Jesus Jara Interview

Steve Marcus

Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara cleans out his office at the CCSD headquarters Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Jara’s resignation, after almost six years as CCSD superintendent, took effect at 5 p.m. Friday.

Jesus Jara tells a story about meeting with MGM Resorts International CEO Bill Hornbuckle about a partnership between the prominent resorts company and Clark County School District.

Hornbuckle said when he’s thought about other jobs he’d like, Jara’s — then as superintendent of CCSD — didn’t rank.

“I said, ‘I’m either stubborn or stupid,’ ” Jara recounted during an interview Friday in his nearly bare office on the top floor of the district headquarters on West Sahara Avenue, hours before his nearly six-year tenure with the district ended.

CCSD is massive. It has roughly 300,000 students and 40,000 employees. Its mission and reach demand constant scrutiny.

If Jara’s exchange with Hornbuckle was good-natured, the criticism from state lawmakers, teachers and other employees, labor groups, parents and others in the community has been withering. CCSD is controversy prone. At least one person wouldn’t want to be in Jara’s position. Plenty didn’t want Jara in that position, either. As recently as November, Jara defiantly retorted to public calls from top legislators for him to resign or be fired. He said he would stay as long as the School Board would have him.

Then, he let go. The School Board accepted his resignation Thursday.

A mutual decision for him to step down with a negotiated, though not unanimously supported, $250,000 severance package had been gestating for weeks.

In December, Jara was in Miami, where he planted roots as a child after immigrating with his family from Venezuela. His mother was dying.

One night he couldn’t sleep, so he wrote out some challenges from his tenure at CCSD, from how he allocated funds to schools in low-income neighborhoods to being fired and unfired in 2021.

“Then I sit with my mother as she’s gasping for air in her sickness. And I go, what am I fighting all of this for?” he said. “What is this all worth?”

After Christmas break, School Board President Evelyn Garcia Morales asked to meet with Jara. They both decided it was time for him to leave.

“I’m the lightning rod. I need to excuse myself for the betterment of kids so that we can focus,” Jara said. “Instead of focusing on getting Jara out, let’s focus on doing what’s right for children.”

His mother’s death recalibrated his perspective.

“My mother used to say, ‘Why do you fight? Why are you fighting?’ ” Jara said.

She would tell him to turn the other cheek. “And I go, because you taught me to fight for kids, and you fought for us.”

On Jan. 22, Marcela Jara died. She was 83.

“She ran out of fight and so did I,” he said. “I just didn’t have it in me anymore.”

‘Charlatan,’ ‘Disaster’

Jara wasn’t in the room when the School Board accepted his resignation.

Thursday wasn’t the first time teachers and other critics approached the School Board with their angst and outrage directed toward Jara, but it would be the last during his employment with the country’s fifth-largest school district.

Douglas Hamilton, a teacher at Sunrise Acres Elementary in northeast Las Vegas, said Jara’s hiring in 2018 was “a disaster of unprecedented scale.”

The first-grade teacher cited academic slides and an explosion in teacher vacancies in the intervening years.

“Awarding the superintendent a quarter of a million dollars communicates to the families, to the communities and to our teachers that Dr. Jara has worked hard and that he is getting what he so richly deserves,” he said. “To be sure, his determination has been impressive, because it takes a single-minded focus and extraordinary effort to inflict so much damage on such a resilient community in such a small amount of time.”

Former choir teacher Kelly Edgar, who recently retired mid-year, said she didn’t get a “golden parachute” when she left the district. But she said Jara leaving wasn’t about the money he was getting on his way out, but that resigning meant he might work for another district that thought he left CCSD on good terms.

“He has destroyed lives and careers,” Edgar said. “He is a charlatan, he should be fired, and he should never be allowed to work in education again.”

Surrounded by an empty trophy case and a glossy desk holding little more than a box of tissues the day his resignation took effect, Jara said didn’t know what he would do next.

He doesn’t think he will work as a superintendent again anytime soon, if ever. He plans to stick around Las Vegas, “decompress” and connect with family.

“I’m going to be the biggest cheerleader behind the scenes, because I think what we’re doing is in the right direction,” he said.

Jara said he could have given CCSD another year, but, emotionally, not the two and a half left on his contract before it was amended Thursday to leave within hours.

Click to enlarge photo

Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara cleans out his office at the CCSD headquarters Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Jara’s resignation, after almost six years as CCSD superintendent, took effect at 5 p.m. Friday.

Reforms excluded superintendents

Jara said he was leaving CCSD in better shape structurally than he found it. He said reforms in the curriculum and instruction division — which is overseen by his deputy Brenda Larsen-Mitchell, who is the interim superintendent — now needed to be executed and maintained. Fiscal operations are no longer $65 million in the red, which he said they were when he arrived.

He said his successor would need to right the human resources department, which is currently without a chief. The district needs to improve its onboarding process, he said.

He said he’s most proud of the curriculum systems, improved financial health and the intentional spike in children enrolled in advanced coursework from prekindergarten on up, especially Black and Latino students.

Jara said he was most vexed by outside forces shaping reforms from the capitol, and he said that would continue to be an issue for his successor.

“One of my biggest challenges is the meddling of (the) state Legislature in policy decisions and state laws that are totally contradictory to what research calls for in improving urban education,” he said, citing the 2017 law decentralizing authority specifically at CCSD and last year’s bill adding four appointed, nonvoting members only to CCSD’s School Board.

