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Fighting dysfunction with dysfunction not a winning strategy

Lola Brooks
Lola Brooks

Every legislative session since being elected to the CCSD Board of Trustees lawmakers have threatened to appoint school board members. Previous lawmakers didn’t entertain such a deeply flawed concept because research has demonstrated that appointed school boards do not increase student achievement and sometimes escalate performative, partisan politics.

Legislators, who are also democratically elected representatives, recognize the importance of respecting the will of the people and their right to vote for candidates with shared values. Hopefully, voters continue to support representatives who trust voters to elect others, as much as they trust voters to elect themselves.

It’s frustrating to watch the current conversation about appointed school boards evolve into something even worse. In an effort to maintain community representation the latest proposal would allow municipalities to appoint nonvoting members instead.

This idea is not based on research and would lead to an unprecedented level of dysfunction — a key variable lawmakers claim they want to resolve. Maybe lawmakers are unaware of the dysfunction within municipalities being granted unearned space on CCSD’s school board, including city council members who engaged in a fist fight, committed federal fraud, resigned due to inappropriate sexual behavior, are personally named in a predatory lending class action lawsuit or propped up an expensive and failed ballot initiative to break up the school district their city wants to help govern.

Perhaps, lawmakers feel seven women occasionally bickering while the democratic process works itself out is more problematic than the unethical, immoral, and/or occasionally criminal behavior of other local elected officials.

This alternative retains community representation, but serves no function and circumvents the principles of representative democracy. Fighting dysfunction with dysfunction is not a winning strategy.

I understand the need to reform school boards, but I also recognize these solutions come from a place of frustration and are not based on the real needs of school boards. Nuance is woefully lacking in these discussions. Everyone deserves lawmakers to carefully consider decisions that will impact communities for decades to come.  

Frequently, the state education board is held up as a shining example of how school boards should function. No one ever points out that the state board has no real authority and does not function like a school board.

State board members don’t provide financial oversight for the Nevada Department of Education (NDE). They can’t fight over the allocation of resources or be pressured by vendors. They don’t even review NDE’s audit in a public meeting; maybe this is why NDE’s audit has substantial findings (page 198), while CCSD’s audit does not.

State board members don’t employ, supervise or evaluate the state superintendent. A handful of dissatisfied individuals can’t aggressively insist they fire their superintendent. They don’t negotiate union contracts. Unions can’t apply pressure during their meetings and unions have no incentive to leverage existing relationships with lawmakers.

The state board isn’t wedged between competing unions fighting for control. The state board has a limited, regulatory function, one in which no real citizen oversight is provided to NDE. They are too dissimilar to use as an example.

Local communities deserve and demand real oversight by their school boards.

Like the state board, legislators benefit from a different set of standards. Legislative bodies created open meeting laws and public records requirements, which they exempted themselves from. These bodies appear more functional because they don’t have to refrain from discussing topics with their peers and their political enemies can’t use the public records process inappropriately with ill intent.

Transparency laws work by forcing elected officials to have difficult conversations in public without expecting privacy outside this process. This results in school boards not having an opportunity to work through issues behind closed doors.

I’m not advocating for less transparency. In my experience, transparency is preferred by most citizens, even when it’s messy. I am advocating for lawmakers to recognize how much their exemptions allow them to keep their dysfunction behind closed doors.

Other governing entities, including the ones wanting a seat at our table, have just as much dysfunction — they just don’t have the transparency or viewership.

In addition, stories of bad board member behavior is not unique to Clark County, but exists everywhere, including in rural Nevada districts or non-Nevada districts with fully appointed boards. This is why any solution proposed should be applied to all school boards and developed by experts with direct experience.

While appointed school boards and alternative governance arrangements haven’t yielded positive gains, “the focus, decisions and performance of school boards, however, can be positively or negatively influenced by the role and approach that state policymakers take toward them.” CCSD recognizes this, which is why it put forth SB65 this session and has worked with districts across the state to ensure it meets the needs of all school boards. 

Over the last year, CCSD’s board has been intentional with our focus and energy. We’re on the right track. We are laser focused on good governance practices and student achievement. If we are derailed, it will be because external influence directly introduced dysfunction and lawmakers allowed the opinions of special interests to outweigh the people who voted them into office.

Lawmakers must provide school boards with the tools and resources that experienced board members know have the best chance of making an impact. 

Currently, the only corrective recourse to address severely disruptive board members is to wait until they lose their next election. A lot of time, energy and focus is expended on individuals who arrive on boards with limited experience and sometimes have no desire to put their differences aside for the community’s children. Trust can erode significantly within the community over a single four-year term. 

Experience tells me that background checks, increasing comprehensive training and providing consequences for members who create legal liability for their boards have the best chance to provide needed support to school boards. The issues Clark County experiences are not unique and all school boards across the state deserve legislation that is solution oriented and benefits all communities equally.

Lola Brooks is currently the longest serving board member on the Clark County School District Board of Trustees. She was first elected in 2016 and serves as the board’s vice president, having previously served as the president and clerk. She has also served on the board of directors for the Nevada Association of School Boards, as well as the Council of Great City Schools.


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