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This is my last big hurrah
Story by Steve Friess and
Photography by Jerry Metellus
Former grand dame of gaming Elaine Wynn now sets her sights on a new venture: fixing the state’s education system
For those accustomed to seeing Elaine Wynn in glamorous Vogue photo spreads or as the elegant, one-time grand dame of the Bellagio or Wynn resorts, it may be a little discombobulating to discover she’s actually a hardcore policy wonk.
Yet it came as little surprise to anyone in the education world when she accepted Gov. Brian Sandoval’s appointment to the Nevada State Board of Education — and then promptly took its reins as its chairwoman in January. Wynn has, after all, been the national co-chair of the nation’s largest dropout prevention program, Communities In Schools, since 2007 and was chair of the UNLV Foundation during the school’s turbulent early 1990s.
Indeed, the 71-year-old could have enjoyed her vast wealth — she emerged from her 46-year marriage with Steve Wynn worth more than $1 billion — and such honors as serving as a Kennedy Center trustee and as board member of both the National Basketball Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress Trust Fund.
Instead, she’s helming meetings on how to fix the state’s public schools system. It’s a dirty job, but Wynn believes she’s got to do it. Here’s why.
Steve Friess: The most obvious question is: Why would you want to get involved with the politics of Nevada schools at this stage of your life? It sounds like an incredibly thankless opportunity.
Elaine Wynn: Oh, my goodness. You don’t really know me!
SF: I do so!
EW: (Laughs) I am an idealistic optimist. If I give up, why would anybody following me have any hope? When I got involved in the last assignment with (Gov. Jim Gibbons’) Blue Ribbon Commission to see if we could get any of the Race to the Top money, I got a close-up look at the state of education in Nevada. And, if we were not successful getting federal money, at least we could create a legislative blueprint. Lo and behold, the 2011 Legislature made changes, and in particular, they changed the governance. Did they do it completely the way I had wanted? No, but they did some key things.
SF: Did you tell the governor you wanted to be on that board?
EW: Not at all. Listen, I was going off into the sunset with (Communities in Schools).
SF: Not quite.
EW: No, not quite. The new state superintendent, Jim Guthrie, and Dwight Jones, the new CCSD superintendent, met behind my back and a buzz was created. I was really taken by surprise. But I decided there was a falling into place of leadership that was all geared in the same direction, which was, “We’ve got to do something here. This is not acceptable. It’s a mess.”
SF: But this board doesn’t decide on funding, the Legislature does. Is funding a problem for Nevada schools?
EW: Funding is an issue across the country, with one or two exceptions. It’s a national dilemma. But Nevada has more taxing capacity — we all know that. Before the recession, everybody pointed to gaming, and we said, “Look, we’re willing to participate in some additional new taxes, but there needs to be a broad-based business tax here that is equitable and fair, just like it exists in other states where Neiman’s and Macy’s and everybody else gets taxed. They’re exempt here.”
SF: Have you talked to Gov. Sandoval about the tax structure?
EW: No, I will not talk to him about the tax structure. That is not my job as the president of the state board. I’m not supposed to be the one to identify the source of the funding; I’m supposed to be the one, if I think it’s correct, who points out we need more.
SF: Does gaming pay enough?
EW: The gaming industry is struggling. Can the Nevada gaming industry afford more gaming taxes? No.
EW: Nobody is doing really well, including us, in Nevada. This is my gaming hat on now. We were the proponents of the room tax. Some say the gamers didn’t really give anything up, that we passed it on to the tourists. Well, that’s not fair. We’re still out in the competitive world, marketing our properties against hotels in other convention cities. The costs are still higher for people to come to Las Vegas because of the room tax we advocated. Then that money was diverted a bit from its original intent, which didn’t make us very happy.
SF: What non-financial ideas do you have for reform?
EW: We’ve got tremendous redundancies here. A lot of stuff was created with separate staffing and funding when most of this should be brought in under the state department to be managed and controlled by state staff. And everybody has a plan. The governor comes up with his plan, the Assembly comes up with its plan, the state board comes up with its plan. What the hell is it with all these plans? Let’s have a unified Nevada plan that everybody can present and testify about to the Legislature.
