Election Preview: Board of Regents candidates from the education realm face off against outsiders who think the board needs a new perspective
Candidates for the Nevada Board of Regents will be entering an unprecedented higher education landscape if elected — campuses that look like ghost towns, millions of dollars in budget cuts after years of progress and continuing fallout from the global health crisis.
Some of the responsibilities of the job, which pays $80 per meeting attended and has a six-year term, are the same as they were before the pandemic such as making leadership appointments for the state's seven higher education institutions and for Desert Research Institute. Candidates expect to inherit new issues if elected, including a $135 million cut to the Nevada System of Higher Education budget from the special legislative session in the summer.
Some issues they likely will have to deal with — ranging from changes that may come with the outcome of Ballot Question 1, which will determine whether the elected board is put under the oversight of the Legislature per Assembly Joint Resolution No. 5 to unknown consequences from the continuing pandemic — are yet to be seen.
Despite the uncertainties, candidates say they are looking to diversify higher education programs in order to help further diversify the state's economy, make higher education more affordable and move forward with plans for the UNLV Medical School.
The four open seats pit candidates who have a history working in education against community members who would say they want to add a new perspective to higher education.
The race for District 2, which covers a part of Las Vegas and the southwest corner of the City of North Las Vegas, features a 30-year politician versus a former regent.
Lois Tarkanian, who termed out of her 14-year run on the Las Vegas City Council last year, said her experience on the City Council and as a trustee with the Clark County School District for 12 years, particularly in addressing the district's finances, will help her address concerns as a regent.
Tarkanian thinks Question 1 is an example of "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" and says that she would be able to address many of the concerns about regents that motivated the creation of the ballot measure, such as members lacking experience in education and mismanagement of finances.
"I feel I have a working relationship. The years that I've had in education and on the city council, you had to work with other people in the community," she said. "I just think I have had a lot of experience with that and I could help."
Tarkanian, the wife of the late, legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and mother of future Douglas County Commissioner Danny Tarkanian, joined the race in part to continue work she did as a councilwoman on the Las Vegas Medical District with the long-awaited development of the UNLV Medical School.
While donors are looking to create a private development corporation to largely bypass the wait and red tape that comes with working with regents and elected officials, Tarkanian said she has many connections with stakeholders and can help facilitate conversations. She said she's already talked with donors and stakeholders throughout the process of creating the plan for the medical school.
Tarkanian said she would need to see the regents’ current financial situation to decide how to move forward as a regent amid the $135 million budget cut and find creative solutions to cut costs and possibly add funds to the medical school's development.
Tarkanian said her passion for education is a crucial factor in how she would serve as a regent if elected.
"The most important thing is I have passion and persistence," she said. "I've stuck with things until we got 'em and we got 'em right."
Tarkanian spoke highly of her challenger, Bret Whipple, but said that based on her conversations with him, she has more passion for the job.
Whipple, an attorney at Justice Law Center, served as regent from 2002 to 2008 and at one point chaired the board. Now that he has two college-aged children, who were in elementary school during his first term, he said he's looking to return and help improve the system.
As a regent, Whipple boasted about efforts made to improve the student experience statewide. Whipple pointed to his participation in orchestrating a "one-stop-shop" technology system in 2008 for students to use when registering for classes, paying tuition and completing other tasks, a system he recently used as a parent when his daughter was paying and registering for classes. He also helped create common course numbering that allows students to transfer 100 percent of their credits across higher education institutions in the state.
"I just want to continue to make the system a strong system for the entire state that all of our children can be proud of," he said. "People tend to be critical sometimes of our state, but I think we've got an amazing system here, and I was glad to be part of it. And I think I made it much better after when I left, and I'm just hoping to be involved with things that I can improve."
Whipple highlighted the UNLV Medical School and COVID as "hot topics" regents will have to address if elected but said there are other important issues that get less attention, similar to the technology issue he addressed in his first term, that he would learn about as a regent and work to solve.
Whipple, 57, said that he has "time and energy" to be a regent that might be more difficult for 86-year-old Tarkanian. He said in his first tenure, he didn't just "show up and vote" — he put in time outside of meetings researching and made extra commitments, such as when he made himself the chair of the committee choosing the technology system.
Despite challenges facing the higher education system, Whipple said, he was proud to be a part of what he characterizes as a strong and affordable higher education system and hopes to rejoin.
