Incoming Superintendent Jesus Jara started work on Tuesday with high hopes and a long list of problems to fix.
Welcome to the Clark County School District.
It starts with the district’s lackluster academic achievement. Just 29 percent of the district’s fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress. The district’s high school graduation rate has improved, but the number of district graduates needing remedial classes when they enroll at a Nevada college campus was more than 55 percent in 2015.
Improving academic performance presents a significant challenge. But the task becomes even more difficult given that Mr. Jara comes onboard as the district is still negotiating contracts — and has been for the past school year — with four employee groups. Trustees are suing to throw out an arbitrator’s decision giving teachers raises, and the district recently asked schools to make budget cuts. Combine that with the district’s meager financial reserves, and Mr. Jara doesn’t have any margin for error. The district is also still in the midst of a reorganization that’s giving principals and schools more control over their budgets.
In short, the district is a mess. That’s part of the reason trustees selected a new leader from the outside. It needs innovative approaches, such as pairing student success with greater autonomy for principals. That was a reform initiated in Mr. Jara’s previous school district in Florida. He won’t be successful, however, if the entrenched district powers, most notably district unions, resist his proposals. In an interview with the Review-Journal’s Meghin Delaney, Mr. Jara relabeled those differences of opinion as “passion.”
“The passion I can work with,” Mr. Jara said. “What we need to do is just channel it together to … work as one and collaborate together so we can then have a real clear focus on being the No. 1 district for kids.”
He’s absolutely right on the need for collaboration, but Mr. Jara’s challenge is that he has very little authority to make it happen. He’ll have to rely on his personal leadership ability to forge lasting compromises when past superintendents Dwight Jones and Pat Skorkowsky couldn’t.
One reform that can unify the adults in the system around improving student outcomes is increased competition. If district and union officials see that students are choosing charter and private schools, that can motivate them to put reforms above holding out for top dollar or maximizing territorial power. That’s why Mr. Jara should be an outspoken advocate for school choice. It’s the only leverage he has to make the adults in the system put students first.
If Mr. Jara succeeds, the children of Clark County will succeed as well. That’s more than enough reason to give him a warm welcome.