees at all levels. Right now the district is facing cuts of between $250 million and $270 million. Those cuts appear to have ballooned to $400 million — something the district expected if it was able to successfully oppose Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposals to offset budget cuts by using $300 million from the district’s bond reserve — money the district is supposed to use to pay back bonds that funded capital construction projects.

Jones wants to keep that bond money in place. He says there are still tremendous facility needs that may require issuing another bond in coming years. Further, in the boom years, the district grew to 310,000 students. Even in the bad economy, enrollment hasn’t changed. “The kids are still here. We still were overcrowded. Our enrollment hasn’t really dropped so much.”

Going back to voters begging for a new bond might not sail. Voters would say, he suspects, “‘We voted for those funds to be used a certain way — and you couldn’t protect it.’ It puts us in a very difficult situation. To not use those funds creates a larger potential deficit, to use those funds creates long-term problems.”

Moving forward, the district will have to squeeze out greater efficiencies, and Jones can already tick off a few ideas.

“One has to do it with online and blended learning. Online kids learn quite well. Let’s say you have a calculus class, honors calculus, maybe 10 students — they could take it online, that could free up a teaching position,” he says. And technologies such as Rosetta Stone language programs could be used for online foreign language classes.

They’re all interesting ideas. But until ideas become reality, people such as BEACON’s Husson are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

“I’m skeptical of anybody who says, ‘I’m a reformer.’ We’ve seen a lot of well-intentioned people try and not get it. He does come across as pretty strong-willed. But I don’t know what that will mean.”