"Nevada is one of those states that anybody can move to and if you're willing to work hard, you can really succeed," he said. "I'm just very proud of the fact that … you don't have to come from a blueblood family to get into our universities. You don't have to be a millionaire to go to school. You can go to school here and still work and you can make it."
Whipple said he's mostly relying on word of mouth for his campaign, along with name recognition from his previous term as regent 12 years ago. Whipple expected to win his 2008 re-election bid against newcomer Robert Blakely but lost by 7 percentage points after doing little campaigning, including not sending out mailers or having a website.
Like the first period, Whipple reported no donations or expenses for the second period and had no available cash.
Tarkanian said she has been sending out mailers and will soon start calling voters. She said she has been touting her endorsements from three sitting county commissioners, including Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick, and three sitting Las Vegas City Council members, including Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Michele Fiore, in her campaign materials.
In the second quarter, Tarkanian raised $4,000 with $2,000 coming from herself and the rest from Las Vegas developer Ernest A. Becker III. She spent more than $17,000, almost $3,000 of which was spent on advertising and the rest mostly on consultants. She had $747 in available cash at the end of the quarter.
Both candidates for District 3, which includes the UNLV campus and a part of Henderson, have run unsuccessfully in Republican primaries: Swadeep Nigam in 2012 and 2016 for two different Assembly districts and Byron Brooks in 2018 for Senate District 20.
For Nigam, education was his "ticket to prosperity" and is his motivation for running for regent. Coming from a family of educators, Nigam has been a member of the Advanced Technologies Academy advisory board and a scholarship creator and donor for high school seniors in Southern Nevada.
"I'm about education. That's the reason I want to make a difference, especially in this city where UNLV is one of the top campus when it comes to diverse student population," he said. "My goal is to make sure everyone has access to different financial opportunities ... while paying for the college costs."
A former commissioner of the Nevada Equal Rights Commission that handles the state's employment discrimination complaints, Nigam would like to work on securing more private-sector funding for scholarships amid the rising costs of going to college. He said he would also try to stop annual cost increases or implement a tuition freeze for students for their first five years.
Nigam, a financial analyst for a Las Vegas law firm, has financial experience in both the private sector as a former manager of a health care company and the public sector through his work with the Las Vegas Valley Water District where he supervised the budget as it grew from $150 million to close to $1 billion. He said he knows how to support necessary programs even during economic rough patches and budget cuts.
If elected, Nigam said he would consider delaying university capital projects and future programs to save money.
"[With] my unique professional background coupled with my passion and dedication to higher education policy, I will bring some good, exceptional support to the existing board," he said.
Nigam, who has advanced degrees in economics and finance, said that voters have told him that they're concerned his opponent, Brooks, doesn't have a college degree.
Although he doesn't have a degree, Brooks attended California State University San Marcos where he studied literature, putting himself through school after leaving the military. He said he participated in a graduation ceremony, but got caught up in working and never went back for three credits in Spanish required for his degree.
"If anybody understands the struggles that students have, some of the things that they have to deal with while they're going to school at the same time, it's me," he said. "Even though there are certainly things that people would like to achieve from an education standpoint, it doesn't mean that they're not dealing with challenges … and I believe that's why we have to have resources."
Brooks, a principal managing partner for a Henderson spa, said he sees regents as facilitators and hopes to use the position to empower students, including older students who may be trying to get into a new field or move up in their own. He would like to provide resources to help them move through coursework quickly and efficiently while they address other challenges of being a nontraditional college student.
As a seven-year mentor for the Veteran Treatment Court and a member of the school organization team (SOT) for his son's elementary school, Brooks said that being involved in the community made him want to run for regent.
"Voters should take a look at me and be confident in knowing that if they choose to elect me, then I'm going to continue in the same manner that I have for the last seven years and really make this about where I can serve and what I can do to facilitate the needs of others," he said. "[I'm going to] make sure campuses have what they need for student success."
Brooks said his experience overseeing multi-million dollar projects for the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of State will transfer well to being a regent. If elected, he said he would listen and learn from the other regents, figure out the status of various issues and work to help solve them.
Neither Nigam nor Brooks reported raising or spending any funds in the first period, but Nigam dominated in fundraising in the second quarter. He raised $16,400, with his biggest donation being $2,000 from Aurangzeb Nagy, a Las Vegas neurosurgeon. He reported two separate gifts of $1,000 from other Las Vegas residents in the medical fields and two separate gifts of $1,000 from two Vegas businessmen. He also received an in-kind donation of $400 in consulting services from Sanjay Palherkar and $600 in graphic design and staffing services from Red Chimp Media.
