Commentary

Well, THAT’s specious

October 14, 2021 5:00 am
bus bus bus

(CCSD photo)

Regular readers of my columns will not be surprised to learn that I have favorite words. “Hyperbole” is one. I love the way it rolls off the tongue, though I don’t love when people exemplify it.

“Onomatopoeia” is another. I mean, seriously, what a fun word to say. And I love the idea that there is a word that describes other words that sound like what they mean. Of course, onomatopoeia does not sound like what it means, which is ironic.

“Irony” is also one of my favorite words, as is its close cousin, the onomatopoetic “snark.”

The word that changed how I look at the world, though, is “specious.” I cannot tell you how happy I was to find a word that means “bullshit,” but in more specific terms.

Specious means something that sounds like it makes sense, but in reality makes no sense at all. Professor Irwin Corey made a pretty good career lampooning this. It’s doublespeak, it’s off track, it’s meant to confuse and avoid the issue at hand.

It’s the Clark County School District.

Case in point.

The CCSD Trustees held a joint meeting September 30 with the Nevada State Board of Education. The meeting was about CCSD’s compliance – or non-compliance – with AB469, the 2017 law that mandates CCSD reorganize into autonomous school zones – putting power in the hands of principals and the newly created School Organizational Teams (SOTs).

Ed Gonzalez, who helped write the law – and its 2015 predecessor that simply called for the breakup of the school district – has been telling me for years that we don’t know if AB469 is working, because CCSD has not fully implemented it.

At an August 16 meeting, the State Board of Ed (no relation) agreed with the person Ed.

“I think we’re all in agreement that they are… not complying with the law,” said state board president Felicia Ortiz. 

I think that’s an accurate statement. Supt. Jesus Jara and his staff obviously think that’s an accurate statement. But they give a unique argument: They don’t like the law, so they’re not going to comply with it.

Consider this: “Evidence suggests that broad, centralized efforts focused on improving instruction can lead to greater student success in large, urban school districts.”

That is the first subheading in a report on AB469 that CCSD put out the day before the September 30 meeting.

So… the State Board of Ed determines after numerous meetings and community input that CCSD is not correctly implementing a law that is aimed at diffusing power throughout the district. CCSD responds by arguing that central control is better.

Well, that’s specious.

Break Down or Break Up

“Our role as a board is to make sure the law is being followed,” said State Board of Ed Member Katie Dockweiler, who chairs a subcommittee tasked with overseeing compliance of AB469. “A lot of that report is them justifying why they don’t have to follow the law.”

Many of her fellow state board members echoed those sentiments.

“This is some of the arrogance that got them in trouble to begin with,” says fellow board member Mark Newburn. “And it will get them in trouble again.”

The “trouble” Newburn is referring to came to a head in 2015, when the Republican-led Legislature perceived that CCSD leaders “were just unable to reform themselves, and if we gave them more money, it would never make it down to schools,” Newburn said.

The result – AB394 – mandated a breakup of CCSD. Then-superintendent Pat Skorkowsky scrambled for some less drastic alternative, settling on allowing individual schools a high degree of autonomy with community input. In 2017, that became AB469.

In inviting the CCSD Trustees to meet with the state Board of Education, Newburn said, “We were trying to convey to them that it was not whether the district was going to be reformed. It was whether the reform was going to break the district up.

“I think in that report, they’ve lost the history of what the two choices are,” Newburn added.

Both Newburn and Dockweiler, as well as state board president Felicia Ortiz, note that they have no power to break up CCSD. They do, however, have the ear of the governor and lawmakers, who are not fans of either Jara or the CCSD trustees.

The thing is, I read the 84-page study that Jara’s team cited. It actually doesn’t say central control is better. It says leadership is the key, whether in districts with strong central control or a conglomerate of autonomous zoned schools – like Chicago and Las Vegas.

To my ear – factoring in what people who work directly with Jara report – is what Jara is saying is that he has no idea how to lead by giving other people autonomy to do their jobs. And he’s misrepresenting a study to back up his autocratic view of leadership.

That’s, well, specious. At the very least.