SF: Let’s zoom out. Look at Nevada’s situation, the dropout rate, graduation rate and test scores. What’s the big problem?
EW: Okay, I’ll tell you: It’s poverty. In Reno, half the kids qualify for free or reduced lunch, maybe more. In Clark County, it soon might be one in three. Nevada ranks at the very top of having that worst scenario, whether it’s mental health, health care, substance abuse, homelessness. All of the kinds of things that work to disadvantage families — hence, children — and prevent kids from an equal shot at success. We’re the poster child for that terrible condition.
SF: But this state was very prosperous for quite a while. Why is there such an unequal distribution of wealth here?
EW: Our minorities are becoming our majorities, and we are doing the poorest job of educating them. The number of kids who come here who don’t speak English is enormous and continues to be a challenge. And meanwhile, we do a lousy job of making teaching a desirable profession. Nevada teachers are ranked 18th in salaries, so that’s not quite so bad. But teachers complain about working conditions. The reason the working conditions are bad is because they have so many children who are living in poverty. The teachers are not free just to teach, they must be social workers and health care providers, they deal with horrendous social challenges.
SF: Can a state board do much about that?
EW: Well, there are a lot of well-meaning groups that overlap and we can help organize that. You’ve got the Junior League, Communities in Schools, the Boys & Girls Club. There’s no mechanism to coordinate them and deliver the services.
[HEAR MORE: Should the mining industry pay higher taxes to support education? Hear a discussion on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
I was just in New York where a friend, George Weiss, updated us on his Say Yes To Education program. His theory was that the community must guarantee kids who graduate college a job. He’s created what I call my new big idea: Civic infrastructure.
SF: Civic infrastructure?
EW: Yes. George has gone to Syracuse and Buffalo, and they have the county, the mayor, the higher education system, the businesses and foundations get together to say: “We’re going to make promises to our kids where, if they stay in school, we will fund their education post-secondary. If they pass credentialing tests, they will have jobs and a future.” They started out with, like, 650 kids. I think they’re at 59,000 kids! It really is quite something. It’s just opened up my eyes beyond what I thought I understood.
SF: But if I’m an eighth grader, I’m not thinking that far ahead to college.
EW: Yes you are. Yes. They do. They proved they do. It’s happening.
SF: At this stage, do you feel more hopeful about the Legislature listening to you?
EW: I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think we had some shot at some kind of momentum. This my last hurrah.
SF: The quagmire is always that the Republicans object to taxes for more resources and the Democrats get off the bus when it’s about teacher accountability, which unions often oppose. Let’s talk about the second part of the equation. The new common core standards will have some means of assessing teachers, I take it?
EW: The unions may be aggressive in objecting to accountability measures, but a lot of the newer teachers say, “Go ahead and judge us.” But, to hear the unions talk about it, 18 million other things have to be in place in addition and besides that. Several other cities have worked in concert with unions to come up with things considered to be fair and equitable. We’re going to be doing that, as well; the teachers are not going to have any consequences for the first two years that our evaluation piece and testing piece are in place. We’re going to make sure that the thing is there and it’s appropriate, but, of course, we have to have the right data systems in place, as well, to track it all. The unions will do what they normally do; they’re going to try to get higher wages, and everybody understands that. But, if they try to get too abrasive on accountability, they’d better be careful. That’s dangerous.
SF: As a Wynn Resorts board member, where is the Vegas economy right now?
EW: Our visitation is strong and everybody is encouraged that people are returning. We’ve got a healthy convention and sales business. But, people are more conservative in their spending. We’re also seeing younger audiences that are coming more for the nightclub scene than for gambling. We still have some strong international play, but that’s mostly manifested at the high-end parts of the properties that cater to them. I think we’re going to have to work hard; I don’t think it’s a slam dunk. I think we’re flat.
SF: Is the nightclub boom a shortcut to profit?
