Opinion: New patterns of thought needed to transform Washoe County schools
July 13, 2017
In the June 29 edition of the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, Jim Clark wrote that he hopes the ideas for school district reorganization coming out of Clark County spill over into Washoe County schools. We wholeheartedly agree.
Across Nevada, a transformation of thought is taking place in education. Led by Gov. Brian Sandoval, the Nevada Legislature, Nevada Department of Education, and local school district leaders — Nevada is addressing some of the greatest problems in its education systems. As the head of the consulting firm leading the Clark County School District (CCSD) reorganization, I'd like to offer a few thoughts:
1) First, do no harm: School districts are systems designed to address the basic educational needs of all children — regardless of ability, socio-economic status, or home life. Different children need different services — and different services need different types of expertise that cost different amounts of money. The complexity of school systems rival those of any Fortune 500 company. Before any major change in the school system is instituted, the community must carefully analyze the system to avoid doing unintentional harm to its students.
2) Transformation of any system takes a change in culture: When we began work with CCSD, 46 percent of its $2.3 billion budget was directly controlled by the central administration, while schools had influence over just 54 percent of the general fund budget. Today, we're on a path to ensure that school principals are empowered to make decisions over more than 80 percent of the district's budget. How did CCSD get to a point where central administrators controlled so much money? I can sum it up in four words: a culture of fear. Because CCSD has faced decades of bad headlines, administrators sought to assert control over more and more of the school district budget. Over a period of years, this culture of fear has led to a system where local school principals have little control of the things happening at their schools, and it has also led to a culture of "if we don't spend it, we lose it." To truly transform the system, we must address the culture of fear that pervades Nevada school systems, from the top to the bottom.
3) Culture can be more important than bureaucratic structure: Lots of people have ideas for different school system structures. As part of the reorganization, CCSD is pursuing a structure of local school autonomy where principals and school organizational teams are empowered to pursue strategies that drive student achievement. This is one way to help drive student achievement, but lots of other ways can work if school district leaders drive the right kind of culture in their organization. To drive positive change, Washoe County schools will have to take a hard look at their own culture and develop an improvement plan that principals, teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, and students are ready and willing to experience.
4) Once you open the hood, there's no telling what you'll find: School systems are built on teachers: hard working people that are often willing to do anything to ensure their students succeed. We've gone through some tough times in Nevada. The teachers and administrators of our school systems did everything they could —with duct tape, bubble gum, and anything else they could find — to hold the school system together during our state's toughest times.
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In Clark County, we found that the entire business side of the school system was built on a mainframe computer system that predated MS-DOS. We also found a systemic disincentive for hiring a full complement of qualified teachers. And we found dozens of policies, usually imposed on the district by legislation or legal settlements that force the district to expend additional taxpayer resources. Almost every day, we find something in the school system that surprises us. If Washoe County schools go through a similar reorganization plan, I'd bet we'd all be surprised by what we find.
Tom Skancke is CEO, Chief Transformational Strategist, and owner of TSC2 Group in Las Vegas. The Nevada Legislature retained the firm in October 2016 to conduct the reorganization of Clark County School District.