For years, state lawmakers and local elected officials have quietly and not-so-quietly expressed frustration at the bickering and lingering controversies from the Clark County School District Board of Trustees.
Since at least 2015, state lawmakers have introduced but failed to pass proposals modifying the school board structure in the nation’s fifth largest school district — egged on by issues ranging from workplace harassment, to ethics complaints, to a tweet telling teachers to “Dust off those resumes” if they didn’t want to resume in-person classes.
But the effort to move to partially appointed school boards may have its best chance yet to pass this session in the form of Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson’s AB255, heard Tuesday afternoon in the Assembly Education Committee.
The bill attracted more than an hour of public comment, with many local Southern Nevada governments, business groups and one teacher’s union in favor of the proposal, but with another major teacher’s union, several education advocates and trustees themselves opposed to the change.
But Frierson indicated that patience with fully elected school boards may be wearing thin.
“I think that school boards are just as important as picking a doctor, and you don’t elect your doctor,” he said during the hearing. “Because they have important decisions, whether it's HR, whether it's development of curriculum, whether it's budgets, whether it's ethics, I think these are all reasons why we need to find a way to make sure that we have a richer experience moving forward.”
The bill itself would reduce the number of elected school board positions in the Clark County and Washoe County school districts from seven to four and allow for appointment of three local governments — one from the county commission and one each from the two largest cities in each county. The new districts would need to be nearly equal in population and composed of a contiguous area, which Frierson said could be accomplished during the scheduled 2021 redistricting process.
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) has introduced similar legislation in the form of SB111, but that measure has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.
Frierson said he was open to suggestions on the bill, noting that he didn’t intend the measure to villainize any school board members, but said the overall goal was to increase accountability for the state’s largest school boards.
“In a state where we have one of the largest school districts in the country, we can't afford to have some of the distractions and dysfunction that we have in years past,” he said.
Supporters of the bill included a wide range of local Southern Nevada elected officials, including Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who called in to support the bill, saying that there has been “many opportunities missed” in potential collaboration between the Clark County school board and other local governments in the county. She specifically noted that a bill passed last session authorizing a sales tax increase had helped the county establish an anti-truancy program, but said the school board had proven difficult to work with in the sharing of data.
“I think what you heard here today is students, students, students need voices, voices, voices,” she said. “I think you also heard that there's a diversity of issues that are out there, and that we need folks that can bring a level of professionalism and some additional insight to the school board trustees.”
Other supporters included lobbyists representing the cities of North Las Vegas, Las Vegas and Henderson, the Vegas Chamber, the Retail Association of Nevada, and the Clark County Education Association — union executive director John Vellardita criticized the CCSD board as spending the past decade engaged in “dysfunctional behavior at the expense of students and frontline educators.”
“We need change, and we need it now,” he said.
But several opponents of the bill suggested that lawmakers could adopt other accountability changes that could increase the level of professionalism among school board members, but didn’t think lawmakers should take away the ability of voters in large counties to choose their school board representatives.
The Nevada State Education Association testified in opposition to the bill, listing several suggested accountability changes ranging from advisory seats on school boards, a statewide code of conduct for trustees with options for possible removal, better compensation, and even ranked choice voting in school board races. But union representatives said that taking away voting power would lead to less accountability, not more.
“Appointed school boards are shielded by an appointing authority who typically has significant other responsibilities, in addition to the appointment of school board members,” NSEA lobbyist Alexander Marks said. “It's extremely rare to see an elected official voted out of office over the actions or conduct of another official they’ve appointed.”
Other education advocates said that despite any warts, electing school board trustees in the long run was the best option for a state with a political climate such as Nevada — and that decreasing the number of school board districts could reduce the diversity makeup of the boards.
“Anytime that you increase the size of a district, you are diluting minority communities,” law professor and education advocate Sylvia Lazos said during the hearing. “I think it is very important to have African-American and Latinx voices in a district that is 68 percent made up of minority children.”
One member of the Clark County School District Board of Trustees, Danielle Ford, called in to the meeting, but wasn’t allowed to testify because she had a technology issue and called in during neutral testimony. The board passed a resolution opposing the measure at a recent meeting, and a trustee from Washoe County also submitted a letter in opposition.
Clark County Trustee Irene Cepeda submitted a separate letter to the committee, writing that her three years in office had been the “most difficult responsibility I’ve ever taken on with the exception of parenting a teen and a toddler.” She wrote that the job of a trustee calls for extremely long hours on complex topics, with little compensation for the work put in.
“This first (generation) immigrant and college grad from North Las Vegas wants what everyone else wants, increased student outcomes for all our students,” she wrote. “Having a highly effective school board will help move us toward that goal, however they need to be supported. Only changing the composition of the board will amount to disenfranchisement, more constituents to represent and more of the same.”