Brooks raised $1,900 in the second period with a $500 donation from Las Vegas City Councilwoman Victoria Seaman and another $1,000 from Seaman and her husband.
Of his $1,500 expenses, Brooks spent $500 on Facebook ads and $1,000 at a consultant business which left him with $400 in cash on hand. Nigam spent about $2,400, of which $1,750 was spent on Facebook advertising. He also made a few small payments of less than $50 each for special events to Hispanics in Politics, Nevada Republican Club (formerly the Nevada Republican Men's Club) and Southern Hills Republican Women's Group. He had about $13,000 in available cash at the end of the period.
Dr. Nick Spirtos originally ran for the District 5 seat, covering parts of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, in 2014 and lost in the general election to Sam Lieberman. When he chose to run against Lieberman again, he said winning wasn't on his agenda — he wanted to bring attention to his platform through campaign events and "light a fire" under Lieberman to get him to take his issues to the regents.
But Lieberman's death in early April left the race without an incumbent — and left Spirtos thinking "somebody better step it up."
One of Spirtos' priorities if elected would be the development of the UNLV Medical School. He said he wouldn't try to stop any plans already in place, including the private development corporation, if he takes the seat, but would participate in future discussions if plans fall through. A former member of the UNLV School of Medicine Community Advisory Board, Spirtos said the medical school is not only important as a physician training center but also as an "economic engine" that would create jobs and help foster another industry outside of tourism.
The medical director of the Women’s Cancer Center in Las Vegas, Spirtos said he would also like to develop programs with incentives to keep Nevada's best students pursuing degrees in state and would like to devote more funding to the recruitment of high quality faculty and researchers.
Spirtos said he's interested in implementing different grading systems that allow students to explore various fields without worrying about being punished with a bad grade for taking a risk. For example, he pointed to Brown University, which allows students to take most classes as a satisfactory/no credit option instead of receiving a letter grade.
"You have kids who are not taking classes that may be difficult, and they're not taking classes that they don't think they're going to do well in. And college to me seems that that should be the time that you have to explore and to expand your horizons," he said.
A first generation American born of Greek immigrants, Spirtos said he is a firm believer in affirmative action policies to give disadvantaged students opportunities to advance themselves, whether that be studying at a university or a trade school. In higher education, affirmative action policies aim to increase the representation of groups that have historically been excluded from educational opportunities.
"I truly believe one of the issues that needs to be addressed is how to graduate the kids who come into the program … first with the affirmative action, disadvantaged students, and then all the students and look at ways that you might allow them to achieve, be more successful," he said.
Spirtos said his position on affirmative action is a major distinction from his opponent, Patrick Boylan, a semi-retired safety and security consultant and former adjunct professor at the College of Southern Nevada. When asked about his stance on affirmative action, Boylan said that his belief is that all people are equal and that "pandering to minorities tactics" are just candidates "using minorities to get votes."
One priority for Boylan if he is elected will be diversifying and expanding programs in critical fields such as health care, information technology and manufacturing which will in term diversify the Silver State's economy, which has 33 percent of Nevada jobs relying on the tourism industry.
"I also believe that there's a great need that we could fulfill and not just depend on this gaming industry. You can see how it's hit us now it's affected us," he said. "It's ridiculous we depend only on one industry. So I want to change that."
Boylan wants to expand UNLV's masters program in crisis and emergency management, a program he went through, so Nevada can have more expertise to address a wide variety of emergencies.
A former member of the Nevada State Board of Education in the early 2000s, Boylan said he would work with the Legislature and the governor to get more funding for higher education, particularly from the marijuana industry. He said he would seek to cut back on administrative and utility costs when dealing with budget cuts during the pandemic.
Boylan, who was a candidate in Democratic primaries for Assembly District 15 in 2010 and Congressional District 1 in 2016 and was a board member for the Winchester Township in Las Vegas, said he wants to use elected positions to help his community and work collaboratively with fellow civil servants to find solutions.
"I've worked for my neighborhood, and people in my town and my state. I will do what's right for education. That's our future, those are our leaders," he said. "I want to do something that will help make us the best, make Nevada and the education in Nevada the best."
