Sunday, April 2, 2023 | 2 a.m.
OVERTON — The Clark County School District central office is in the urban heart of Las Vegas, about 65 miles away from the Moapa Valley High School farm where teenagers work cattle and harvest vegetables without seeing a single skyscraper resort from any point on their 40 acres.
Because Moapa Valley is within Clark County, Moapa Valley High is within CCSD. All of Nevada’s school districts are based on county boundaries under state law that dates to 1956.
And parents and community leaders in Moapa Valley, a cluster of villages with a total population of about 7,500, have long yearned to buck this and break their schools away. CCSD is the fifth-largest school district in the country. It enrolls about 314,000 students, about 98% of them in the sprawling cities of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson.
The rest live in rural towns in the county’s furthest corners, like Moapa Valley to the northeast.
“They don’t understand what it’s like to live in a rural community. They don’t understand that our needs are different than the students’ needs (down) there” in the cities, said Faith Kelly, a Moapa Valley High sophomore. “They can’t expect us to have the same rules and still be a good school.”
Those rules are policies and procedures like the length of classes, or who can make repairs in school buildings, or if the bus taking athletes to and from away games can stop for dinner, or how easily the schools can purchase suicide prevention curriculum. These calls are made by CCSD central administration for all schools.
Moapa Valley wants to make those decisions for itself, and a bill that landed last week in the Nevada Legislature would let it. Assembly Bill 420, sponsored by Republican Assemblyman Toby Yurek and Republican state Sen. Jeff Stone, pairs Moapa with Virgin Valley, its like-minded neighbor about 25 miles to the southeast, to create the Rural Northeastern Clark County Regional School District.
The proposed district would encompass the four grade schools, two middle schools and two high schools within the two valleys. Combined, these eight schools enroll about 4,200 students, which, despite CCSD’s enormity, would make the rural district midsized for a Nevada school district.
Wendy Mulcock, who chairs the Moapa Valley Community Education Advisory Board, wept when the bill went live.
“Immediately you would have teachers and staff and administration here walking through their hallways at their schools feeling a feeling of ownership” if the Moapa and Virgin valleys were to form their own district, she said. “These are our walls, and our desks, and our kids, and what happens here, we own this.”
Little in common with Las Vegas
One of the first sights on State Route 169 that signals arrival in the Moapa Valley is an eclectic roadside sign like the kind that stands outside countless small towns: a collection of insignias and logos for local civic clubs, churches — and, prominently, Moapa Valley High School.
“There’s a deep love for the community, and the school is the community,” said Lindsey Dalley, a member of the Moapa Valley Community Education Advisory Board and a lifelong resident of the community. “To sit there and watch it degrade year after year no matter what you do is very damaging.”
Dalley is a dentist by trade with a practice in Las Vegas, but his entire life has been in the Moapa schools. His father, Ronald, taught English, debate and drama at Moapa Valley High, where the theater is named for him. His sister now teaches there.
Dalley became involved in school advocacy in the 1990s, when his four children were students. Four of his nine grandchildren now attend the valley’s schools.
“There are good people inside of CCSD,” he said. “The system just doesn’t allow them to do what they need to do.”
Riley Frei retired last year as principal of Virgin Valley High School in Mesquite. He agreed that CCSD doesn’t choose to ignore their needs. He said it’s just too big to be responsive, especially to Mesquite, which sits on the tri-state border with Arizona and Utah, about an hour and a half away from district headquarters.
That can be extra-uncomfortable when the air conditioning goes out and students have to wait for technicians to drive in from Las Vegas, he said.
“I just think we’re so much better at servicing students and families when decisions are made at the most local level,” he said. “Overton, Logandale, Bunkerville and Mesquite have far more in common with each other than they’ll ever have with Las Vegas.”
The Moapa schools have scored small victories. Their community board, which functions similarly to a highly motivated PTA, is persistent.
When a pandemic-driven rule barred buses carrying visiting teams from stopping for dinner after games, the parents pressed for an exception for their schools, which can travel more than two hours each way to match up with similarly sized teams, Dalley said.
After CCSD did not apply for a grant that specifically allowed the state to dole out federal pandemic relief funds for youth suicide prevention programs — Moapa schools wanted one after seeing local suicides spike at all ages — community members reached out to the Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention for help getting alternate funds, Mulcock added. Now, Lyon Middle and Moapa Valley High have Hope Squad, a school-based, peer-to-peer suicide prevention program.