EW: I’d say it is filling in the deficiencies left by the contraction of other things. They’re spending less on food, for instance. The old gourmet rooms are a thing of the past with one or two exceptions. And even the great gourmet chefs are doing these new modern kinds of plating options to appeal to a younger audience. I don’t know if they’re going to go to too many shows anymore. The younger ones just wanted to go clubbin’, and that makes up for a chunk of lost revenue elsewhere.
SF: Does it make you nostalgic?
EW: I’m a rare breed. I was here in the ’60s; I came when the Rat Pack was here. So, I have a sentimental view about Old Las Vegas. But, I can’t really complain, because we built New Las Vegas. You have to change with the times. The nightclub scene is the new stuff. With social media and instant friending, nightclubs become the opposite of the virtual world. It’s still a place where you get to meet people in person, and be with them side-by-side, as opposed to being on a screen.
SF: Wow, so you’ve evolved to thinking nightclubs are the savior for actual contact.
EW: Yeah, I think it is a direct reaction to human need for actual, physical interaction. Once you’ve Facebooked and Twittered and tweeted, the whole point is to lead to a meeting, and the nightclubs provide the meetings.
SF: There was a lot of attention paid to Las Vegas in 2012 because Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson gave huge amounts of money to Republicans. What was your impression of the attention Las Vegas got over all of that?
EW: We live in a free society where people lawfully are entitled to use their funds to support the candidates and causes that they care to support. Ultimately, the only ones who can judge if that’s a good exercise or not are the people who do it. Now, I don’t think their return on investment was very good! (Laughs.) If it had been a company, people would’ve said, “Oops, that was a bad investment.”
SF: What fills your time now that you’re less involved with the company?
EW: Mostly it’s my philanthropic and civic involvement. I spend a portion of my day scheduling so, for instance, if I have a Kennedy Center meeting, I determine where the next things are and what I can piggyback on top of those geographical locations to take care of other responsibilities. So, for instance, I always go to the Duke-North Carolina (basketball) game. Before I do that, I go to Charlotte because our former Reno superintendent is now the superintendent there. And North Carolina has the second-biggest Communities in Schools program, so I’ll go there and check in with our staff and some of their funders, and do a little fundraising event. After that, I go to Houston for the NBA All-Star Game because I’m on the Basketball Hall of Fame board.
SF: Should Las Vegas have its own professional team?
EW: Selfishly speaking, it would be great. But the biggest issue is: Is there a local population that could support it, and is there a price range that can be supported? I’m not sure. Also, the question of the arena, which you know is an ongoing issue in Las Vegas.
SF: Do you, like Mayor Goodman, believe getting a major sports team is a sign of the city’s maturity?
EW: Oh, gosh. I think it’s a wonderful coalescing thing to have; it’s a great amenity for a city to boast about. But, there are plenty of cities in America that are mature that don’t have teams.
SF: One kind of personal question. You lived a few years at the Wynn hotel. You don’t anymore; you have an apartment somewhere else?
SF: What was it like to live inside one of those places?
EW: It’s mixed, as you might imagine. It certainly is luxurious to have room service if you want it. But it is like living over the candy store; sometimes, it’s hard to turn off emotionally when you’re on the premises. I had a lot of discipline, so it was okay for me. I could get up and I could put on my sweats, and go out and walk the golf course for exercise and go to my office and still maintain some kind of normal routine. And, very often at night, I would come up to the apartment and not be entertaining and going out for dinner. I would watch TV, read or be on my computer. So, I tried to maintain some normalcy there. But, to be able to have the staff of the Wynn Hotel work with you and take great care of you, and become your extended family? It was lovely.
SF: One last question I ask you every time we speak: Have you signed Warren Buffett’s pledge to give away most of your fortune before you die?
EW: I haven’t signed the pledge yet because I still am not technically in a position to do it (due to litigation over changing the terms of Elaine’s control over her shares of the company). I am emotionally committed to it. And whether I do Warren’s pledge or not, it is my intention.
SF: To give away half of your money, or a lot of it?
EW: Yes, yes, yes, yes.
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