Spirtos didn't report any fundraising or spending in the first quarter, but reported about $15,700 in the second quarter, $14,700 of which was his own money. The remaining $1,000 came from $500 donations from IBEW Local Union 357 and the Clark County Firefighters PAC.
Of the $14,700 he spent, a little more than half went to consulting services and the rest went to advertising. He had $1,000 in cash on hand at the end of the period.
Boylan reported no fundraising or spending in the first and second quarter and reported no cash on hand.
The race for the District 10 regent seat, covering most of Reno, features a life-long educator and former regent against a life-long Reno resident who says he wants to add some new perspective to the board.
Kevin Melcher previously served as regent for District 8, which covers most of the western part of the state and parts of Clark County, from 2010 to 2016. He didn't seek re-election because he was moving back to Reno, where he was born and raised. Once District 10 incumbent and former Chairman Rick Trachok announced he wasn't seeking re-election, Melcher said several people asked him to run.
A teacher and administrator in Elko's K-12 education system for 28 years and an appointed member of the Nevada State Board of Education, Melcher said his background in education and governance gives him an edge in the race and will allow him to pick up where he left off if elected.
Melcher said he doesn't have a narrow agenda as a regent to allow him to address all important issues brought to the board, but said funding issues will obviously have to be addressed. He said he would make necessary cuts while keeping UNLV and the UNR as "Tier 1" research institutions.
"There's going to be a lot of decisions having to be made, tough decisions, and I believe my skills and networking will really help listening to all parties involved and try to come up with really good decisions by an entire board that will help the system move forward," he said.
He also would like to develop a better pipeline between K-12 schools, community colleges and universities and minimize the north-south and urban-rural divide in education.
"I don't believe anyone has the answer, but I think together, if we sit down and really work between the Legislature and the Board of Regents and the governor and all the people that are on campus — the staff, the faculty, the students — we'll come up with good answers," Melcher said. "There's a lot of smart minds out there and a lot of people have seen it done different ways, and we just have to find the best way for Nevada."
Melcher's opponent, Joseph Arrascada, was motivated to run for regent after two renovations of UNR's Mackay stadium in the last five years left the stadium noncompliant with regulations for the Americans with Disabilities Act — and put the project millions of dollars over budget. Arrascada, who has been using a wheelchair for 34 years, has spoken to regents about the stadium's accessibility issues after the failed renovations and UNR's $3.4 million lawsuit against the architect of the renovations.
Even though he knows much of the money for the stadium will be coming from donors, Arrascada said that it is "unfortunate" that so much money is going toward something not directly for education nor for the whole student body. He said he'd like to look into the misappropriation of funds as a regent.
"After my diagnosis of quadriplegia, I can empathize with hearing 'no.' Too often, I've been told no way too often," he said. "I want to say yes to students. I want to say yes to faculties, community members. I want to listen to them and respect their opinions … it's not happening now."
Arrascada said there's been a breakdown of communication between regents and the faculty, staff and students they serve as well as between regent themselves. He said there's a clear north-south divide on the board and the hostility between regents is palpable.
A worker at the Reno Veterans Administration Hospital and co-owner of a local community service agency, Arrascada said he exhibits qualities such as leadership, communication and passion that will benefit the board.
"There needs to be a new direction, new thoughts, new ideas, a new set of eyes on the board, in which it can truly take the board to a new direction, new positive direction because that's what's desperately needed — an infusion of new ideas, new thoughts and a new mindset," he said.
Arrascada described the higher education system's financial situation during the pandemic as a "budget crisis" and said that he would try to keep cuts out of the classroom, specifically reducing red tape or departments that don't directly benefit students.
In the first quarter, Melcher topped all candidates in his district in fundraising and spending and again beat out Arrascada in both categories and cash on hand for the second quarter. He raised more than $11,300, propelled by a $5,000 donation from Michael Hitchcock, a UNR adjunct faculty member, and a $1,000 donation from Nora and Bruce James, who is a member on the advisory board for Sierra Nevada University, a private school, and the president and CEO of a technology investment company.
Melcher spent $9,800 on almost completely advertising and had $11,500 in cash on hand at the end of the period.
Arrascada reported no fundraising or spending in the first quarter, but raised $9,200 in the second quarter. His biggest donations were from a family member, who gave $2,100, James Cryer, a car dealership owner who gave $2,000, and Western Nevada Supply Co., which donated $1,000. All of his $4,650 in expenses went to print advertising, leaving him with $4,200 in available cash.