Breaking systems, harming families

September 23, 2022 6:00 am

“Why do we support, defend and give in to people who seem to have no capacity for social/emotional intelligence, or the ability for self-reflection?” asks the columnist. (Photo: Carrie Kaufman)

Last month, I read with awe the incredible Caitlin Dickerson story in The Atlantic. The piece delved into what really happened with Trump’s family separation border policy in 2018.

The piece is long and sprawling and presents a lot of details about ICE and the Dept. of Justice, leaders of Homeland Security, folks in the Trump administration and on-the-ground government workers that we previously didn’t know anything about. It’s also a surprisingly easy read, given its depth.

What I remember most about the story, though, was that as I was reading I found myself thinking, “This sounds like CCSD.”

What Dickerson describes is what happens to a functioning bureaucracy when people from outside the bureaucracy come in, ignore the experts, and try to change it from the top.

In both the executive branch of the U.S. government and CCSD, those experts are the ones closest to the people who will be affected by the policies.

Trump and his team came in from the top and thought they knew everything. So did Jesus Jara. And, honestly, CFO Jason Goudie.

In both cases, it was a disaster. And in both cases, it’s still ongoing. Because of bad planning – or no planning – a few hundred kids had to delay their first day of school this year, and educators are still seeing issues with their paychecks because of the stunted payroll system CCSD paid $17 million for.


I want to share the similarities I found in the characters of Dickerson’s story, and the characters in CCSD.

Dickerson mostly lays the blame for the family separation policy at the feet of one man – Stephen Miller.

Miller – who told Latinos at his California high school to speak English, and in college accused poet Maya Angelou of spreading “racial paranoia” – was a senior advisor to Trump. He wanted the family separations to happen so desperately that he “phoned DHS staff day and night, barraging them with demands and bullying career bureaucrats into a putative consensus on his ideas,” according to Dickerson’s piece.

Dickerson describes Miller as someone with no filter, no perspective. If he wanted something, he just hectored everyone around him till he wore them down.

This is what one aid to then DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said about Miller’s appointed deputies, who were trying to convince the Secretary to sign off on family separations: 

“They were not grasping the humanity of the situation; they were just all about ‘I need Stephen [Miller] off my back.

In CCSD, the “Stephen Miller” character is Lola Brooks.

This summer, the State Board of Ed took the possibility of receivership to implement the AB469 reorganization law off the table solely because of Lola Brooks’s relentless hectoring.

State Board of Ed member Mark Newburn told me that it was after a May 18 meeting of a subcommittee CCSD had formed on AB469, when Brooks distorted facts in a way that would make Judge Aileen Cannon proud, that he began to think about taking receivership off the table.

“They are terrified of receivership,” Newburn said of the three trustees (including Lisa Guzman and Katie Williams) at that meeting. “They seemed transfixed by this. It’s such a shiny object, they can’t see anything else.”

This seems odd to me, because Guzman told me she did not see receivership as anything more than a tool the state could use as a last resort. And Williams was barely paying attention during the meeting. She spent most of the two hours passing notes back and forth with Kellie Kowal-Paul, who is the cabinet officer charged with getting CCSD into compliance. 

When making the motion to pull receivership from the menu, Newburn told his fellow board members: “The trustees view the regulations on receivership as the true goal of the process. That everything else is really just an excuse to put the district into receivership and this is just a power grab by the state.”

When I asked Newburn what Guzman and Williams had said that made him think they were also terrified of receivership, he told me he was “extrapolating” from their not objecting to what Brooks was saying. When I asked him if he had heard from any other trustee besides Brooks that they thought the state’s goal in demanding compliance with the law was really just a ruse to take over the district, he sighed and said he had not talked to any of the other trustees.

Newburn getting the Nevada Board of Education to take a very powerful tool out of their tool bag because he was trying to appease a very problematic trustee is not akin to Nielsen signing an order that led to separation of families. But the methods to get to those decisions are the same.