“We do what’s best for our kids and if we have to do it ourselves, that’s what we’ve had to do,” said Dianna Walker, whose two youngest children are still in Moapa schools. “That’s why I feel like if this bill passes, that we will be successful.”
AB420 calls for a state appropriation of $6 million to launch the new district and perform a feasibility study. If, after two years, the proposed Rural Northeastern Clark County Regional School District isn’t working out, the schools would go back to CCSD.
Bill language also opens the door for the Clark County Commission to establish, by ordinance, additional regional districts of any size.
“Any consideration of communities creating separate school districts requires an honest, reasoned, equitable and sustainable strategy supported with enough funding to produce outcomes other than the status quo,” CCSD said in a statement. “This proposal does none of these things, but must be subject to the same scrutiny as any school district.”
A Republican-led bill also dropped last week in the state Senate that would allow municipal school districts. This gives another crack to proponents of last year’s failed initiative proposal to allow Clark County’s largest cities to withdraw from CCSD.
Lost in the shuffle
At the Moapa Valley High School farm, two of the program’s roughly 20 head of Angus cattle putter in the mud and doves, drawn by the feed for the cattle and hens, swoop in and out of a field where broccoli had most recently been harvested. The air is crisp and earthy here.
Moapa Valley proudly boasts that it has the only school-owned and -operated farm in Nevada.
The students, with adult guidance, run a cow-calf operation that financially supports the farm. They raise chickens for eggs and meat. They plant and harvest crops and ornamental flowers year-round in fields, greenhouses, an orchard and in beds under a mesh structure. In an on-site classroom, they cook meals, can jelly and make floral arrangements.
But it’s about a mile and a half away from campus. That requires a bus ride that, with loading, unloading and drive time, can take 20 minutes each way before students get settled, said Kelly, who goes to the farm to work with the flowers.
That’s why a CCSD directive to put the Moapa and Mesquite high schools on seven, 53-minute periods a day burns.
Both schools do block scheduling, where students have eight classes, alternating four per day, with each class about an hour and 20 minutes long. Former Moapa Valley Principal Larry Moses said the school has had block scheduling for about 25 years, and it allows students to get ahead or catch up, and efficiently spreads out small staffs.
If students are ahead on credits to graduate, they can take an open period. But, Mulcock and Walker said, CCSD decided that the Moapa and Mesquite students were taking too many open periods and restructured their schedules to shorter, fewer, but tighter-packed periods, and limited open periods to seniors. (CCSD did not respond to a question about the block scheduling.)
With fewer sections to go around but a mandate that fewer students have free periods, Kelly’s florals class filled up before she could enroll.
Lacey Tom teaches floriculture — the science and art of ornamental plants — plus courses in animal husbandry, food science and agricultural leadership. Kelly is a creative floral arranger and quick study, she said.
“I’m so heartbroken that she’s not going to be able to take my class because of availability,” Tom said.
McKenna Melvin, a graduating senior who is active in the school’s chapter of Future Farmers of America, won’t be affected by the new schedule. But she cares about her younger siblings and friends, and the FFA program that relies on agriculture class enrollment.
“One of the most important parts is that we get to be in leadership by taking these classes,” she said.
Knowing that her peers were struggling with life disruptions during the worst of the coronavrius pandemic, freshman Emme Bowler and other teens in Moapa Valley’s 4-H chapter organized a mental health resources fair. So when the students had to look outside of CCSD to fund the suicide prevention program, that burned, too.
“They’re not worrying about us in the ways that we need to be worried about,” Emme said.
Last week, Walker took several students to Carson City to meet with lawmakers. The teens, frustrated by the loss of block scheduling, wanted to urge the legislators to allow a CCSD breakup.
She said Moapa Valley has the human capital to make the Rural Northeastern Clark County Regional School District work.
“I know that it won’t be perfect, I know that there will be problems, but I feel like they’re problems we can solve together — because at least we’ll be able to sit down across the table from our board of trustees and from our superintendent and have important conversations, and work through the conflict instead of getting lost in the shuffle and the bureaucracy of CCSD,” she said.