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Jones a finalist for Vegas superintendent

Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones
Education Commissioner Dwight Jones discussed his status as one of three finalists for the Las Vegas, Nev., schools. Sept. 16, 2010.

Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones confirmed Thursday afternoon that he’s one of three finalists for superintendent of the Clark County Schools in Las Vegas.

“I do plan to explore this opportunity,” Jones told reporters after the conclusion of a day-long State Board of Education meeting. Board members were informed earlier, and Jones said “they’ve been very supportive.”

The other two finalists announced by district officials in Las Vegas are Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District in Texas, and James Browder, superintendent of the Lee County, Fla., school district, which includes Fort Myers.

Jones said he and the other finalists will be in Las Vegas next week for two days of public meetings and interviews with school board members. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that a decision will be made in October. Jones said a question he’ll be looking to answer is “does the [Las Vegas] board have the appetite to push reform forward?”

A search firm approached him about the job a couple of months ago, Jones said. “I did not seek this out.” He added, “I resisted and resisted” but finally decided he needed to look at the opportunity. Clark County has “issues I’d love to tackle,” he said, calling the job “a tremendous opportunity worthy of exploration.”

The commissioner noted that he’s made no secret of one day wanting to become superintendent of a large urban district but stressed that he still enjoys his job in Colorado. “At some point I’ve wanted to work more closely with students and teachers.”

Speaking of his current position, Jones aid, “This has been a fairly difficult time. I continue to enjoy my work in Colorado. … It will be a tough decision for me. … If the position in Las Vegas is not a good fit, I will continue with enthusiasm and commitment to the myriad projects we have underway.”

Jones has been active commissioner

Jones, 48, the state’s education commissioner since June 2007, is widely credited with improving relations between the state Department of Education, local school districts and the Colorado Education Association. He’s been a central player in education reform efforts over the last three years, including the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, improved data systems, the new method for accrediting school districts, the educator effectiveness law and the ultimately unsuccessful Race to the Top bid. “I’m quite optimistic about where Colorado is,” he said.

“I think that Dwight has this unique blend of being a reformer and also being somebody that listens,” said Van Schoales, who heads the Denver-based Education Reform Now national advocacy group. “He’s recast the image of CDE, I think, in the eyes of not just districts but also lawmakers and community leaders.”

Jones began his career in education as a teacher in Junction City, Kansas, before becoming a principal in elementary, middle and high schools and then assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in the Wichita district.

He then became a vice president for the Edison Schools charter network and, in 2004, became assistant superintendent and later superintendent of the Fountain-Fort Carson School District south of Colorado Springs. He was recognized during his three-year tenure in the 7,400-student district for closing achievement gaps.

As commissioner, Jones works with 178 school districts educating 830,000 students.

Rumors have surfaced in recent months that Jones is interested in returning to a superintendent’s position. His wife, Jenifer Jones, earns a $110,000 salary as executive director for school turnaround efforts in Denver Public Schools. She’s been with DPS since Aug. 1, 2008.

Board supportive of Jones

Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education / File photo
Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, chair of the State Board of Education

Bob Schaffer, R-4th District and chair of the state board, said, “We have encouraged the commissioner to develop Colorado’s profile as a reform-oriented state, with him as the leader of the effort, so it’s what you expect – the commissioner has done well in Colorado and is going to be noticed by states and districts in need of leadership outside of Colorado. My opinion is the commissioner has performed in an exemplary fashion.”

As it happened, the board discussed the commissioner’s review during an executive session Thursday, but Schaffer declined to discuss that.

Board member Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, said, “All seven members of the board think he’s been a phenomenal commissioner, and we’ll support him if he is offered a job and wants to take it. If it were up to the board, he would stay as commissioner. We did his review today and it was exemplary. … I don’t think we expected him to stay beyond five years because he is ambitious and a very hard worker. He has gotten an awful lot done in the three-plus years he’s been here.”

Berman continued, “We’ve had absolutely no discussion about possible replacement because we believe that’s premature. Until – if and when – the commissioner is offered the job in Las Vegas, and if he were to accept it, that’s probably when we would begin discussions about a possible replacement and a search process.” Two board members, Republicans Randy DeHoff of the 6th District and Peggy Littleton of the 5th, are term limited and will be leaving the board after the election of replacements in November.

“We would not like to see him depart,” said Deb Fallin, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association.

A snapshot of Clark County

If selected, Jones would replace Walt Rulffes, who announced plans to leave in March after 13 years with the Las Vegas district. Rulffes was the district’s chief finance officer before being named superintendent in 2006.

In 2009, Rulffes was named Superintendent of the Year by the Nevada Association of School Superintendents and, this year, he was one of four finalists for the National Superintendent of the Year.

Rulffes’ salary is $277,000, down from $307,000 after he took a voluntary 10 percent pay cut in October. Jones’ current pay is $223,860.

According to data on its website, the Clark County School District is the fifth largest in the U.S., with nearly 310,000 students, more than 350 schools, some 38,000 employees and an annual budget of about $2.9 billion.

For years, Clark County has led the nation in student growth and building schools. In 1998, Rulffes, then the district’s CFO, is credited with helping win passage of a $3.5 billion bond issue, one of the nation’s largest.

But enrollment dipped in fall 2009, the first time the district had reported a drop in its student count in 25 years. District leaders blamed the recession.

Announcement sparks speculation

As news reports began circulating today about the possibility of Jones’ leaving, some other names also began to talked about – possible replacements.

Lt. Gov.  Barbara O'Brien led the state's Race to the Top effort.
Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien led the state's Race to the Top effort.

Those names include Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who will be leaving that job soon after the November election and who has made education a top priority, leading the state’s effort in Race to the Top.

Others include John Barry, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, and Mike Miles, who previously worked with Jones in Fountain-Fort Carson and who now heads Harrison School District 2. Both Barry and Miles have won praise for their reform efforts in high-poverty districts.

Miles said, “Dwight has been central to Colorado’s education reforms, and it would be great if we could keep him for a couple more years. I am not interested in the commissioner position should it become vacant. Thanks for asking, though.”

Schoales, with Education Reform Now, adds another name to the list – Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who may be leaving that spot after the defeat of her patron, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fentry. Rhee’s parents live in Colorado.

He said Rhee’s national reputation for hard-nosed reform would be a plus for many State Board of Education members – though less enticing for the state teachers’ union.

“I think she would be a very attractive candidate because I think four of the seven would hire her in a second,” he said, though he added, “I think CEA would go nuts.”

Todd Engdahl and Nancy Mitchell reported and wrote this story.

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