Contractors

One of the main complaints the State Board heard was about Service Level Agreements – the ability for schools to contract out for services. The Board’s interest in this started with Data Insight Partners.

I wrote about this in March, but to re-cap, DIP provided personalized data to schools who contracted with them. Principals described DIP as providing not just data analysis, but a concierge data service tailored to each student’s needs.

Data Insight Partners was taken off the approved vendor list without warning. Schools were told they needed to use data provided by the central office, which was kinda crappy, didn’t give the granular data or concierge support and – as I wrote – stole DIPs dashboards. (The district settled with DIP for $300,000 – the most allowed under state law.)

CCSD obliquely referenced DIP in their AB469 report, affirming that it doesn’t intend to allow schools to contract out for data.

The District has chosen to exercise its responsibility and authority for information technology under NRS388G.610 to disallow the sharing of student information to a third party…

This is so audacious it’s mind blowing.

Every single trustee meeting includes some sort of contract with an outside vendor with whom CCSD has to share data. There’s this from September 23. And this from July 8. Or this from June 24. Pick a meeting at random.

Teachers and staff test for COVID 19 through Emocha, which says in their terms of service, that private information may be shared with outside parties. Teachers and staff cannot opt out of Emocha.

GoGuardian, which CCSD contracts with, sends reports to principals every morning reporting on what students Googled the night before.

Hell, Infinite Campus – which has all the data of all families who have enrolled their child in the district over the last decade – is a contracted piece of software.

But Jara doesn’t want Data Insight Partners to provide information directly to schools because they’re a “third party consultant?”

Oh, and get this. This is the best part. Trustee Irene Cepeda told me that the district has changed the leadership in its data department, and is no longer providing the dashboards it stole from DIP.

The district has temporarily given the reins to Mike Del Prado, whose involvement with the district started when he and his company Executive Option were brought in to fix the payroll software mess in early 2020. Del Prado is a consultant, not a CCSD employee.

That’s right, a third party consultant has been brought in to retool the data dashboards that CCSD took away from Data Insight Partners because they are… a third party consultant.

I think this goes beyond specious. This is just some serious bullshit.

Cepeda said something else that worries me.

Allowing individual schools to contract out for data “screams inequity when some schools can hire a data partner, and some can’t.”

The state board invited the CCSD trustees to the meeting on September 30 because they had an inkling that the CCSD leaders may not be familiar with AB469. Cepeda’s inequity comment tells me inkling was correct.

As the person Ed Gonzalez has explained many times, it’s like an a la carte education list. The state provides money that must go directly to school budgets. Schools can opt to put their dollars toward services provided by the district. Or they can choose to get those services from a contractor.

So, nobody’s not getting data. That’s a choice each principal is making – who to “buy” the data from. A choice that was affirmed in the September 30 meeting by Deputy State Superintendent Felicia Gonzales, who noted that the state board has determined data consultants like DIP “are the responsibility of local school precincts.”

Is AB469 Perfect?

There are certainly issues with the reorg law. For instance, the law says trustees must review every school organizational plan.

CCSD has 385 Schools. It seems an impossible waste of time to ask the board to review every plan.

It’s also something that quite a few current and former trustees have never even heard of, much less complied with.

Board of Ed members noted that their aim is to take away some of those parts of the law that don’t work, and define terms that are a bit ambiguous in the law. In the part dealing with hiring, for example, it says principals must “to the greatest extent possible” hire licensed teachers “in good standing” before they hire subs.

But what do those two phrases actually mean in practice?

“We’re taking these areas of ambiguity and we’re going to write definitions, and we’re asking the stakeholders what they think of that,” says Newburn.

In other words, the State Board of Ed is looking at what’s in front of it and is committed to upholding the law, while adjusting some of the law’s vagueness. CCSD seems committed to simply ignoring that the law even exists.

That’s just… well, it’s just typical CCSD. Maybe we ought to coin a word for that.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Carrie Kaufman
Carrie Kaufman

Broadcast, digital and print journalist Carrie Kaufman has covered the Clark County School District for public radio and The Nevada Voice since 2015.

MORE FROM AUTHOR