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An Open Book in Clark County

Two years ago, then-Colorado state chief Dwight Jones took the helm of Nevada's Clark County School District (CCSD). Clark County is intriguing. For one thing, though it's the nation's fifth-largest school system (after New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami-Dade), it draws remarkably little popular attention. CCSD enrolls more than 300,000 students, encompassing Las Vegas as well as maybe half of Nevada. In 2010, CCSD boasted the worst big-district graduation rate in the nation. With Las Vegas slammed by the recession and the housing crash, CCSD has cut its budget by $600 million (or more than 20%) over the past five years.

Meanwhile, Jones has pushed to institute a performance framework for schools, terminate ineffective programs, get serious about personnel evaluation, promote the smart use of technology, and engage the community more actively. (Full disclosure: I've spent a couple days a month helping the district with some of these efforts over the past year.) Most of this work has amounted to playing catch-up, finally bringing to CCSD the things that well-run districts routinely do nowadays.

Today, though, I'm pleased to see CCSD launch a transparency initiative where it can credibly claim to be doing more than making up for lost time (you can check it out here.) The district's "Open Book" portal makes it easy for parents, taxpayers, journalists, and critics to view the district's revenue and expenses. CCSD isn't the first district to do this (Chicago has a nice site, for instance) but it is one of the very first in the nation to make its budget so easily accessible and navigable. Perhaps what's most distinctive about this effort is the ways its designed to address concerns that the district has too many administrators or isn't spending enough of its funds on instructional staff.

The portal provides a fine-grained breakdown of district spending and comparative data on CCSD and peer districts. The site allows the public to see where funds are going. For instance, it shows that 89% of district funds go to salaries and benefits, up from 85% three years ago. It also makes clear that CCSD has the lowest ratio of administrators to students in the nation (1:341); spends a little under $40 per student, per day; and spends less per student than New York, L.A., Chicago, and Miami-Dade. Over time, the site ought to make it possible to track how funds are used with increasing levels of granularity.

The initiative is especially timely in Clark County, where a bond referendum went down in a resounding 2-to-1 defeat in November. It seems that local voters just didn't trust the district to spend the money wisely and well. Happily, rather than bemoan the outcome, the district leadership seems to have realized that it needs to win the public's confidence. Jones displays an admirable absence of self-pity when he says, "Taxpayers need to know that dollars are being spent on needs, not luxuries. And we are looking at innovative ways to either cut costs or get a bigger return on our investment."

As regular readers know, I embrace the controversial notion that school systems ought to be expected to spend money efficiently, and be transparent about how they're spending taxpayer funds (check out my 2010 book Stretching the School Dollar for more on all this.) Three or four years out, I'm hoping that what CCSD has done will be expected practice for districts. This kind of transparency will make for more informed parents and voters, create healthful discipline for system leaders, and may even make it easier for responsible superintendents and school boards to more effectively convince voters and policymakers that they deserve more funds and can be trusted to spend them carefully.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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