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‘The kids aren’t alright’: Tonopah says its schools are struggling

Updated March 31, 2023 - 10:27 am

TONOPAH — Parents and students here say the town’s schools often operate in a state of crisis these days.

They complained to Nye County School Board officials last Thursday about chronic staffing and safety issues there, and poor academic performance among students, which leaves some questioning the future of education in the town.

The problems in Tonopah reached a fever pitch last week, says parent Meshanna Merrow after discussions on the elementary school’s improvement plan between education officials, parents and staff nearly devolved into a “mob with pitchforks.”

Merrow says many in Tonopah feel “placated” by district officials who have for decades promised to build a new elementary school to house the town’s roughly 160 primary students, but have failed to deliver.

After years of input from stakeholders, Nye County School District trustees in January 2022 finally approved the construction of a new 26,000-square-foot elementary school in Tonopah. The $15-plus-million project would relocate the school to a 5.5-acre site at 1 Tennant Drive near the town’s high school and essentially create a centralized academic campus, serving pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students.

Nye County School District/ Nye County School District leaders voted Wednesday to relocate Tono ...
Nye County School District/ Nye County School District leaders voted Wednesday to relocate Tonopah Elementary to 1 Tennant Drive near the town's high school.

But the project has faced numerous delays and construction has yet to begin. Some fear the new school will never be built.

“It’s been almost 30 years since the first time they promised us a school — it hasn’t happened yet,” said Merrow, who graduated from the town’s high school in 2011 and now has a student at the elementary school.

Thd 70-year-old elementary school poses some legitimate problems.

For starters, it’s largely inaccessible for those with mobility issues and isn’t compliant with modern disability laws. Its flights of steps were recently covered in snow and ice and school officials say they were forced to recruit a team to help shovel paths for students this winter because its two-person maintenance staff could not tackle the task alone.

Nye County School District/ Nye County School District leaders voted in 2022 to relocate Tonopa ...
Nye County School District/ Nye County School District leaders voted in 2022 to relocate Tonopah Elementary to 1 Tennant Drive near the town's high school.

Merrow and another parent were prepared to make a formal presentation to trustees last Thursday — complete with testimonies and photos that reportedly documented multiple problems at the town’s schools— but says district officials denied their request to appear on the board’s agenda.

Nevertheless, Merrow and others aired their grievances publicly during their face-time with trustees last Thursday.

Some of their critical claims were serious.

Serious claims

A father of a Tonopah Elementary student told trustees last Thursday that staff there failed to act appropriately following complaints that a student has been “molesting” other students on the school’s playground.

“We haven’t had anything that has been able to be done,” he said during a portion of the meeting where attendees could address the board of trustees for 1 minute, but not expect feedback or responses from them.

Tonopah parents also accused Nye County School District Superintendent Warren Shillingburg of dodging public discourse over his $180,000, three-year contract extension, claiming the board of trustees violated open-meeting laws in December 2022 when it negotiated the deal behind closed doors with little explanation to the public.

The parents say they’ve obtained emails and text exchanges between the superintendent and at least one trustee under the Freedom of Information Act that show Shillingburg “faked being sick” so he didn’t have to attend a public meeting in Amargosa Valley late last year, to answer questions about why he deserved a 3-percent salary increase and other job perks.

Following more than an hour of closed-door talks in December, trustees emerged and announced they had approved a new deal with Shillingburg, which included a $5,000 annual raise, retirement and insurance benefits, 15 days of sick leave, 20 days of vacation time and an extra 32 hours of personal leave each year.

The Pahrump Valley Times has not independently reviewed the alleged exchanges between Shillinburg and trustees but has asked the board chair to respond to those and other claims. As of Friday morning, a response had not been issued.

Tonopah parents are pressuring the school board’s attorney to review footage from the December meeting and investigate whether or not trustees violated open-meeting laws during contract negotiations with the superintendent.

Special education concerns

A Tonopah kindergarten teacher told trustees last week that the school isn’t following mandated Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for special education students. IEPs address the services special-needs students are entitled to in public schools, but there’s been a “paradigm shift” during the pandemic, Tonoaph teacher Alison Matulich told trustees last week that’s brought online and virtual learning into schools.

While the learning styles work for some students, Matulich says they aren’t adequate for students with more specialized learning needs.

“People began to think virtual services were possible,” she said. “When you have students with high levels of need and you have virtual services, you can imagine what happens. We cannot pretend that virtual education works [for these students].”

Assessments for special-needs students can’t be done online through virutal observations, she added,

Virtual learning also isn’t working well for other Tonopah students in the post-pandemic world of schooling.

“As a junior in high school, I haven’t learned math in the past three years,” one student told the school board on Thursday.

XXXX/Las Vegas Sun
Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun State Assemblywoman Erica Mosca neets with a Tonopah High student last year who received English instruction from a virtual educator. The school only has a handful of in-person teachers andstruggles to recruit qualified staff, the principal says.

The student said she struggles with the subject because Tonopah High School lacks a good math program. She says only two of her six educators actually teach in-person at the school, while the rest instruct virtually on screens because there aren’t enough teachers.

The Las Vegas Sun reported on Tonopah High’s teacher shortage in February. The school enrolls 118 students, the publication found, and should have at least nine in-person teachers to meet acceptable student-teacher ration.

But it has just three and the principal hasn’t been able to recruit instructors to the rural town that’s hours away from Las Vegas and Reno.

Tonopah High needs more mentors, tutors and people who want to help students be successful, the student told trustees.

Only a quarter of Tonopah High students are proficient in math, according to state education data, and fewer than half are proficient in reading. The student said she’ll likely never receive the quality of instruction she needs in Tonopah, but hopes that school leaders can fix the problems for future students.

“They deserve the education we didn’t get,” she said.

An eighth-grader in Tonopah told the board her school “sucks.”

“The main concern is that we have no staff and the level of learning at our school,” she said. “They both suck.”

She told district officials she was absent for three days, and when she returned to school she was told she had no “catch-up” work.

Rigor was higher in the Colorado school where she used to attend, the student said. It was typical to have two assignments a day for each class.

The student says she plans to pursue home-schooling and warned district leaders that other public school students in Tonopah are considering the option because they believe the schools are failing them.

Contact Editor Brent Schanding at bschanding@pvtimes.com

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