Nothing doing

Karen Gray

The Clark County School Board often speaks of scenarios of "if only" or "in a perfect world." Parents, too, have long desired certain scenarios – such as Clark County high schools with:

  • High graduation rates;
  • College preparatory curricula;
  • Small and intimate campuses;
  • Students eager to participate, learn and succeed;
  • Students who value self-discipline, good citizenship and leadership; and
  • Someone other than Nevada taxpayers helping to pay staff salaries, equipment and facility costs.

If only we could get so lucky.

Well, last week Clark County School District did get so lucky, and the School Board did what it does best: Nothing.

District staff has been working with the United States Marine Corps to bring the nation's second Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer's Training Corps (MCJROTC) academy to Clark County. The proposed United States Marine Corps Institute for Math and Science would be a college prep program with an academic emphasis on math and science. All students would be enrolled in the Marine Corp JROTC program. The Institute would foster academic achievement, civic responsibility, leadership, discipline and character.

The program would resemble the 16 JROTC programs already operating in Clark County, except that all the students would be JROTC members. The District's own 21st Century curriculum, taught by CCSD teachers, would continue, but with an additional four years of leadership classes and two years of foreign language. Extra-curricular activities such as Color Guard, Drill Team, and Marksmanship Team would be offered.  

In preliminary discussions, the U.S. Marine Corps committed $750,000 for the purchase and maintenance of military equipment and uniforms.  Additionally, the USMC would pay the district a portion of each military instructor's salary.

Dr. Bill McHenry, the Marine Corps' director of JROTC, along with Nevada Senators John Ensign and Harry Reid and Congresswoman Shelley Berkley have all committed to bring the institute to Clark County and find the projected $22 million needed to rebuild its facility. Locally, Mayor Oscar Goodman also has committed to assist.

It appears everyone has recognized and embraced this rare and innovative opportunity for our students – everyone, that is, except the Clark County School Board of Trustees.

All the School Board needed to do last week was authorize district staff to begin formal negotiations by approving a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Marines. Instead, the Board voted to postpone a vote on the MOU, halting progress on the project and even putting it at risk.

Several Board members admonished staff that they could not make a decision because, they said, they hadn't been given enough advance notice. Yet discussion revealed that Superintendent Walt Rulffes had advised the Board of the negotiations several months before in a memo. And, as always, the Board also had received back-up material.

Moreover, it came out that four of the Board members – three of whom killed the item – had discussed the issue prior to the Board meeting with Dr. Edward Goldman, associate superintendent of the district's education services division.

Board members seemed to place the horse before the cart, demanding answers to questions such as: What is the school/program budget? How will transportation work? Will there be Advanced Placement courses offered? Will block scheduling be necessary?

All are excellent questions, no doubt. They're just premature, as none can be answered until formal negotiations begin – which, in turn, can't begin until the Board authorizes the MOU.

Some trustees had fears that if things did not work out, CCSD would be stuck with the program and all its costs. Assurances were made that the MOU was only the first step and all aspects of the program would be brought to the Board for final adoption. At one point, the district's attorney, Bill Hoffman, specifically assured the Board that all the MOU did was commit to basic concepts such as a 600-student campus (150 per class), school attire dress code and leadership courses. He even explained to the Board that if negotiations didn't go well, the District could withdraw from the program. Indeed, no concern that was raised went unanswered.

Nevertheless, the Board majority was not willing to even start talks with the Corps.

Did the real reason for postponement have to do with politics? After all, Trustee Johnson wanted to verify that third-party contracts wouldn't be jeopardized. Perhaps that translates as: "Maybe we should get permission from the teachers union?"

Could personal reasons have been in play? Trustee Johnson wanted to know if an Air Force academy was being considered, and Nellis Air Force Base is in her area. Or control issues? Trustee Johnson did announce that she would "not … be intimidated by a deadline that's imposed by someone else."

Whatever the reasons, a majority of the Clark County School Board wanted to look this gift-horse in the mouth. It was Trustee Janison who had it right. Voting against the postponement, she said the Board needs to think outside the box, and that partnerships such as this need to be embraced.

Or would the Board do that only in a perfect world?

Karen Gray is an education researcher with the Nevada Policy Research Institute.