One more thing about the similarities between Miller and Brooks. I found a quote from the Charlotte News and Observer (sharing via Wikipedia because the N&O has a paywall) about Miller from the former vice president of Duke University:

While at Duke, Miller “seemed to assume that if you were in disagreement with him, there was something malevolent or stupid about your thinking.” 

There are a lot of videos to choose from where Brooks demonstrates this same behavior. I’ll choose this one directed toward Linda Cavazos. Notice how often she says the word “I.”

Now, as I wrote last week, Brooks is maneuvering to get Jara’s contract signed as a hedge against changes the election might bring.

I bring this up not to attack Brooks, but to note how much damage one person can do. It also brings up a question I have been asking for years: why do we support, defend and give in to people who seem to have no capacity for social/emotional intelligence, or the ability for self-reflection? Are we just susceptible to people who say things with confidence, even if what they’re saying is incorrect, or damaging? Are we not able to get past the bluster? Do we not care about the details? Do we forgive certain stereotypes? Would a black man be able to get away with the rant I linked to above without being called a bully? Would a middle-aged Lesbian or trans woman? I don’t get it.

Honestly, this – and the question of whether or not you can make art when you’re happy – are the two Existential investigations of my life.

Bubbling Up from the Bottom

What Dickerson describes in terms of the federal bureaucracy is that ideas are vetted first by “subject-matter experts” – you know, the nerds who really really love, say, fossil fuel emissions data affecting the North American Pacific coast, or the effect of traumatic violence on young children. The “ideas that pass muster” go up the chain, to people who are in charge of say, climate change or children’s services. Then, the top-level leaders see the proposals, and give a yay or nay based on their own policy preferences, and political realities.

Gee, that sounds an awful lot like the layers of a school district bureaucracy. You have the people who are “subject-matter experts” working directly on the issue at hand. Let’s call them teachers, who are working directly to educate children. Then you have the managers who oversee all the teachers. Hmm… let’s call them principals. Then there are the people who give a yay or nay and take the ideas up the chain to the final decision maker. They are like cabinet secretaries, and that last person… let’s call them the superintendent.

There have been numerous attempts to make CCSD work like this over the years. Former CCSD admin Eva White described to me a few years ago the piloting of “professional development schools.” These schools would work with UNLV, training teachers at schools, and incentivizing experienced teachers to stay and mentor the younger teachers.

“They kept their practice sharp,” said White of the experienced teachers.

Other teachers have told me about being sent to Harvard for their National Institute of Urban School Leaders program – with the goal of coming back and teaching their peers.

There’s even a video, from 2017, of Stanford Elementary’s participation in a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards program to create ideas and methods that could bubble up from the bottom.

This stopped when Jara took over. But, to be fair, teachers tell me, these kinds of things also stopped when Dwight Jones took over in 2010. Then came back again when Pat Skorkowsky was appointed in 2013.

It seems like every time we get a new superintendent, their goal is to reinvent the wheel, put their stamp on things, swinging the entire district back and forth with their competing visions.

It was Dickerson’s piece that made me realize not all bureaucracies work this way; that as much as we have been primed to think the federal government doesn’t work, it really does have a tried and true structure that allows ideas from subject matter experts to at least get to the eyes and ears of the cabinet level leaders. Trump broke that. And one person inserted something so evil it destroyed lives.

It’s tempting to say Jara broke the tried and true structure of CCSD. But what I realized is there is no tried and true structure for CCSD. And that’s something we have to tackle before we can do anything else.

And as we talk about board structure, it’s becoming clear that how we choose boards doesn’t matter. It’s having a coherent vision. Which CCSD does not have.

We’ll get into that next week.

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Carrie Kaufman
Carrie Kaufman

Broadcast, digital and print journalist Carrie Kaufman writes the You're Overthinking It newsletter on Substack. She has covered the Clark County School District for public radio and The Nevada Voice since 2015. Follow Carrie on Twitter: @CarrieKaufman