“When they’re pushing these bills, nobody has asked superintendents — who are the leading experts in education — our thoughts,” he said. “I think that’s problematic.”

“I understand politics. I’ve been in school systems before,” he added. “You usually are involved in the decision on the menu. If you’re not at the table, you’ve become the menu.”

In a Wednesday letter to the School Board encouraging the thorough, transparent selection of the next permanent superintendent, state Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro said next year’s legislative session would take on school reforms.

“As we strive for excellence in education, we must continuously evaluate and refine our policies to meet the evolving needs of our students and communities,” she wrote. “I look forward to working collaboratively with the Board, Governor (Joe) Lombardo, Speaker (Steve) Yeager, and other stakeholders to enact meaningful reforms that prioritize student success and empower educators. Together, we can build a brighter future for all CCSD students.”

Jara said lawmakers consulted with “a union boss that’s never been in a classroom, has never been a teacher… that’s who they’re taking the lead from.” That’s a reference to John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association.

Jara and the union used to have a copacetic working relationship.

The teachers union led a charge to protect Jara from being fired in 2020. That movement came on the heels of then-Gov. Steve Sisolak publicly accusing Jara of “misleading the communities he represents” over funding proposals being considered during a pandemic-era special session of the Legislature.

After Jara announced his desire to leave in late January, CCEA convened a news conference where Vellardita said the union wanted to “derail this deal” to allow Jara to leave on his terms.

Vellardita said CCEA previously gave Jara the benefit of the doubt, but enough evidence had mounted that he failed in his leadership.

In early 2023, Jara said, Vellardita started meeting privately with School Board members one-on-one, asking them to fire Jara. That “crossed the line,” Jara said.

Then, contract negotiations between CCEA and the district began. The talks, though behind closed doors, were characterized as anything but amicable. There were raucous protests that shut down one School Board meeting and delayed another until police handcuffed and escorted out some union teachers. (Their misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges were dropped.)

There was an illegal strike. Then a judge issued an injunction to stop the strike, the first and only such injunction issued in Nevada, that the union is now fighting to get both dissolved and declared unlawful.

The sides went into arbitration, then finally reached a contract settlement late last year.

And there is a district request — that is pending the outcome of strike-related cases at the district and state supreme courts — to have CCEA decertified by the state labor commission as CCSD’s official teachers union.

“I’m not going to speak ill will because my mother would be disappointed, but the kids are going to lose if we don’t do things to fix how things are happening,” Jara said.

CCEA is politically active and has donated significantly to some of the most influential legislators’ campaigns. After Yeager — the Assembly speaker and one of those beneficiaries — put out his call for Jara’s resignation, the district said that “no bullying, pressure, harassment or coordination with the leadership of the (Clark County Education Association) will deter him from his job.”

Vellardita did not return a request for comment.

Smaller severance negotiated

CCSD has been plagued by chronic and acute problems: stubbornly low student achievement, violence in schools, high teacher vacancies and other personnel turnover, poor labor relations and friction within the School Board.

Last year alone, district police initiated a violent encounter with a group of predominantly Black students outside of Durango High School. An ensuing lawsuit by the ACLU of Nevada to access the police records related to the encounter has largely fallen in the civil rights organization’s favor.

Hackers dug into the district’s servers with a crippling cyberattack in the fall and leaked student data. A class action lawsuit has ensued. An alleged misogynistic social media post about the CCEA president from an account with Jara’s name on it has also led to a lawsuit.

Jara initially submitted a “conditional resignation” on Jan. 30. The School Board met Feb. 7 to consider it but did not agree to the terms Jara sought: $395,000, equal to a year’s salary, plus the value of unused benefits and time off. (He said Friday that would have totaled $500,000.)

The Board also declined at that time to terminate him for convenience — or no given reason — as that would have cost close to $1 million in a salary buyout alone through his earlier planned contract ending in June 2026.

Termination for cause was never an option for the School Board, members said.

“I was personally concerned with the ongoing vitriol and disrespect that some people in our community have for Dr. Jara,” Morales, the board president who has been supportive of Jara, said at the first meeting to consider his exit. “Earlier this year, Dr. Jara and I spoke and I asked him to consider a mutual agreement that would help us help him step aside and allow the district to focus on moving forward and refocus our community’s energy.”

“I think he is, has been, a very convenient scapegoat for some long-standing systemic issues. If we continue to focus on these interpersonal power struggles, we’re never going to actually talk about students or student success,” said Board Member Lola Brooks, another Jara supporter.

A majority of Board members opted instead to terminate Jara for convenience, pending negotiation of alternative exit terms.

Those terms were reached and Jara’s exit, framed as a resignation, and severance package was put to a vote at the board meeting Thursday.

The School Board has called it an “amicable separation.”

“We appreciate Superintendent Jara’s tireless commitment to the students of Clark County and recognize that taking advantage of this natural transition point is in everyone’s best interest,” the School Board said in a statement. “This mutual agreement will allow the community to forge a new path, focused solely on student success. We appreciate the Superintendent’s willingness to help us move forward in a positive manner.”

The School Board voted 5-2 to amend Jara’s contract to allow him to resign promptly with the payout, with members Linda Cavazos and Brenda Zamora voting no. The payout was the sticking point.

Jara says he sometimes feels like he’s abandoning students.

“But if this is what the community wants, then why am I going to keep fighting?” he said. “It’s like this boulder that is just bigger than I can push.”

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