Elaine Wynn bemoans state of education in Nevada, lobbies for national search for new superintendent


Elaine Wynn chats with Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Klaich after speaking at Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce Business Power Luncheon at the Rio Wednesday, May 8, 2013.

Thu, May 9, 2013 (2 a.m.)

Elaine Wynn called on the Clark County School Board to conduct a national search for its next superintendent during her keynote address Wednesday at a Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

The president of the Nevada State Board of Education urged Clark County school leaders to cast as broad a net as possible in their superintendent search.

"All of us in business know that finding the best possible talent to lead our companies and staff them is the single most important decision we make," said Wynn, who has served as director of Wynn Resorts since 2000. "In my opinion, how we go about this (search) will greatly decide the future of education in our state."

Clark County School Board members have been conducting community meetings for the past two months to seek public input on who should replace Dwight Jones as superintendent after he resigned abruptly in early March, citing personal reasons. The board decided to conduct a national search but postponed it after intense community pressure to hire locally.

In her speech to nearly 400 business and community leaders — including three Clark County School Board members — Wynn argued a national search need not rule out consideration of "in-house, home-grown local talent."

However, Wynn was adamant the search should not be restricted to local administrators and principals.

"We need leaders who will insist on hiring, training and maintaining the most effective teachers and principals; who support our efforts to measure them fairly, but will push to have them removed if they cannot do the job," Wynn said, to applause from the audience. "The only job protection should be meritorious service, and they should not be protected at the expense of children."

Wynn, a longtime advocate for education who was recently appointed as state school board president by Gov. Brian Sandoval, called upon Nevadans to "embrace bold experimentation" that she believes will improve Nevada's struggling education system.

"I hate to remind everyone of our dreadful statistics. It's painful to recount," Wynn said, listing Nevada's high dropout rate, low graduation rate and substandard test scores.

Wynn cited Education Week's Chance-for-Success Index, which found that a child born in Nevada had the worst chance in the nation for growing up to be a success.

"That's terrible," Wynn said. "If we were to equate the performance of Nevada's students with a (financial) statement, we would be in bankruptcy."

The former chairwoman of former Gov. Jim Gibbons' Education Reform Blue Ribbon task force, which made recommendations for reform efforts to the Legislature in 2011, Wynn said she traveled across the country, studying school-reform efforts in cities such as New Orleans; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Los Angeles.

What Wynn found was a recipe for a successful educational turnaround: community engagement, strong leadership, talented educators and plenty of school funding, she said.

"Without talented educational leadership and adequate financial resources, the prognosis is bad and the system is doomed," Wynn said.

In recent years, Wynn said she was encouraged by the "infusion of new educational leadership" that has begun to transform education in Nevada. She cited former Washoe County Superintendent Heath Morrison, former Clark County Superintendent Dwight Jones and former Nevada Superintendent Jim Guthrie among those transformational leaders, complimenting them for their service.

For a variety of reasons, these leaders are no longer here, Wynn said. However, the state has "strong and dedicated professionals" in Washoe's Pedro Martinez, Clark County's interim Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky and in Nevada's interim Superintendent Rorie Fitzpatrick, Wynn said.

"They are all marshaling much of the work begun by (Guthrie, Jones and Morrison), and we're counting on them to forge ahead," Wynn said.

Wynn commended the "many gifted teachers and principals" in Nevada, as well as community partners such as Teach For America and Communities in Schools (of which she is currently the national board chairwoman), for making "some incremental progress" in raising student achievement.

However, not enough is being done, especially for minority students — which constitute the majority of students in Nevada, Wynn said.

"Our melting pot is curdling," Wynn said. "The achievement gap between the haves and have-nots is widening. … There is a sense of urgency to break the cycle of poverty, and we know it can only be done through education."

Echoing Sandoval's education platform, Wynn encouraged business and community leaders in supporting more literacy programs for English-language learners, expanding full-day kindergarten, eliminating social promotion and promoting school choice for parents and students.

Wynn warned changing Nevada's education system would be challenging. "This system can be so resistant to change," she said.

However, Nevada must change, Wynn said. To effectively reform schools, Nevada lawmakers must allocate more funding for education, she said.

"Conceptually speaking, we are grossly underfunded," she said, to applause from the audience.

Wynn recalled a dinner she recently had with education philanthropist Eli Broad, founder of the Broad Superintendent Academy and the Broad Prize for Urban Education. Broad asked Wynn what Nevada's annual per-pupil expenditure was.

"When I told him, he just shook his head," Wynn said. "And he said, 'You'll never get anywhere with that.'"

Wynn touched upon a variety of school reform efforts, including the Common Core curriculum and its new computerized tests ("which will be a whole other nightmare, I fear," she said.). However, in the end, business and community leaders must step up and become part of the conversation around improving education, Wynn said.

"There are more consequences for inaction than action," she said. "For me, until we can impact all of our students, I just pray that we can save one kid at a time, but time is running out."

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