Updated October 7, 2020 - 9:26 am
It’s been a tumultuous year for the Clark County School District Board of Trustees, which is charged with making essential decisions that affect more than 309,000 students and their families, 18,000 teachers and 12,000 support staff.
The board has grappled this year with school closures and cuts to education funding and the decisions ahead will include when to reopen schools and whether to renew the superintendent’s contract.
Two candidates are in the running for the District E seat, which represents the Summerlin area as well as rural schools in Mt. Charleston and Indian Springs. Currently holding the seat is Lola Brooks, the only incumbent among all four school board races, who was first elected to the board in 2016 and named president in 2019. Her challenger is Indian Springs teacher Alexis Salt, a 15-year veteran of the district and the only current teacher in the running for a seat.
Brooks comes from a background of data science and social work and now works as a student data analyst at the state’s only alternative education charter school, overseeing assessment and technology, including many of the same programs that the school district uses.
Asked to reflect on distance learning so far, Brooks said the district’s switch to the Canvas learning management system happened on too tight a timeline. Her own school also recently made the switch, she said, but spent close to a year implementing it. The director of academics provided additional support to teachers, and a tech team helped with issues — though this is much harder for a large school district to do, Brooks added.
When it comes to reopening, Brooks said she’d like to see the district explore an option to bring kids who need the extra support back first, as some students are adapting to distance learning better than others. She said it’s essential that the board receive updates on COVID-19 statistics every 30 days, including positive test numbers.
Apart from the topic of distance learning, the school board also has had a busy summer grappling with the fallout of a special session of the state Legislature, including hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to education, and turmoil over Superintendent Jesus Jara’s role in a bill to revert school funds to the district.
On cuts to education, Brooks said: “Honestly, there is no right move when it comes to education cuts at this point.”
She said it’s critical to both protect the base funding allocated to all students and extra money allocated for English learners, low-income and gifted students, as currently being defined by the Nevada School Funding Commission. Both school-level autonomy and accountability to ensure those dollars are reaching students are important, she added.
Brooks declined to comment on the specific events of the July 29 meeting called to discuss Jara’s conduct and contract — which ended abruptly with a vote by four trustees including Brooks — but said she believes the board can move forward especially with the help of a consultant hired for governance training.
“I harbor no ill feelings against anyone, but we do have to work on communication and relationship building,” Brooks said. “I’m hoping that the consultant will point us in that direction.”
COVID-19 has upended community engagement for candidates and citizens alike, pushing it online, where tensions can be high.
Brooks said she frequently lurks the many groups dedicated to district parents or staff, taking in the opinions expressed even if she doesn’t directly engage. She said she responds by email and direct message and makes an effort to find solutions to specific concerns and questions.
Brooks said she’d like voters to vote for school board candidates who have a track record of making objective decisions and advocating for people who are unlike themselves.
“It’s important that people vote for individuals who understand what the role is, and not what an imagined version of the role is, and who know the difference between governance and management,” Brooks said. “You are an oversight role. You don’t manage the district.”
Brooks’ opponent in the general election is Indian Springs Schools teacher Alexis Salt, who has taught at CCSD for 15 years.
Salt said she began attending board meetings with the belief that the trustees didn’t grasp how their policies were affecting classroom teachers but realized later that the ignorance was willful. She said she’s running to provide that teacher perspective and refocus the conversation on students — particularly the majority who don’t plan to pursue a four-year degree.
“We have skilled trades in schools and (career technical education), but often it’s only open to kids with good grades and good behavior, and that’s not usually the kids who need it,” Salt said.
She said distance learning is working well for some kids, like her own, who have access to devices, reliable internet and plenty of parental support.
“But many kids are missing one key aspect of that equation,” she said. “For some kids, it’s red alert. The family is crashing and burning.”
Salt said the district needs to take a triage approach to reopening, with families who are struggling the most welcomed back to school buildings first. Also needed is more autonomy at the school level, she added, while the district devotes resources to preparing for both distance and in-person scenarios. She said she was hopeful after Labor Day weekend that cases would continue to trend down.
On school funding and the cuts handed down by the state Legislature, Salt said the district must first prove itself to be a good steward of taxpayer funds before asking for more, pointing to a recent move made to hire more area associate superintendents shortly after the legislative cuts were announced.
Salt described the contentious July 29 meeting as shameful and added that the four trustees who voted to shut it down were also shutting down voices in the community. Without hearing the whole presentation, Salt said, she doesn’t know how she would have voted had she been on the board, but that at this point, she would not vote to renew the superintendent’s contract next year.
“I think getting through COVID is the easy part and the rebuilding will be the tough part,” she said. “And I think we need someone who isn’t going to be the headline.”
Of her campaign and voter engagement until November, Salt said she’s attending everything she’s invited to and keeping focus on her message.
She said one criticism of her campaign is that she would have to learn how to be a trustee — to which she said she had to learn how to be an English teacher as well, and teachers everywhere have spent the last year learning to be website designers and online lecturers, too.