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School Board to consider extending superintendent’s contract

Updated September 30, 2022 - 5:39 pm

Hours after completing an evaluation that rated his performance as “highly effective,” the Clark County School Board announced that it will discuss and possibly vote on extending Superintendent Jesus Jara’s contract next week.

The contract extension would raise Jara’s salary by $75,000 and comes on the heels of a controversial year for the superintendent, who was fired and subsequently rehired after leveling claims of a hostile work environment against some board members.

It also comes four months before Jara’s contract is set to expire in January — and before new board members could potentially be seated following the November election.

At a board work session in early September, Trustee Lola Brooks made a motion to move up the superintendent’s evaluation, more than two months before the deadline of Dec. 15 that is stipulated in Jara’s contract.

At the time, Trustee Linda Cavazos expressed concerns about rushing the evaluation.

“We come in here, we have one thing on the agenda, and all of a sudden it turns into something else, and then we have this expedited thing that seems to have been maybe predetermined or certain people have talked about it, but the other people are not included,” she said.

Jara joined the district in 2018 at a salary of $320,000. The extended contract would run through June 30, 2026, and would see Jara’s pay increased to $395,000 a year.

There are three School Board seats up for grabs in November’s general election. At least two candidates in separate districts, Trustee Danielle Ford and Brenda Zamora, have said they do not support Jara and would not vote to renew his contract, which could flip the balance of power on a board where decisions are consistently decided with a 4-3 vote.

If a new iteration of the board then were to decide to terminate Jara’s employment with the district, the district would still need to pay out the remainder of the salary and benefits owed to him through the end of his new contract term. If the board were to terminate Jara’s contract in June, for example, the superintendent could still walk away with a $1.2 million payout for his salary alone.

“The earlier we terminate, the more money we’re going to pay,” Ford told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Friday.

Board members voted 4-3 last fall to oust Jara as superintendent, but subsequently voted to reinstate him after Trustee Irene Cepeda reversed her decision to fire him.

Cepeda, who now serves as board president, said Thursday night that the process for evaluating the superintendent has been different every year.

“That’s kind of the frustrating piece for me specifically, because we have not had a standard system,” she said.

The evaluation process — and the metrics that were used to assess Jara — saw pushback from other board members and community members.

How was Jara evaluated?

Earlier this year, the board agreed upon three goals that it would use to evaluate Jara’s performance:

— Increase the proficiency of students in all racial/ethnic student groups by 7 percentage points in reading by third grade and by 5 percentage points in mathematics in grades six through eight.

— Decrease the overrepresentation of Black/African American student suspensions and expulsions by 5 percentage points from 2021 to 2022.

— Hire 1,655 classroom teachers, representing a 25 percent increase from the most recent three-year average, before Nov. 1.

But at least one trustee raised concerns when the goals were approved about how they had been derived.

Ford said at the time that the metric about hiring teachers was not what was originally presented to board members and had been modified by the superintendent and his staff.

On Feb. 2, during a work session spanning more than seven hours, board trustees worked to define goals for the superintendent’s evaluation. One of those goals was for the district to “ensure all students have access to highly effective teachers, administrators, and school staff.”

But at the Feb. 24 meeting where the goals were ultimately approved, that metric had evolved to instead track the hiring of a specific number of teachers.

The district’s chief strategy officer, Kellie Kowal-Paul, said at the time that the measurement didn’t account for other factors like teacher retention because district staff felt it “unwise to set a goal based on data that we couldn’t really be confident in yet, and certainly not a goal that we knew whether or not could be attainable.”

“What we decided to do was to get the number that we could be confident in, which is the recruitment half of that equation,” Kowal-Paul said.

At the time, Ford also questioned whether Deb Darby-Dudley, the district’s governance coordinator, had approved those changes.

Jara said at the time that she had not.

But on Thursday, when questioned by Ford about whether she was involved in the process of modifying the goals, Darby-Dudley said she was made aware of the updated goals.

The findings

On Thursday, Jara presented the findings of his own evaluation, which showed he had met the goals set for him in each area, except for increasing students’ math proficiency and increasing reading proficiency for Black and Native American students.

The superintendent did not present the methodology that was used to determine the findings, but Cepeda said the data used to evaluate the superintendent came from statewide testing scores and data from the district’s human resources department.

On Thursday, ahead of Jara’s evaluation, Ford questioned whether there should be other factors that the board should consider in evaluating the superintendent, citing the high turnover rate among his executive cabinet. Three members of his cabinet have resigned in the past year, according to records provided by the Clark County School District.

“What about things you couldn’t predict a year ago?” Ford asked. “I mean, how do you say, ‘I would like a superintendent that doesn’t sue the board,’ without knowing that might happen?”

But Darby-Dudley said it would be unfair to evaluate Jara on measures that weren’t outlined in February.

“The fair way to do it is to evaluate them on the things that you identified in February that you told them were important to you and were the hierarchy of what you wanted them to work on,” she said.

Darby-Dudley, who was initially set to be the facilitator of Jara’s evaluation, ultimately opted not to facilitate the evaluation Thursday after “disagreements” over choosing to hold the evaluation in a public meeting, according to Cepeda.

“We face extra scrutiny because we’re Clark County,” Cepeda said. “It had to be in public, but it is not best practice.”

The board was split at several points during the meeting, including on how to score the superintendent’s performance in each area.

Trustees ultimately opted to score the superintendent on a scale of 1 to 4 on each measure of his evaluation, with 1 being “ineffective,” 2 being “developing,” 3 being “effective” and 4 being “highly effective.”

The board averaged those scores and voted 5-2 to accept Jara’s final score of 3.6 and rate him “highly effective,” with Ford and Cavazos opposed.

In a statement posted to Twitter following the meeting, Cavazos said there was no approved plan or methodology agreed upon before the meeting as to how the evaluation metrics would be scored or rated.

“This is why a facilitator was needed for objective guidance on the actual scoring,” she wrote.

In a presentation to the board, Darby-Dudley also said the board should avoid evaluating the superintendent based on “rumors based on gossip from a few disgruntled community members.”

In her Twitter post, Cavazos said the methodology used for the final evaluation was not what she had originally envisioned.

“‘Disgruntled few?’” she wrote. “I rep them.”

The special meeting where board members are set to discuss Jara’s contract will be held at 9 a.m. on Wednesday at the Edward A. Greer Education Center, 2832 E. Flamingo Road.

Contact Lorraine Longhi at 702-387-5298 or llonghi@reviewjournal.com. Follow her at @lolonghi on Twitter.

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